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.