Review and road test of the Rover Coupe (1996 - 1999)
BY ANDY ENRIGHT
How quickly we forget. Look at a Rover Coupe now and it seems like a product of a bygone era, an eighties throwback that could serve up a bit of cheap fun. What's hard to believe is that these cars were produced right through to early 1999 and were refined to the point where the final Coupe models were surprisingly good cars. Forget the torque-steering antics of the old 220 Turbo, the later models, having done away with the numericals, were surprisingly urbane. If you can get over the slightly dated detailing, a Rover Coupe makes a distinctly affordable used option.
Two door Coupe [1.6, 1.8 (base, SE, VVC]
Dating back to 1992, the Coupe version of Rover's 200 became something of a sleeper for Rover, racking up sales against rivals such as the Honda CRX, Ford Probe and Vauxhall Calibra. The headliner in the range was undoubtedly the 150mph Turbo model, a car that could turn its front tyres into shrivelled carcasses treated to a hefty right boot, but the cars we're concerned with in this instance are the post 1996 versions. These models were rebranded by Rover so as not to be confused with the later shaped 200 series cars, at the same time getting the sweet 143bhp 1.8 VVC engine found in upspec MGFs.
Although superficially similar to the older cars, Rover modernised the Coupe in 1996, giving it a revised dashboard, standard driver and passenger airbags, revised suspension settings and steering wheel controls for the music system. In addition, Rover offered the option of CVT automatic transmission on the 1.6-litre models although this rather pricey option found few takers.
Production continued right through until 1999 when owners BMW decided that the Coupe had no place in a modernised line-up and axed it. Despite having lasted beyond its sell-by date, the Coupe was never replaced by Rover, the coupe-shaped gap in their model range instantly apparent when they subsequently rebranded their 25, 45 and 75 lines as MG sports models.
What You Get
Even today, the styling efforts of Gerry McGovern's design team still make the Rover Coupe look quite smart in the car park. For sure, the overall effect doesn't have the striking quality of Vauxhall's curvy Calibra or the cleanliness of Ford's Probe. At the time, McGovern apparently reckoned these cars to be already old fashioned "because they were too radical in the first place". History seems to have been a bit harsh on McGovern's judgement.
Instead, the shape he penned continues to offend none, interest many and excite a few. It never produced record-breaking sales - but what Rover from the previous era did? Walking around the car, you notice some neat styling touches around the headlamps, the front grille, the wheels and the rear light clusters. Changes were made in 1996 to keep the car up to date - the suspension was tweaked - even though the old-shape Rover 200's chassis lives on under the pretty set of clothes.
All three models share a smart smoked glass T-bar roof - a welcome feature for two main reasons. First the obvious. It's great, when conditions allow, to release the two glass panels that make up the roof and stow them neatly away in made-to-measure covers in the boot. The second is that the low-slung coupe styling doesn't really allow for the extra few inches needed for the fitting of a sunroof. That of course creates its own problems. Anyone of reasonable stature who has the misfortune to be consigned to the rear will find their head scrunched against the ceiling. You can't have everything.
The wood and chrome inserts look a little contrived in what is ostensibly a Honda derived interior, but the instrumentation is crystal clear, the stalks still work with a quality 'click' and the three-spoke wheel still feels good to hold. Equipment levels, as you'd anticipate for the money, are pretty comprehensive. Expect electric front windows and mirrors, alarmed central locking, a four-speaker stereo radio cassette, handsome alloy wheels (on SE and VVC) and positive 'centre feel' power steering.
What to Look For
You may find that on older models, the seats tend to sag if the car has had heavy use. The brakes can suffer from judder and vibration and the electric windows had a history of occasional failure. Many of the engineering bugs that plagued the early Coupes had been well ironed out by 1996 and these late models never attracted the hooligan element the early cars did. Try for a service history and take a good look at the receipts and the state of the owner. Have they looked after the baby Rover? Get the keeper to remove the roof panels and check them for damage and wind/water seal as this can be a problem.
(approx based on a 1996 Coupe SE - exc VAT) A clutch assembly will be around £190. An alternator is about £250 and brake pads around £75 each.
A headlamp is around £75, a full exhaust system (excluding the catalyst) would cost you about £250, an alternator can be between £120 and £250 with an exchange varying from £70-£150, a starter motor £135 and a front head lamp £75.
On the Road
The slightly claustrophobic cabin with its high waistlines may make shorter drivers feel a little hemmed in, but it does a great job in shrinking the car around the driver, giving a great degree of confidence. The relative lack of speed in the 1.6-litre cars is more than compensated for by the free revving nature of the K-series engine. You'll have to row the gearstick a bit in the 1.6 models whereas the 1.8-litre VVC is a swift cross country tool, capable of hitting 60 in a mere 7.9 seconds and capable of seeing the naughty side of 130mph. The ride is firmer than you may expect, and due to the changes made to the suspension, handling is composed for such a punchy front wheel drive car. The two-door coupe body is supremely rigid, versions of which were successful in several production car race series.
The late Rover Coupes will probably be more expensive than you at first imagined, but this is more than offset by the fact that they are better cars than many people will recall. Against a Calibra or Probe, the Rover Coupe seems a far more focused tool, especially in VVC guise. Next time you're in the market for a used coupe, give one a try. You might just surprise yourself.
Rover Coupe (1996 - 1999) review by ANDY ENRIGHT