Curbside Classic: 2002 MG ZS120 – Lessons Are Not Always Learnt

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The link between Rover and Honda was always a one sided affair: survival and market credibility conferred on one partner, who was unable or unwilling to take anything from the opportunity to develop missing or lost engineering capability, whilst the other gained commercially and strategically. And nothing shows this better than the Rover 400 series, also known as the HH-R, and its later, badge engineered derivative, the MG ZS.

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From 1988, Rover had been owned by British Aerospace, (BAe, now BAE Systems). You can speculate why an aerospace and defence giant would want to own a struggling car maker, even if it did include Land Rover. My personal hunch is that Rover was seen as a business with substantial underused property assets, some marketable divisions that could be separated and sold, some cash flow and as a way of working with the Thatcher government in a supportive way.

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BAe inherited a plan to launch the Rover 200 and 400 series cars (known as R8) in 1989, a car which had significant showroom appeal and received a strong press welcome, and which had commercial success, with sales still rising when it was replaced. But the replacement was to be different.

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The R8 had been funded by the company whilst it had access to government investment but BAe placed tight limits on the funds available for the R8 200/400 replacement.  This meant it would have to be a collaborative project with someone, almost certainly Honda. To limit Rover further, Honda were taking a conservative attitude on the replacement of the Concerto in Europe, as this was a key car to building a successful manufacturing presence in Europe, at Swindon. Honda will build a new car and will build a car in a new factory, but not both together. Therefore, Honda were not receptive to the proposal for an all-new car, like the R8 was in 1989, to be the first full volume product from Swindon.

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Instead, the plan was to use a derivative of the Asian market only Honda Domani, and sell it under the Civic badge in Europe.

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The Domani dated back to 1992, as a derivative of the car that had been the origin of the R8.  It was a conservative 4 door saloon, with Honda planned to turn into a hatchback for Europe, with typical Honda wishbone suspension, front wheel drive and advanced engines.

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Honda, as the holder of the design rights and the trump cards, rejected Rover’s proposal for a full restyle with a completely revised body shell and insisted on the retention of the central section of the car, just as BMC were limited in developing the Maxi from the Landcrab. Rover were limited to new (outer, not inner) metalwork forward of the windscreen and reshaped rear wings and hatch.

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The interior was trimmed by Rover, over the defined Honda hardpoints.

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Rover were also able to develop their own four door saloon, using a new longer rear end, which differed from the Domani and was not offered by Honda. All models, hatchback and saloon were to be badged Rover 400 series, the engines were to be Rover’s four cylinder 1.4 or 1.6 litre K series and later the four cylinder 2.0 litre T series, apart from the 1.6 automatic which retained the Honda engine.

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The result was a disappointment – visually, in driving standards, and crucially in showroom appeal. Visually, it looked like a mismatch of two styles, which it was – the latest Rover grille and gently curved front grafted onto the rather dumpy Domani centre with its strongly styled doors and the very dumpy short rear end.

The interior lacked the fresh stylish appeal of the R8 as well, looking just like a Honda, which was exactly the same, give or take some colours and trim materials and the wishbone suspension was set for comfort, perhaps more so than the market wanted.

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And Rover charged more for it than they did the R8.

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Rover had better luck with the four door saloon version of the HH-R. Honda did not plan to offer a saloon in Europe, so were not building one at Swindon and therefore Rover had more freedom in the design, even if they were still stuck with central section and doors of the Domani. The saloon was launched a year later than the hatch and evidently Rover were quite proud of it, even going as far as saying at the launch of the hatchback “wait for the saloon to see the real 400”.

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This saloon was significantly more elegant and better balanced, losing the long nose/short tail imbalance that existed on the hatchback. Both shapes were colour sensitive, and the blue car perhaps shows this. Because of the closer involvement of Honda, there were no coupes or convertibles this time, though Rover probably considered the 1994 Rover 200 as the coupe replacement. Strangely, Honda built an estate version for sale in the UK and in Europe and several were converted them into “Rovers”, by adding a new bonnet and grille, and little more. But Rover never officially offered it.

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Rover priced and marketed the car as a competitor to cars likes the (still new) Ford Mondeo, the Renault Laguna, Vauxhall/Opel Vectra and Citroen Xantia, rather than its more natural competitors such as the Ford Escort, Vauxhall/Opel Astra, Peugeot 306 and VW Golf. The press were not fooled, and ran comparisons against the similarly sized cars, and found the 400 to be underwhelming, and expensive. CAR magazine actually tagged the 400 hatch as the most disappointing new car of 1995.

