I mean no disrespect to the Rover 600, but I’m a little dumbfounded that this conservative sedan was voted “Most Beautiful Car” one year by a panel of Italians. “Most neatly proportioned”, maybe. Or maybe, “Most elegant sedan”. But the most beautiful car, out of all the cars on sale that year? Hmm…
Whatever your views on its styling – personally, I think it’s relatively handsome but for the gauche Rover grille – what was underneath was generally regarded as competent, if not the “Most Exciting Car as voted by a panel of Italians“. The 600 was yet another joint-venture with Honda, a partnership that had already provided the recovering Rover with competitive offerings like the Legend-derived 800 and Civic-based 200 and 400. The 600 was closely related to the European Accord, known as the Ascot Innova in Japan.
To say that Rover had much engineering input in the 600 would be, as the English would say, telling pork pies. The 600 was effectively a reskinned Accord, and shared doors, windshield and roof. Honda stipulated that it could not be sold in the US – no loss, as the Sterling had sunk by this point – and could only use Honda gasoline engines. On the latter point, Rover would demur slightly: a lone Rover gasoline engine, a turbocharged version of Rover’s 2.0 T-Series four, would arrive in 1994 with 200hp and 174 ft-lbs. However, the bulk of 600s sold would be powered by Honda’s 1.8, 2.0 and 2.3 fours; they were also joined by Rover’s 2.0 turbodiesel. All 600s were manufactured in Rover’s Cowley plant.
The 600 replaced the Montego in position if not mission. The Montego, originally an Austin but later sold through Rover dealerships but without Rover badges, launched in 1984. Like its Maestro platform mate, it was a tweener-sized car. The 600 was more comfortably sized, but was positioned as more of an executive car offering. The more downmarket Montego and Maestro ended up selling alongside the 600 until 1995, treated like unwanted stepchildren: both the Montego and Maestro were never officially badged or referred to as Rovers despite being sold in the same dealerships. In a way, the 600 had gone from being a simple Montego replacement to a more premium entry sold alongside: consider the Montego and 600 to be analogues to the Ford Maverick and Granada, in terms of positioning.
Honda had also taken charge of the Accord and 600’s interior styling, leaving Rover to differentiate only with fabric and trim choices. True to British tradition, the British marque chose to employ woodgrain trim and lighter, warmer colors.
Of course, despite only modest changes from its Japanese relative, the British press heaped praise upon its hometown hero. The 600’s reception in the British motoring media can be best summarized by this passage from The Independent’s launch review of the 600:
“Two weeks ago this column concluded that this year’s Honda Accord 2.0-litre was competent but bland. Isn’t the Rover 600 series – launched to great acclaim this summer, and using the same Honda mechanical parts – simply the same car in a different suit? Well . . . yes . . . But it’s a pretty exclusive suit.”
But some critics acknowledged it was not as fun-to-drive as the impressive new Ford Mondeo, and others acknowledged it was priced squarely in 3-Series territory and above almost all of its mainstream rivals, despite generally featuring a lower level of specification. The 600 thus fell into the same trap of the smaller, Civic-derived Rover 200 and 400. Each of these Rovers was priced above the related Hondas, and were often selling for the same money as cars the next size bracket up or cars from more prestigious brands.
photo courtesy of “MaximaQX24” on CarDomain
The 600 may have had “classier” styling inside and out than an Accord or another mainstream D-segment sedan, but it offered no tangible benefits. At the Accord’s price point, buyers might have overlooked the 600’s flaws, namely a ride that wasn’t exactly plush, unexciting handling, and a cramped rear cabin. But while the 600 was the closest thing the British auto industry had to a 3-Series rival, it was no 3-Series: it was a rebodied Accord from a brand whose prestige image was fading with every humdrum 100 hatchback sold.
By the time BMW bought 80% of Rover Group in 1994, Honda was quickly trying to untangle itself from the British brand. Just a month later, they sold their 20% share. The 600 was never heavily advertised afterwards, especially considering its purported role as a BMW 3-Series rival. However, sales were steady if unexceptional over its six-year lifespan, and the 600 did experience moderate success in the German and Italian markets.
That intangible virtue of the 600 that British journalists often waxed lyrical about, its “special feel”, was likely the reason sales were steady. However, that was bolstered by a much more tangible and pragmatic selling point of the 600: it was reliable. While Rovers in the past had often been flaky and temperamental, the 600 enjoyed a solid reputation for reliability. After all, Rover had not been allowed to tamper with the basic Accord too much. The turbo T-Series four was deemed to be the most entertaining engine, but ended up being the least reliable.
