Rover Takes On Euro-Market With New 200

From the chromed grille to the woodcapped dashboard, the all new Rover 200 looks every inch a traditional British car. But it is through this series that the BMW-owned car maker is seeking to reduce its dependence on its home British market and increase pan-European sales.

Positioned, according to Rover, at "the compact end of the lower medium sector," the new 200 has been launched into one of the most competitively fought markets in Europe. Its new companions include the likes of Fiat's Car of the Year award-winning Brava, the Volkswagen Golf and the excellent Peugeot 306. In fact, the VW Golf was the car chosen by Rover as the benchmark for the new 200.

More than 160,000 200s will be built annually at Rover's Longbridge plant, with over two-thirds going out of Britain to the European continent. Six engines, including two turbodiesels and the sporting 1.8-liter VVC unit from the MGF are in the line-up. All the gasoline engines are part of Rover's much-vaunted K-Series range, including the new 1.6-liter engine.

A five-speed manual gearbox is standard on all models, with the option of a continuously variable automatic transmission, similar to the system used in the Metro/100, available in conjunction with the 1.6-liter engine.

Clothed in a pretty, smoothly curved bodyshell, the showroom appeal seems to be high, for the car attracts nothing but praise from curious passersby. The 216Si is the second-most sporty car in the five-door range, but there are few exterior hints to depict this. It does have a subtle rear spoiler with integrated third brake light and color-coded bumpers (across the range), but sits on unsporting 36 centimeter wheels, with trims.

Settle down in the driver's seat and traditional large dials are easily seen through the three-spoke, sportily sized steering wheel. The radio/tape player is sited too low and so is a stretch away, but the digital display unit is easily seen high up on the dash. Steering wheel controls aid a safer listen. Six cassette tapes can be stored in designed facia slots, and many more in the easily accessible -- and large -- door bins. A coin holder and reasonably sized glove compartment are the car's remaining storage places, for there's nothing in the rear.

There's barely enough back room for two adults, but the 216Si boasts three full-sized seat belts; a bonus for safety, particularly in this class. Rover's answer to criticism of lack of space in the back is that the 200 isn't the sort of car you buy if you need to carry three or more adult passengers regularly for long distances. If you do that, says Rover, you should buy a 400 instead ...

Redesigned for the 200 Series are the seats, but they are not quite adequate whatever your size. The driver's doesn't grip your back and sides enough, forcing you to lean forward, and so ensuring long journeys won't be completed in total relaxation. Rear passengers aren't in for a spacious ride either because the seats turns inward at the edges, impinging on what shoulder room there is.

Drivers with longer legs will find it an annoying stretch to select both first and second gear. This becomes an arm ache not only through towns, but also when changing from third to second (that action also needs an extra push). And a comparatively short gear lever and high seat position don't help either. The rest of the gears are found easily enough, albeit with a modicum of notchiness. In contrast, power delivery is smooth; the K-series 1.6-liter 16v engine feeling eager throughout, delivering its 109 bhp through the front wheels. In town this is more than enough to keep a nose in front of the rest, although hindered somewhat by the high biting point of the clutch which also snatches into action. Despite this, the 216 is easy to maneuver and park thanks to a short body and power-assisted steering.

However, it is not as nimble through twisting lanes, feeling more lethargic and less agile than, say, its rival the Peugeot 306. The Rover's steering slackens in response to speed, and doesn't send enough sensations to the driver for optimum control and contentment. The front tires pick up road ruts too, which causes the steering wheel to jolt. Bodyroll is evident also, although it all keeps together well enough on motorways, giving a supple ride. And once past the initial dead pedal travel, the brakes stop the Rover with enthusiasm.

So that's the Rover 216Si. It proves a pleasantly competent hatchback on a variety of roads and will carry a young family with ease, but if it's 100 percent driver involvement you want, look toward the class leading Peugeot 306. Alternatively, the 216's younger brother, the 214, is worth a look because not only is it cheaper, it also feels quicker due to a refreshingly gutsy engine.

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