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In 1999, the car was facelifted (twin round headlamps instead of rectangular ones, revised bonnet and front wing profiles, and some chassis and trim upgrades) to create the Rover 45. The biggest change was the option of the 2.0 litre K series V6 engine, also offered in the new 75 saloon, in place of the older, 4 cylinder T series. This facelift was masterminded by Rover’s new owners, BMW, and coincided with the introduction of the Rover 75 saloon, the front of which the revised car was styled to match. Renaming also allowed Rover to trim the prices, significantly. However, the 45 was now looking very old against the competition, which now included the Ford Focus, another new Astra, and the capable and high quality Golf Mk4.

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There is perhaps one key reason for the lack of long term sales success of this car. It was perhaps 15% too expensive, compared with the Ford Escort or VW Golf as Rover priced the car against the larger Ford Mondeo, Citroen Xantia and VW Passat. In 1999, when it was renamed the 45, pricing was reduced markedly, but the car was by then looking old against the VW Golf Mk4 and Ford Focus.

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Certainly a first generation R8 400 buyer can be understood for being reluctant when asked to pay significantly more for an HH-R Rover 414 hatch or saloon than he did for his previous car. Equally, it was unlikely to tempt a Mondeo or Xantia buyer – it was too small and Rover was not a brand with sufficient premium to carry it off, in the way that Audi, for example, could sell an A3, based on the VW Golf, for Passat money at volumes and prices Rover could only dream off. It was as if Rover, having made a reasonable fist of, in the UK at least, challenging the image and reputation of the Golf with the R8, tried to take on Audi with the HH-R.

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In 2000, BMW’s patience with Rover was exhausted and the company broken up. BMW kept Mini and the Cowley factory, Land Rover was sold to Ford and Rover together with MG and the Longbridge factory was sold to a management consortium, along with the existing car range and engines. The full story of what then happened is for another day, but I guess you know the final answer.

MG-Rover, as the company was now known, was essentially in existence to keep Longbridge working, and would inevitably need a partner. To keep the lights on while this partner was found, the company expanded the model range with MG versions of the Rover saloon range.

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The Rover 45 was joined by the MG ZS, by using simple devices like new bumpers and valances, side skirts, wings and spoilers, with an MG B style grille grafted on place of the Rover one, changing no pressings but using just plastic mouldings.

The interiors were all given the typical sports seat and steering wheel treatment, with lots of MG logos. It came as a saloon or hatchback, with a full range of engines from 1.4 litre to 2.5 litre V6 petrol engines, as well as diesels.

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One attractive detail was the grille behind the front wheel, seen on the 2.5 litre V6 engined ZS180. Not functional, but it had a certain uniqueness and gave an impression, and was shared with the MG SV X-Power supercar. The 2.5 litre engine was unique to the MG, with the Rover 45 being capped at 2.0 litre

The ZS was perhaps the least successfully commercially of the three MG derivatives but earned better reviews than the smaller Rover 25 based ZR, if not the Rover based MG ZT. Its higher price, the image of the original Rover and the competition from the likes of the rally proven Subarus and Mitsubishis hampered sales, as did its uncompromisingly hard core sports nature in a part of the market that generally wants something a little more family friendly.

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The range of options and customisation available was wide, with spoilers ranging up to the size seen here available for example. Inevitably, the car has acquired a certain image which contrasted with that of the Rover 45, but also was perhaps a bit more than MG really wanted. It was seen as more extreme than an Alfa Romeo 147 for example, but also less capable than a VW Golf GTi.

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There was one last facelift in the spring of 2004, with new headlights, grilles, bootlids and rear hatches, and new dash board mouldings, on both marques. Somehow, perhaps because VW, GM and Ford gave us brand new Golfs, Astras and Focuses in 2004, this looked even more desperate than it was.

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Production of the 45 and ZS ended in April 2005 when MG-Rover collapsed. Honda quickly got into Longbridge and recovered enough tooling to prevent any resurrection in China or elsewhere. Part completed cars were crushed.

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The 400, 45 and ZS were cars with a complex background, hampered by parts of that background and the lack of investment, and not helped by the manufacturer’s ambitions for it. It shows, that even with an organisation like Honda behind you, if a manufacturer does not invest in product, the product will reflect that.

And that is something Rover had learnt over the previous thirty years, the hard way.