I don’t know how the featured white 600 wound up here in Australia, as Rover’s presence down under has been almost as scarce as in North America. Rover sold the Quintet, a rebadged Honda Quint, in the 1980s before replacing it with the 416i (unrelated to the UK model), a rebadged Honda/Acura Integra available only as a five-door hatch. The 800 then arrived, but Rover withdrew in 1991, returning a decade later with the 75 and a range of MG-based Rovers (the 25-based ZR, 45-based ZS and 75-based ZT). Given the Japanese affection for British cars, it’s possible this 600 was imported from there.
For 1998, both the 600 and the aging 800 would be replaced by a single car: the retro-styled 75 executive sedan. BMW invested quite a bit of money in this uniquely British-looking sedan, but the rest of the Rover lineup didn’t enjoy the same treatment. New Civic-derived 200 and 400 models, developed before the Rover/Honda split, were left to soldier on for ten years with only cosmetic changes, echoing the 800’s history (by the time the 800 died, Honda had gone through two more Legend generations).
In a way, the 600 was lucky to be a one-generation wonder. It avoided the grim fate of marching along like ghosts in the Rover lineup, like the 200 and 400 would, suffering the indignity of cosmetic tweaks and repositioning that would never truly conceal the aged bones.
The idea of the 600 was certainly nice enough, offering a D-segment sedan that felt just a little “special”. And for those people who felt it was worthwhile paying a couple thousand more pounds for a 600 over, say, a Mondeo to enjoy that “special” feeling, more power to them. But objectively speaking, the 600 was just an Accord in fancier duds and with a fancier price.
Curbside Classic: 1996 Rover 800
Curbside Classic: 1987 Sterling
A uni friend had one of these and I quite liked it. I can certainly see the appeal over an Accord.
I actually eyed a last of the line diesel 600 when I bought my last car – they have a decent rep for reliability and cost less than a half-decent TV, but the car in question was a bit too rusty and worn out.
I suspect your example might belong to an ex-pat. You can see where the adhesive pads were for a UK sized plate on the front bumper (I’m assuming Japanese plates are a different shape). I had a Mancunian colleague in WA whose wife brought her MG TF with her when they emigrated. Presumably all the times the K-series overheated in Manchester were so enjoyable she couldn’t wait to get it to Australia 🙂
+1 re the UK plate adhesive pads. JDM plates are narrower and quite a bit deeper.
It might have come from New Zealand as Rhondas were sold here in fairly large quantities. My BIL was a parts manager at Rover City during this time and he had a few trips to OZ paid for by BMW to view the Australian operation all dealer principals and managers went on these jaunts, but it wasnt long before BMW/Rover disappeared from our market too, Many ex JDM Rhondas were brought into NZ even by the Rover dealers and flogged to unsuspecting buyers as used cars usually after a haircut, though I’m reliably informed there were no safety shortcuts on Japanese market Rovers and unlike many JDM cars they are identical to local market vehicles and the local parts fit.
By the early ’90s, it was still an old world ( better than now I suppose ) British marques carried more weight than now ( Rover, MG, Austin for example ) and that could be worth the extra premium over the newcomers. But on the other hand, the British Leyland was a huge scope of disaster in terms of economy and culture ( probably the credibility of British government too ) and it acted like a company similar to Union Pacific with more lackluster decisions and skills ( while Union Pacific is rather successful by compare )
If Chrysler merges with GM, it will end up worse than British Leyland, and that’s something those people believing the merging theories doesn’t learn. Cutting costs simply means cutting themselves in pieces and doesn’t retun real money neither. The automotive field was still fairly Coral Island like maybe until the ’90s ( Rover was on the thin ice already after Rover SD1 though ) but after maybe ’96 or ’97, it became Lord of the Flies with the desperation of merging in fears ( and merging doesn’t help neither, )
Maybe when Sterling was around we can still assume Rover could still take an easy time and have coffee to see what they could do, by the time when Rover 600 was around, having a McDonald burger became a privilege.
CC effect strikes again,just seen a Rover 600 used in a brutal and cowardly murder in an episode of Real Crime with Mark Austin.The Rover 600 was like so many other Rovers,nearly right and just not quite good enough.I rather liked the 75 though I’m glad I never got one despite there still being plenty still on the road.
I can’t help thinking that BMW left them short of money for development as they didn’t want an in house BMW fighter.
A handsomely rebodied Honda with a bit of walnut trim. Forgotten and unlamented.
I remember reading about these cars in CAR magazine during the 1990s, and they seemed to be somewhat less enthusiastic about the Rover 600 than the sources cited here. Thanks for the fascinating article. We in the US had not seen any Rovers since the Sterling debacle, when buyers found out that British Leyland (or whatever it was called that week could botch building Hondas.
Yes, Car magazine ran an article called something like “Build your own Rover 600”, which featured pictures of Honda with cut-out grille, chrome number-plate surround etc to cut out and stick on. It was a pleasant looking vehicle, but I don’t think anyone was fooled, even for a moment.
