These cars had a certain gentleman’s club character – full of wood, leather and chrome – and were well respected. But, due to internal politics and the resultant lack of stability, the brand fell on hard times during the final three decades of the last century. In fact, having been absent from the local market for 20 years has, perhaps, been a blessing in disguise, since the Honda-influenced products produced during that period have not only been poor sellers worldwide, but have done much to diminish the brand’s essential values of refinement and comfort, or “Roverness” as it is sometimes called.
When BMW took over the ailing company in 1994, part of the plan was to restore the marque’s prestige. The marriage, however, lasted only six years, with the Rover 75 left as the single fruit born out of the alliance. It is claimed by some that BMW’s help was limited to “discreet assistance” and a sizeable cheque. Now Rover, as part of the newly formed independent MG Rover Group, is back in South Africa offering a quartet of 75 executive saloons.
The 75 has been showered with awards, including the prestigious Golden Steering Wheel award from the German journal, Bild am Sonntag, and was also named the World’s Most Beautiful Automobile by an Italian magazine.
One onlooker’s misguided comment that the 75 was “the most beautiful Jaguar” he has ever seen probably tells you all you need to know about the car’s styling, but it must be said that, looking at Jaguar’s recent attempts to incorporate elements of Jaguars past, perhaps the leaping cat should take the above-mentioned comment as a compliment…
With an overall length that is not much shorter than the BMW 5-Series and generous front and rear overhangs, the 75 is a heavy, substantial-looking car that has real presence. Some may see the generous use of chrome as a little over the top, but it actually contributes to the overall “classic” appearance and is certainly not too flashy. During our two-week test period, comments on the 75’s styling were enthusiastically positive.
But it is the interior that really sets the jaws dropping. Recently, many manufacturers have tried to play the retro game, but few, if any, have managed to do it as successfully as Rover with the 75. The beige leather upholstered seats are piped in traditional upmarket British style and look inviting. A huge slab of polished burr-walnut runs across the facia, splitting the beige lower section from the black upper, and many smaller details are accentuated by the application of chrome. Then there is the instrumentation: oval dials with cream faces and black upright graphics, rimmed by chrome and swept by black pointers. A classically styled analogue clock is set into the centre part of the facia.
The great achievement, though, is not only that the interior looks gorgeous, but also that the ergonomics are spot-on and passenger comfort is not compromised. Contained in the hangdown section of the facia are controls for all the modern electronic aids within easy reach. The radio/tape is a very impressive Alpine Symphony with a six-disc CD autochanger (housed in the glove compartment) and ten Harman/Kardon branded speakers.
The digital climate control system has separate controls for the driver and front passenger, and an additional vent at the back. Switches for the heated seats, cruise control and electric rear window blind are located just below
the air-conditioning controls. Connoisseur specification also means electric mirrors and windows, a driver’s seat that is fully electrically adjustable (and with three memory settings), a front passenger seat electrically adjustable for reach and backrest angle, and lumbar support for both front seats. “Electronic Eye” parking assistance is also part of the package, and our test car came equipped with an optional power operated sunroof.
With both the driver’s seat and the steering wheel being adjustable, a comfortable driving position is not difficult to achieve. The seats are supremely comfortable and, especially in front, leg- and headroom should not be a problem for most passengers. In the back there is less space, but it is not uncomfortable.
At first glance, you may think function has very much followed form in the 75’s interior, but this in plainly not true, as much attention has been paid to utility. There is a large, unlidded storage compartment above the cubby, a useful hidey-hole to the right of the steering wheel, and large door pockets. A rather acrobatic cupholder swivels out of the hangdown section of the facia, and another pair pops out of the base of the rear seat.
At 328 dm3, the 75 does not have a terribly spacious luggage compartment. But with the seats folded down, utility space is boosted to a useful 928 dm3.
High-quality materials are used and are put together in a reassuringly sturdy fashion. Heavy doors that close with a solid “thunk” are further reminders of the BMW connection.
The 75 Connoisseur is powered by Rover’s transversely mounted 2,5-litre V6 engine, which develops 130 kW at 6 500 r/min and 240 N.m of torque at a highish 4 000. The lightweight K-series engine is refined and smooth, spinning easily to the 6 700 redline, and growls quite menacingly when this limit is approached. The limiter cuts in at just under 7 000 r/min.
At just over one and a half tons, the 75 is no lightweight, but the engine gets the car moving deceptively quickly. The benchmark zero to 100 km/h sprint took nine seconds to complete, and a top speed just shy of 220 km/h was achieved. Based on our steady speed fuel runs the 75 clocked up an impressive fuel index figure of less than 10 litres/100 km. However, spirited driving boosts this figure significantly.
The engine is coupled to a five-speed Getrag manual gearbox which fits in perfectly with the car’s character, since shifts are creamy smooth, without losing that vital, slightly mechanical feel necessary for accurate and swift shifting.
Its only glitch is a clutch action that without familiarity, results in rather jerky getaways. Dynamically, the 75’s set-up is biased towards refined ride comfort. MacPherson struts do duty up front, but at the back an adaptation of BMW’s renowned Z-axle is used. The Z-axle configuration is designed for rear-wheel drive cars, but it has proven to be a sound basis for a non-driven axle too. Ride comfort is exemplary and on highways few cars can match the Rover’s suppleness.
Handling ability has not been too badly compromised, either. In fact, the Rover hangs on tenaciously to any chosen line, and general composure is hard to fault. It is just that feedback is rather lacking – the main culprit being the slightly lifeless steering feel. It’s as if the car is asking you to relax and take it easy. Much work has been done to give the 75 this attractive laid-back character. Noise levels are kept down by window glass that is 40 per cent thicker than normal, and a double insulated bulkhead. Only a slight wind rustle around the A-pillars intrudes at speed.
But, ultimately, no matter how comfortable the ride of the car is, there will be some drivers for whom the 75 just isn’t a sharp enough driver’s tool. Over high-speed undulations the softly sprung car reveals a slight tendency to float, and around corners it exhibits noticeably more body roll than its competitors.
Braking is taken care of by four-channel ABS with EBD (electronic brake-force distribution), which proved to be impressively consistent and fade free in our ten simulated emergency stops, clocking an average of just over three seconds. On the subject of safety equipment, the 75 is equipped with dual front and side airbags.