road test: 1988 Rover 827 Vitesse

Rover 827The Rover SD1 was one of the most important cars of the nineteen seventies. Arguably not the highest of accolades perhaps, but it won a string of awards when launched in 1976 – including European Car of the Year – and was a sales sensation, with six-month long waiting lists in its early days. It’s fair to say that – by the standards of its time – there was little to touch ‘the new Rover 3500’ in performance, styling and packaging terms.

The SD1 not only went onto sell in huge quantities, but it established the blueprint for nineteen eighties cars. The idea of a large, sporty five-door saloon held little purchase before the new Rover arrived, but by the end of the decade it was ubiquitous. Likewise, the SD1’s front end treatment – itself borrowed lovingly from the Ferrari Daytona – had become standard fit on everything from Fords to Renaults.

So successful was the SD1 that it proved a headache to replace for Austin Rover’s product planners. How to improve on a car that – even in its final months – was more capable, characterful and charming than all its rivals? Only in ride refinement and fuel economy did the big V8 really blot its copybook. The Rover 800 that followed was never going to be a radical departure then, more of a subtle finessing of an already winning formula.

Introduced in 1986, ‘XX’ as it was known internally, was available in both conventional three-box saloon and ‘fastback’ variants’, the latter borrowing very heavily from its predecessor stylistically. Being an eighties design, it was edgier and fussier than the SD1, using the (then) popular ‘folded paper’-style surfacing to panels whereas the SD1 had fuller, more elegant curves. At the time, the new Rover 800 was generally thought a very attractive modern motor car.

More innovative however, was what lurked underneath the crisp eighties metalwork. Whereas the SD1’s underpinnings harked back to Spen King and the Triumph TR7 era, the new XX was developed jointly with Honda and followed many of that company’s trademark engineering conventions. The double wishbone independent suspension front and rear was pure Honda, even down to the shortish travel. It gave a tactile, visceral feel and great cornering stability that the SD1 simply couldn’t match.

A change to front wheel drive meant it handled quite differently to its predecessor, but it was implemented well and suffered from relatively little torque-steer unlike many rival front driven designs of the day. One thing that helped with this was the fact that the 2,500cc Honda V6 was a relatively torque-light design, offering more power than the previous Rover V8 despite its one litre smaller capacity. Designed at a time when Honda was at its engineering zenith, it was a highly sophisticated and beautifully built power unit, made to ultra-high tolerances.

Brilliant as it may have been on paper, on the road the new Rover 825 felt odd – especially to those used to the lazy Rover V8. More like a racing car engine than one purposed for a large executive saloon, it was fiercely fast when extended, but kept out of its narrow powerband, the Honda V6 power unit simply felt anaemic. Going down a gear, the engine would come ‘on cam’, snarl menacingly and there’d be a turbine-like whoosh of power, often when all the driver needed was a little extra grunt.

That the Honda V6 was a masterpiece is indisputable, but it was the wrong power unit for the car. The C25a twenty four valve, double overhead cam, multi-point fuel injected engine was actually a smaller bore, non-VTEC version of the engine that powered the Honda NSX supercar, where it made much more sense. As such, work started on making a larger, punchier version – and the 1988 C27a was the result…

The new Rover 827 was a remarkable car in its day, offering BMW M5-level performance even in base spec Si trim. The only revisions to the Vitesse performance model were chassis ones, giving the wheels a better chance of coping with the power. A large rear spoiler kept the back stable at speed, while revised spring and damper rates helped put the power down. Slightly wider, lower profile tyres on 15 inch rims were fitted, with the option of Roversport 16 inch designs.

The result was a riotously fun car to drive, reaching 60MPH from standstill in around 7 seconds, bags of power wherever needed and a beautiful engine and gearbox combination. That Honda 2.7 V6 was creamily smooth, yet had a menacing bark when stirred, and it loved to be revved. Easily able to bounce off the rev limiter in top gear, it was capable of a genuine 150MPH – a feat it demonstrated while setting the production saloon car speed record on the Isle of Man with Tony Pond at the helm back in 1990 – this stood for no less than twenty years…

Screamingly fast yet reliable as a Swiss train, the Rover 827 was a brilliant coming together of two great car companies, featuring the best of what each had to give. In Vitesse trim it was better still, making for glorious driver’s car, one that few ever discovered. Sadly the chassis and engine were both blunted as the car received first a power-sapping catalytic convertor and then a full facelift, bringing extra weight and bulk. That’s why the late eighties Series One is the original and best – if you’re lucky enough to have owned one, you’ll know why.

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One comment

  1. Marc Stillebroer

    Great story about the Rover SD1 an 800!
    Whe are all Rover fans in the family, my brother owns a 1985 Vitesse SD1 in targa red, I own a 1989
    827 Vitesse aut in steel grey and last but not least my dad has a 1993 827 si saloon in black. I think
    the Rover 800 is one of the most understated cars in the world. My car originally came from Switserland
    (70 000 km) and via germany I imported it to Holland were it turns many heads. I am born in 1990 so
    I am younger than my car wich has looked after me while learing how to drive. One day me and my friend
    went to a wel known classic car dealer in Holland, Maserati, Ferrari, ISO rivolta and Jensen are in his
    showroom and he came out to drool and talk about my car. I didnt knew the engine is almost the same as
    in the NSX, learning every day!

    Keep up the good work and maybe I will meet you at a carmeeting.

    Greetings from Holland!

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