20 years old probably marks the nadir of interest in most cars. I suspect that in another 20 years’ time the 600’s stock may have risen a little.
I kind of like the exterior styling. As it’s based on the European and not American Accord, it doesn’t look overly familiar, and being more Honda than Rover can never be a bad thing. That said, the interior is nothing special, and I wouldn’t have paid more for this than an Accord. But then again I can understand why some Brits would feel more pride in buying a Rover.
It might be a mistake to assume people only bought these because they were British. It’s easy to overlook the effect of local tastes – I think a lot of readers of this site think that buying a French, British or Italian car is totally insane, and the only reason a European wouldn’t buy Japanese is national pride. (I’m not implying that’s your view)
For some older British buyers the Rover badge might still have had a certain cachet. As I said in a previous comment, I prefer the style and “feel” of the 600 vs the Accord, but as I don’t really feel British I don’t have a dog in that fight. Having said that, there’s no substantial difference between the cars, and if I had been in the market for a new one maybe I wouldn’t have been prepared to pay the extra either. But I might have gone for a 406 or Xantia rather than an Accord.
I should’ve been a little bit clearer. I wasn’t implying that buying a French, British, or Italian car was insane. Here in the U.S. (it’s sounding like you aren’t from here), there’s a lot of “buy American” pride amongst certain types. For example, a lot of my family who are union members only buy American cars because they’re made by the United Auto Workers union, and think it would be some sort of treason to do otherwise. It’s more of a support unions more than American pride, but similar situation. Personally, I find it silly, especially as a lot of Asian and European brands build cars in the U.S., and vise-versa. But I can understand where they’re coming from. I’d assume some people in other countries have similar feelings.
UAW does wrong occasionally but it’s one of the few things can restrain companies in that scope, or to achieve a compromise. There isn’t such balance towards the Japanese or Korean companies located in US. ( wondering if Ronald Reagan did something to restrain unions too ) If UAW shrinks enough so Big Three can build enough factories out of their reach, what Dearborn, Detroit, Hamtramck and northern part went through in the ’20s through ’40s will repeat again at a higher cost.
But Chevrolet Cruze made somewhere else has significantly better fit-finish than those from Ohio though.
American-built Malibus are better built and use nicer materials than South Korean Malibus.
Sorry Brendan, I understood what you meant and wasn’t suggesting for a second that you personally have that opinion.
It’s just that there seems to be a trend of Europeans (or a particular Australasian 😉 ) suggesting American cars are crap, and vice versa. Maybe we sometimes overlook the phenomenon of “horses for courses”. (that phrase doesn’t rhyme in my accent but as I’m typing it’s OK)
By the 90s Rover was the British volume car industry, and most people under 40 had given up on them – that kind of “Buy British” mentality was dying, and not just for cars. Having said that, there were lots of references to the war and shaking of heads by some journalists when Rover was sold to BMW. I’m sure you’re right that many older people bought them because of the badge.
There are a surprising number still floating about in the UK, with that air of “it would be banger but it just keeps on going”. about them. Durability of the (Honda) mechanicals is the reason.
Rover were starting to feel more confident by the early 1990s, but was so tight for cash under British Aerospace’s ownership that the Honda link up was the best option.
And if Honda are providing so much of the intellectual property, and you want to keep your cost down, you’ll have to accept what conditions Honda impose. Add in Rover’s confusion and identity crisis (which ended up with British means wood and leather, silly grilles and advertised outside country houses) and the 600 is almost defined in sentence.
It was by no means a bad car, indeed the 620Ti turbo was a surprising Q-ship rocket, but It was out of step to the market, and limited by a lack of hatch, coupe or estate versions (Honda said no).
Comfortable and comforting, like your favourite sweater, and like your sweater, hard to sell on its absolute terms. But nice if you borrowed one
I remember advertising quoting the “best looking car as chosen by the Italians” from the time.
As ever with 1990s Rover advertising, it was all a bit too sweet and cheesy, a bit snobbish often and usually out of step of the public perception of the car.
But they did try!
Never knew about these. This is what I thought Sterling was – Honda innards and British wood and leather. It’s a shame they couldn’t bring it in at the price where it needed to be.
Of course we never saw these in the states, but I do like the look, and I especially like the idealist concept of a wooded and Wiltoned, best-British-leathered interiored Honda. I thought the Sterling [Legend] was genius. When they came out, I wanted one badly, and the only thing that saved me was the fact I couldn’t afford one. This fever was cooled a bit though, first by the Car and Driver (?) review where they had mysterious electrical problems in their test car, and later and especially when a business aquaintance bought one. He had continual minor electrical issues. As a British car lover, he was stoic about the problems at first but later just became sullen.
Still, what a dream! I wish it had worked….In my perfect world, I’d be driving [a modern one] today.
