Fine New Diesel Engine Transforms Rover 420

If you were ever put off the idea of buying a Rover 400-series because it looks too much like Honda's Civic, then the altogether classier looking four-door alternative introduced earlier this year should put you back on the scent. Particularly so if you're keen on diesel, because Rover's excellent home-grown 2-liter L-series turbodiesel is what fires the 420 SDi tested here.

There's no doubting that this engine is a total success. You could rightly expect its direct-injection to give rougher, noisier running than usual, but quite the opposite applies, as the 420's power plant is as refined as the pace-setting, 1.9-liter unit from Citroen and Peugeot ... in fact, arguably even more so.

Apart from being more fuel-efficient than other diesels in the class, thanks to the combined technologies of direct-injection and electronic fuel control, the L-series is notable for having virtually unnoticeable turbocharger operation. So acceleration from the 78kW motor is strong and instant from the lowest of revs, and stays so all the way to 4,800 rpm, revs tapering off gently thereafter, rather than stopping abruptly as is so often the case. There's no need to keep changing down gears to keep flexibility underfoot, and you can even pull away from standstill in second gear without fuss or shakes.

Not that there would be a problem if gear-changing were in demand, as the 420's gearbox has one of the cleanest, shortest gear lever movements in the business, and clutch operation is perfect, too. If there's one criticism, it's that the clutch pedal is a bit too high, and the accelerator travels too far, so setting your seat to favor the left leg doesn't suit the right -- and vice versa!

Forget vibrations, because there aren't any -- excellent engine mountings see to that, and there's a thorough soundproofing system that includes a foam-filled shroud over the top of the engine. Engine operation is smooth and mute, with no thrashy or buzzy patches, regardless of how far the accelerator pedal is pressed. Noise levels stay remarkably low, even when accelerating hard to overtake, and overall gearing is so long that 150 kph just creeps up without audible warning.

Ride quality is absolutely sensational, so absorbent that it soaks up ridges, potholes and broken surfaces as if they didn't exist. Yet it manages this without vagueness or floatiness, and the body always feels controlled.

Handling is crisp and untainted by body-roll, and there's plentiful grip on the road. The nose-heaviness that often taints front-drive diesels is completely absent -- in fact, the rover turns in to bends very keenly. Add beautifully weighted power steering to the equation, and you can appreciate just what a fine drive the 420 SDi delivers.

Outside and in, the Rover sedan is noticeably up-market. Open the door and you're greeted by executive-grade touches such as the Rover-hallmark stainless steel kickplates, the longboat motif embroidered on over-carpets, and a burr-walnut strip across the facia that continues along all four doors.

The tan cabin of our test car was warm, welcoming and pure "Honda Civic" in layout, but that's no accident, nor is it a bad thing. It means a smart rounded and fuss-free dashboard with clear instruments and solid, well-placed switchgear.

The airbag-equipped steering wheel is chunky and good to grip, and the Rover's front seats are sportily shaped and supportive. The only question mark hangs over the use of pajama-style paisley upholstery and door casings, although this is faint enough not really to matter all that much.

The friendly new Rover treats its driver to good front headroom (you can adjust both seat and steering wheel for height) and a surprising amount of elbow space. Seating is comfortable, and the driving position would be perfect if it weren't marred by a clutch pedal that stands too proud of its companions. One more demerit is the poor rearward visibility, caused by a rather high tail. Otherwise, the Rover has a low overall waistline, offering good outward vision.

The formula for success takes a bit of a knock when you sit in the rear, because headroom here is decidedly tight. That's a shame, because rear legroom is above average, seat comfort is excellent, and three full shoulder belts are fitted across the back, something that you don't get on the five-door hatchback.

Surprisingly, the bench cushion is a single-piece item, although the backrests (carpeted on the back, as is the trunk throughout) are split 60/40. Thanks to greater overall length than the hatchback version, trunk accommodation is a superb 70 liters.

The comfortably equipped Rover 420 SDi is powerful, refined, solidly built and frugal, too. It's the cheapest of three turbodiesel models, the range being capped by the ?17,195 (around $26,000) GSDi, but next to rivals such as Peugeot's ?13,475 306 SRDt, it does look just a touch pricey.

Ivor Carroll is a writer for Auto Express in Britain. He contributed this article to The Moscow Times.