Bangernomics: Metro diesel – the greatest supermini bar none

Sick of being unable to afford something fun? Mad as it sounds, the Rover 115 is a calling card for rediscovering your automotive passion – as we found out

If you need to reignite your passion for driving, two paths are destined to revive that automotive connection. You can spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on a supercar, or you can opt for a cheap supermini; grippy, peppy and utterly thrashable on almost any road. The best part? You can get yourself a frisky hatchback for less than £1000.

Many people have cottoned onto this ideal, pushing values of the most iconic models – the legendary Mini, Fiat’s jolly 500 and the ground-breaking VW Golf – into an upward frenzy where genuine enthusiasts are disallowed ownership. However, with solid examples of cult small cars now largely out of reach to those of us with little cash to spare, there is an asterisk to the clause. It doesn’t have to be ‘popular’ to be outlandishly enjoyable.

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Step forward, the humble Austin Metro, one of the classic car scene’s best-kept secrets. Discounted as a rust bucket with all the charm of a rotten funeral wreath, its asking prices have face-planted the bottom of the market for more than three decades. Yet all those uneducated masses who have jumped on the contemporary Metro-bashing bandwagon are missing the point. Under the flaky, questionable build quality rests a design guaranteed to make you feel 17 years old once again.

Don’t let that strangely slow-witted appearance fool you; under a heavy throttle, the Austin Metro and Rover 100-series derivatives are hardly glacial. On paper the figures are far from impressive; the original base model 998cc petrol achieved 0-60mph in 22.7 seconds and was capable of a whopping 86mph. However, the car’s tiny frame and delicate controls mean even in-town speeds feel like 100mph.

Then there’s the handling; like a scalded cat charging up Velcro curtains, nothing comes close to the grip on offer from a strong Metro on healthy tyres. You can squeal the rubbers as you crest a bend at the national speed limit, and gain more satisfaction than a racetrack burst behind the wheel of a Porsche 911. It really is that good.

Furthermore, you can easily squeeze 55mpg from even the oldest of production engines. Boiled down, any well heeled Metro feels fast, the handling is second to none and frugality is key. But don’t cash in your chips just yet, as one car trumps the petrol Metro in almost every aspect. It’ll come as a shock to find out it’s a diesel.

Rover 115 SD

Market appreciation and a slow-burning yet highly enthusiastic fan base have turned around the little Metro’s fortunes. As millennials find space in their hearts for an underdog with plenty of merit, a model once doomed to obscurity now has a faithful following – especially in MG Turbo, 6R4 or GTi form.

Yet one variant is rarely mentioned. Once the Austin marque was shelved and Rover claimed branding on what was effectively the same car, a diesel motor found its way into the tight little engine bay. It was far from refined, but it was monumentally economical and dependable. Yet this isn’t the version to have. What you really want is the restyled Rover 115, because it’s housing a dark secret.

Open the bonnet and you’ll discover a Peugeot TUD 1.5-litre nestled between the inner wings. Replacing Rover’s own unit from 1994 until the end of production on December 23, 1997, the French powerplant offered four more horses (taking output to 57bhp), nine extra lb ft of torque and a 15-second 0-60mph sprint – nearly two seconds quicker than the old unit.

Alright, we admit it – these results are far from exhilarating, but here’s the big announcement; unlike with a Ferrari, you can keep a blanket speed going around virtually every bend in the road.

The extra weight over the front wheels keeps things planted regardless of your actions, meaning the car leans and creaks but is ultimately indefatigable through a tight curve. There is always danger of understeer propelling you through a hedge, but you have to be going some to catch out a 115. Even then, with such a riotous yet controllable wave of torque on tap, bringing the car back under control is remarkably easy.

My own venture into Rover 115 SD ownership came about through pity more than anything else. Counteracting my own argument, I’d never viewed the Metro as anything more than transport for Maureen and her pals en route to the bingo. I imagined that the chassis was constructed from papier-mâché, comfort levels defied most UN torture legislation and my already dubious street credibility would have been dead in the water. Boy, was I wrong.

A gentleman who’d owned the Henley Blue 115 SD from new called the office and explained that he didn’t want to put the car on the open market. He knew it wasn’t worth much, and that any new owner would most likely run it into the ground before scrapping it. Despite all my concerns, the chap did more for that car than the original salesman. I bought it for £230. It even came with 12 months’ MoT.

Right from the word go, I was hooked. The noise on start-up sounded like a tractor, while vibration was so bad it made my old Land Rover feel stately in comparison. It had clearly been bashed at some point, as screws were sprayed like machine-gun fodder to keep the outer plastic trim in place, while the Hydragas suspension was on the bump-stops, but none of this mattered. On my trip home I had more fun than in any other previous purchase. I laughed so hard, my jaw hurt.

In the months that followed, the sub-70,000-mile supermini did more to rekindle my love of driving than any luxury barge or sports car. Leaving the Range Rover at home, I opted to take my little blue tractor everywhere I went. It performed flawlessly, from cracking 96mph during a track day to carting around five work colleagues. It was borrowed by friends and family, who initially griped about being seen in it before they returned with bids to take it off my hands.

In a fit of insanity, I even took it off-roading – where, to everyone’s surprise, the torquey diesel and thin tyres made light work of Mother Nature’s worst. Its bewildered little face pushed further along one particular green lane than the stranded BMW X5 floundering in our wake. The only thing missing that day was the ‘Land’ prefix on its name badge.

I can’t stress how amazing the little 115 was. Besides being pretty much indestructible, a genuine racetrack underdog and just large enough to carry my pushbike, it clocked in excess of 70mpg during light-footed commutes on the A1, and never let me down.

Regrettably, I parted ways with it to acquire an ill-fated Alfa Romeo, of which I feel ashamed. The longing to be reunited with my humble Rover plucks my heartstrings, but if the DVLA is anything to go by, my chances have passed.

According to the How Many Left? website, only 28 Rover 115s are still road-going. The odds of any of them coming up for sale remain slim – especially in three-door boggo spec like mine. I know who currently has custody of my old Rover – and if she’s reading this, I’d love it back!

All credit for the ‘Bangernomics’ term goes to journalists Steve Cropley and James Ruppert

Pictures courtesy of Calum Brown and Gillian Carmoodie

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