Lots of Honda Legends had electrical issues when new that Rover didnt get rid of them isnt a surprise they simply retrimmed a Honda they didnt reengineer it
I will admit to being a shameless Sterling fan. I have always liked the Sterling 827 4 door hatch back. It was unique in the USA due to it being a midsized hatchback car.
Wood grain does nothing for me after I see it cracked in aging “prestige” cars, but maybe this is because I think in terms of long-term ownership.
It’s ironic that Britons & Europeans deem wood trim “warm” & prestigious when many worry about preserving forests, and live & work in dreary Modernist buildings devoid of such “bourgeois” finery. Is this a sign they never completely accepted the Bauhaus design revolution?
It’s a sign that they like wood.
Thanks for bringing some clarity to a car that barely made an impression on me before. From the rear it does rather look some like the US Accord.
Perhaps we see the 600 as a bit bland car nowadays, but back in 1993 it was a very elegant and nicely appointed medium saloon, rather more atractive than the european Accord, and even the then new Mondeo. And the interior, though japanese, was a great example of what a bit of wood and carefully chosen colours and upholstery can do.
I remember when these cars were launched and magazines (not only british ones) were rather excited about them. It´s a shame that a combination of high prices, very little advertisement and a limited range led to the sales failure the 600 was.
The shape says “Honda” loudly whereas the grille says “Rover”. Not to say that they’re not harmonious, but that’s what it looks like to me. However I can totally see the merit of real wood and English leather in a car this size. There wasn’t anything comparable in the US Acura line-up at the time–the Integra was a size smaller and the Vigor (Honda Ascot) a half-size larger.
Did you get the Ascot in the UK? It does seem like they could have been competitors even if they weren’t exactly the same class.
I think we just got Accord, Prelude, Legend but I wasn’t paying much attention to the Honda range at the time. Or ever, now that I think about it.
A really nice looking car, inside and out, and I really wanted one of these until I drove one, which burst the bubble. Apart from the “Rover” diesel engine feeling like it belonged in a tractor, the boys in Cowley hadn’t done a very good job of welding the clutch pedal to the arm that it hung from. I reckoned if they couldn’t do the simple things right……
The Accord on which it was based was not available in the UK as a Japanese build – they were assembled in the Rover plant as well, with some UK content. That is to say, they were not as good as JDM Accords.
Rhondas seem to blow headgaskets as easily here as Hondas do so just what was superior about the JDM models? they didnt have either the Perkins or Peugeot diesels fitted but everything else appears the same, NZ is possibly unique in that we have Hondas from everywhere local new exJDM US models and Rovers none seem any better than others.
The blue Ascot Innova in the picture is a JDM, a bit different to the european Accord. The central pillars are a lot narrower…I suppose it has frameless windows. I wonder how much it cost Honda to differentiate both cars in a detail that could pass almost unnoticed.
Yes, the Innova has frameless windows, although the bodyshell is the same. The Euro Accord had the frames added but ironically one of the most common faults with the Euro Accord/600 is the windows coming out of the frames…
I remember when these were launched here in New Zealand; I thought they were nice-looking. Still a few around, especially turbo variants dumped on lowered suspension and huge wheels, and fittd with large stereos…
The 600 sits on the CB Accord platform; shared with the CB Ascot (and Vigor), European Accord and JDM Ascot Innova. The CB Accord/Ascot shared quite a lot of the interior/exterior with each other but not with the Euro Accord, Innova and 600 – the later three shared a lot of their own interior/exterior parts. The JDM Innova and Euro Accord share the same bodyshell, but the Euro Accord gained window frames (the front frames are shared with the 600). See photo below from my Ascot article, https://www.curbsideclassic.com/curbside-classics-asian/my-unintentional-coal-i-1993-honda-ascot-fbx-how-i-fell-in-like-with-a-magnificent-honda/
I thought the rear end of the Rover was much better resolved than the Honda where the lights just sort of floated on the rounded rear end without really defining it. Interestingly the replacement Honda Accord (European model) was a lot closer to the 600. http://www.performance-car-guide.co.uk/images/L-1999-Honda-Accord-Type-R-Rear.jpg
Nice article William, and a great find! I remember liking the European Accord back then, and I think they were raced successfully in the BTCC?
I wonder how many MG ZR and ZS’ were sold in Australia, it seems they came in just before the company folded – a lot of cars were sold off at an auction.
That generation Accord was competitive in the BTCC in the hands of David Leslie, but they achieved more success with later models.
Rumour was that Rover was desperate to enter the BTCC but was forbidden by Honda, and later BMW. Later, when everything was going down the pan under the “Phoenix Four” they did have some BTCC success with the MG ZS.
The Honda Accord equivalent was made by Honda in their own factory in Swindon UK, not made by Rover.