road test: 1998 Rover 75

r75The svelte styling of the new Rover 75 harked straight back to the nineteen sixties, with many of its neat design cues coming straight from the classic P5B. This seemed a great look in the dying days of the twentieth century, and Jaguar obviously thought so too, with its new S-Type (also launched at the London Motor Show of 1998) also an exercise in arch retro styling. However, many thought the new Jaguar to be rather less polished than Richard Woolley’s finely drawn Rover.

At the time of its launch, Longbridge intimated that it was “the best handling front wheel drive car in the world”, no less. This may have been a little optimistic, but the 75 was extremely capable. This was down to a very stiff bodyshell, shown to be one of the most torsionally rigid on its day – indeed it was forty percent stronger than what was the thought to be the best front drive chassis of the time, the Alfa Romeo 156. This conferred great stability and let the soft, supple suspension do its job.

You can slam the 75 round corners at speeds that would send rival mid-sized saloons of the nineties into the sidings;  the 75 just hangs on in there. It may roll more than some, but is never less than quiet, unflustered and all-of-a-piece. Its gently damped ride is never less than fantastically composed and gloriously smooth. Potholes flatten, bumps recede and urban craters aren’t unpleasant.

Engine options range from the 1.8 litre K-series, which is a gutless in the heavy 75 body – albeit decently smooth – to the 2.5 KV6 which is nicely torquey and punchy, and has a wonderful quad-cam ‘yowl’ when extended. It’s a great combination, and mates very nicely to the JATCO automatic gearbox; the manual is less seamless but usefully faster and more economical. Inbetween is a 2.0 KV6 petrol, which is silky but a tad weak-kneed unless revved hard, and the excellent 2.0 BMW diesel that gives a realistic 50MPG. All of these engines are reliable, with the exception of the 1.8 which has a propensity to pop head gaskets, and needs very careful maintenance. Right at the end of its life, a 4.6 litre V8 from Ford was added, and the chassis re-engineered to drive through the rear wheels – although its fairly low tune makes the 75 feel like a traditional sporting saloon rather than a racing car.

Alongside its ride, the Rover’s high point card is its characterful interior. The dashboard has a large expanse of burr walnut, with cream faced oval dials that are swathed in soft orange light at night. The seats are superbly comfortable, but nicest when faced in leather – shame that it’s a relatively low grade. Thanks to its highish waistline, visibility isn’t great, so the rear parking radar found on the top Connoisseur SE models is a welcome help.

The 75 started with a stream of accolades and plaudits, and sold very well for several years. But Rover’s continuing troubles, and the spectacle of the company being sold by its BMW owners for a nominal £10, did its image few favours and raised questions over spares support. Sadly, the car was slowly cost-cut, with poorer quality carpets fitted, plainer trim and the replacement of that gorgeous wooden dashboard with a plastic one. It died an ignominious death with the company itself, although was very lightly facelifted, only to appear as a Chinese-built Roewe 750 and SAIC MG6. How the mighty fall!

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