Defending Rover’s 800: Britain’s most underrated coupé?

Once a vision of cheap failure, the 2.0-litre 800 Coupé has struggled to gain merit in a crowded classic market. Here’s why it deserves some attention

Rover owners are wrong. Always, and about everything. No matter your profession, that Viking emblem on the radiator grille exudes an image of failure to contemporary society. As a method of introducing yourself at any event where first impressions count, it’s superior only to stabbing someone.

Even in car circles, the Rover marque is met with considerable disdain. The same criteria apply to anything born of Longbridge post-SD1; bland, badly built and lacking refinement. To declare any Rover as a ‘young man’s car’ is to be met with laughter, the marque instead being associated with those who are waiting out retirement with daytime television until the Grim Reaper schedules a visit.

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However, all this cynicism casts an unfair shadow on Britain’s once-noble brand. It’s not all bingo players and the stench of Old Spice. Far from it. A great swathe of enthusiasts across the nation enjoy, modify and restore Rovers of all ages. It’s a bit like Fight Club, but with Earl Grey and Rich Tea biscuits.

The AutoClassics Rover connection

It was upon discovering the underground Rover movement that I ended up with custody of a Rover 115 diesel. Used to the grandeur of old Jags and the utilitarian charm of off-roaders, I felt a certain self-loathing for venturing into the real world with such a lampooned supermini – and one running on the Devil’s fuel, no less. Yet the ‘little blue tractor’ bowled me over and shifted my thought process. I was hooked, and have been a Rover apologist ever since.

That doesn’t mean I escape prejudice in the eyes of my peers, however. Comments come thick and fast from friends and work colleagues about my chosen wheels, but I remain unperturbed. The majority of Rover’s offerings from the 1990s and early 2000s exhibit a range of plus points – especially in V6 form if you’re brave. It’s one of the motor scene’s best-kept secrets.

However, even given my affection for the marque, one model eluded my regards. I have simply never understood, loved or cared for the 800 Coupé. With that dignified yet gruff front end mated to a rear that has all the grace of a defecating hound, the Coupé has always appeared awkward; like your grandfather masquerading as a rap artist, or Nigel Thornberry in a ball gown.

Getting to know the Rover 800 Coupé

What has continuously boggled my mind was the original price tag. Back in the day, you could have purchased a neatly specified 4.0-litre Jaguar XJ-S, with change to spare, for the same showroom cost of an 800 Coupé V6 automatic.

Whereas the Jaguar oozed style and pumped out immense horsepower from the AJ6 engine, Rover’s equivalent didn’t have the oomph to yank the skin off a rice pudding. The drivetrain was about as refined as Melissa Leo’s Oscar acceptance speech, and the 800 exhibited copious lashings of questionable plastic trim to boot.

My opinion recently came back to haunt me, however, when a fellow Rover apologist purchased a faded Rioja Red example and tried to convert me. Aware of my disgruntlement, the new owner challenged me to spend some time behind the wheel and find the car’s merit.

Rather begrudgingly, and to keep face, I agreed. Taking away the 800 that evening I was pleasantly surprised to find a manual gearbox, but was then horrified to discover that the engine wasn’t a V6. It was instead a four-pot; a weedy 2.0-litre M-series. It wasn’t even a turbo.

As it happened I was due to visit Scotland that weekend, and the realisation that I would have to pilot such a machine almost 1000 miles filled me with dread. As I packed my suitcase, catching sight of the Brit brand’s slack-jawed attempt at Americana outside my window killed stone dead any enthusiasm I had for my impending road trip.

The Rover 800 in America

The 800 hadn’t been a sad attempt to capture American flare; it was a full-blown attempt. This specification had originally been developed with North Americans as a target audience, an attempt to cash in on the ‘British connection’ already exploited by Jaguar.

Should the Coupé have landed in America showrooms, it would have been under the new ‘Sterling’ brand, due largely to legal jargon following Rover’s previous US departure at the end of the 1970s. The re-launch was originally intended to rekindle interest in Rover’s output across the pond, but sadly it didn’t quite happen.

Despite serious market research and spending thousands of man hours on the project, Rover abandoned the American market before the 800 Coupé was launched – leaving the British and other export markets as something of an oddity. Designed for a world it never saw, the Coupé simply never caught on. Sales figures were low and production didn’t last long.

From February 1992 until 1996, the 800 Coupé came exclusively with the 2.7-litre Honda V6 engine and 16in Rover ‘Prestige’ wheels. It was good for a reported speed of 130mph – but then things got weird.

For later models, a 2.0-litre four-cylinder powerplant was made available, combining the exhaust note of a combine harvester with the refinement of a cement mixer. Back in the day, this specification screamed of desperation. But how does it hold up now?

