road test: 1996 Rover 618

Relax, it's a Honda‘Relax, it’s a Rover’. In the great pantheon of glib automotive advertising slogans, Rover Group’s early nineties catch phrase ranks high. You can just imagine the brainstorming that lead to it, done in some smokey Birmingham back-room packed with moustachioed middle-aged men, filling their double breasted suits just a little too tightly. Yet, somehow, this sums up the 618 rather nicely.

Ironically though, it wasn’t a Rover. Rather, the 600 series was a light reskin of the 1992 Honda Accord. As it turned out, it was a very clever reworking – thanks in large part to the rising star that was stylist Richard Woolley. The Rover (re)design team managed to distill out an entirely new styling language for the brand from the rather unlovely skeleton of the Accord. This later came to blissful fruition in the 1998 75.

Back in the day, the style-conscious Italians loved it – one magazine famously awarded it “most beautiful new car in the world” status. And its styling was all the more impressive for still looking crisp and elegant when the car came to be replaced in 1998. Like the SD1 back in 1986, it didn’t look like its number was up even when it faced the final curtain. Indeed, well in to the next decade, the 600 remained the epitome of a neat and unobtrusive but distinguished looking mid-sized motor.

Under the skin, its Honda Accord DNA was pure gold. The manual gearbox was one of the sweetest ever fitted to a passenger car, while its clutch was beautifully light, progressive and perfectly mated to the smooth, free-revving 1,850cc single-overhead cam engine. From start-up, it had that distinctive Honda-ry engine sound – smooth and civilised, but always up for a dab of throttle, which saw the rev counter needle diving towards the red zone with relish. For a middle-sized, middle-market, middle-aged car, that 115BHP Honda powertrain was something of an unknown pleasure. You could easily have whipped it out and dropped it in a Lotus Elise, with racier results than Rover’s rival K-series 1.8.

This combination of the Rover’s pretty body and its silky-but-sporty engine and box, is what makes the 618 such a satisfying little car to own. On the move it’s not fast by any stretch of the imagination, but loves to rev and is a pleasure to extend. The light, compact engine sits unobtrusively in that big bodyshell; the car turns in crisply with little understeer, and the double wishbone front and rear suspension (a Honda staple, and one shared only by surprisingly few other marques – Jaguar and Lotus, for example) confers a tactile, ‘connected’ feel. By contrast, the subsequent 75 felt cumbersome and rather tenuously attached to the road.

The interior is an essay in Japanese nineteen nineties blandness, but being Honda it’s of good quality. Rover added slightly nicer seats and more wood, but nothing fancy. Yet it is functional, comfortable and doesn’t detract from the quiet charm of the car. Smooth riding and softly sprung, you can take long trips in the 618 with little fatigue. Unlike its rival BMW 3-series of the day, you can get out of a Jaguar XJ6 of the same vintage and not feel too hard done by comfort-wise.

Why do I love the lowly 618? The other Honda engined 600s (620 and 623) are fine things too, but the lighter weight of the 618, especially in poverty-spec ‘i’ form, makes it all the nicer to drive. The Rover T-series engined turbocharged 620Ti is a hoot of course, but altogether gruffer and less finessed than the hundred-percent-Honda 618. Then there’s the simple, unassuming nature of the smallest model – it’s absolutely adequate for pretty much anything you care to ask of it, yet is both frugal and fun.

So the Rover 618’s many subtle virtues, allied to an almost complete absence of vices, gives the car its own special charm. It’s not a car that I – or anyone else – lust after, yet you feel strangely happy that it’s parked outside, ready to run you – like clockwork – anywhere you want to go. The great LJK Setright once said to me, “it is not for the car to have character – that is for the owner”. The sweet, self-effacing Rover 618 embodies this.

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