Keep scrolling for our verdict!

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Driving the Rover 800 Coupé

Turing the ignition key, the car vibrates in a manner most unbefitting of a luxurious Coupé. The dashboard creaks, while the bonnet seems to flex with each cylinder block pulsation. It all feels rather tacky, and meeting the clutch biting point to pull away amplifies the questionable build quality.

The exhaust note isn’t so much a rasp as a clatter, while the mounting momentum briskly rattles each dashboard component with gusto. It feels as though the car is crafted from the plastic tray in a box of Cadbury’s Milk Tray – but then proceedings get interesting.

Strangely, as you work up through the gears and rev range, it all quietens down. The unsettling exhaust tone transforms into a raw, gruff snarl that keeps fixtures and fittings firmly in place. The wobbly clutch and response-free gearstick engage for effortless cruising, while the overly light steering makes for painless, if not floaty, manoeuvres.

Working my way towards the A1 from Peterborough on my road trip, the 800 Coupé was beginning to grow on me. Compared with the hefty V6 automatic, this felt somewhat sprightly. I could work the gearbox hard when tackling sweeping bends to ensure a fast exit on the racing line, but I had to be brave.

Cornering hard proves that the Rover 800’s nickname of the ‘General Belgrano’, bestowed by the British police force, was well and truly deserved. Tucking the front end in and flicking the wheel results in body roll that a Range Rover Classic would be proud of. Although there is no fear of losing grip, the alarming height difference between driver and passenger can cast doubt on the underpinnings.

Cornering isn’t this car’s forte. However, upon joining the motorway, the Rover’s ability to lap up the miles without protest could rival that of most Mercedes adversaries. Honestly – it’s that good.

Complaints about cabin vibrations are all but quashed as the blurred world whips by, the engine noise simmering down into the reassuring drone offered by most aircraft. Admittedly, pushing beyond 70mph changes everything; at this point, the engine is very much being driven out of its comfort zone and into something of a frenzy. Keeping to sensible speeds has rarely been so relaxing.

Major cities came and went as I glided beyond Newcastle and towards Edinburgh, the cabin radiating elegance and comfort. The stereo was surprisingly good, while wind noise remained barely noticeable. In fact, the interior was an excellent place to be; even this low-end version was impressively trimmed, and apparently 80 percent of it was fitted by hand.

In period, those of a deluded nature compared the cabin’s opulence with that of a Bentley. Such beliefs remain wide of the mark. The only fair comparison is to call the 800 a ‘budget Jaguar’.

The phrase rings true when it boils down to performance, too. The 2.0-litre four-pot isn’t going to clinch any drag-race titles, but it’s not glacial, either. You can achieve 60mph from a standstill in little over 11 seconds, with a reported 120bhp to play with. That’s faster than an XJ40 2.9, and more economical, too.

Arriving at Port Edgar, the Forth Bridges looming overhead, I remained unruffled and calm. Complementing the sound of waves crashing over the breakwater and ropes clanking against ships’ masts, the Rover had delivered me in serene contentment. It had averaged 31mpg to boot.

You can tell when a car has burrowed under your skin, when you look back and fleetingly absorb its stance before moving on to your appointment. This Coupé, which I had wanted to hate so badly, had captured my affection despite its initial flaws.

If it wasn’t such an underdog, I very much doubt that my opinion would have turned. Yet seeing as these Coupés take a bashing from those claiming to understand ‘modern classics’, its charm and merit bowled me over.

With my meeting completed some three hours later, it was time to hit the road back down south. Usually, this feels like a slog, but I was relishing another cruise under cover of darkness in the HMS General Belgrano. Society may dictate that Rover owners are ‘wrong’ in their automotive choice, but with the 800 Coupé they are right to select such a fine steed.

Should you buy one?

So, should you buy one? Yes, you should. If you can find a 2.0-litre manual, it won’t disappoint. An elegant drive that’s ideal for long distance, even if it feels gummy at low speeds, it’ll return economy that’s unlikely to make you cry – and it boasts a rarity factor on a par with most Ferrari models.

The Rover is far from expensive to buy; £1000 will get you a good one given enough Internet trawling, and it remains inexpensive to insure and tax. It has almost everything an XJ-S offers, yet at a tenth of the price. In essence, the 800 Coupé is light on style but big on comfort. As a daily hack with a difference, you can do a lot worse.

The V6 is a different story. It eats fuel, but in return provides extra oomph and a redline beyond 7000rpm. It’s an entirely different sort of car yet remains devoid of the four-pot’s vagabond nobility.

Then there is the Tomcat, a turbocharged monster that exposes to excellent effect the flaws within the 800’s chassis and suspension. However, that’s a very different story…

Pictures by Gillian Carmoodie

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