A new Rover for the American road

Four years after its introduction in Europe, the award-winning Rover 3500 has finally reached the United States. It should have made the trip a lot sooner. Nonetheless, the 3500 was well worth waiting for, assuming the company has worked the bugs out of the marque, which hasn't been sold in the US since 1971. The earlier Rover cars had all kinds of problems on the road.

Now BL Ltd., Britain's state-owned auto manufacturer, asserts that the new car and the old are miles apart.

Still, the car I drove was equipped with electric door locks that failed to work some of the time. And while the quality of the inside design and fit was high, the color coordination was not.

No matter, the 3500 is a pleasure to drive and returns some of the lost joy that used to be a standard part of driving.

The Rover 3500, in fact, is a brand-new concept, designed and engineered from scratch. Further, it is being produced at Solihull, Britain's newest and most modern assembly plant, built especially to manufacture the car.

The 3500 is a 5-passenger, 5-door hatchback luxury sedan that handles more like a sports car than a sedan, has a fuel-injected aluminum V-8 engine that is stingy on gas, and is one of the safest cars around. The Rover always had a good safety image; the problem was keeping it out of the repair shop.

However, it is expensive -- about $16,000 as the base -- but considering its engineering, the 3500 should be competitive with other well-regarded vehicles in and beyond its price range.

Besides being safe, the 3500 also is perky in a getaway, accelerating from 0 to 55 miles an hour in under 10 seconds with a standard 5-speed manual transmission. With an automatic, it takes a bit longer.

The 215-cubic-inch V-8 engine, smallest V-8 now sold in the US, was actually developed some time ago by the Buick division of General Motors. British Leyland, predecessor company to BL Ltd., bought the rights to it in the early 1970s.

Among the biggest pluses for the car is inside space -- plenty of it. Head and leg room are ample, both front and rear, and there is a lot of glass because of the hatchback window in the back.

Among its extras is a glove box under each side of the dash and storage room on top.

Whether you want it or not, the new Rover is an attention-getter on the road.

The US Environmental Protection Agency says it should give 15 miles per gallon in the city and 26 on the highway. Actually, I got about 19 m.p.g. on a 60-mile daily commute. The Rover, as well as the new 8-cylinder Triumph TR-8, is important to Jaguar Rover Triumph Inc., the American arm of BL Ltd.

"We only bring to the US those cars which we believe will fill a particular consumer appetite," says JRT head Graham Whitehead.

In fact, the two new cars may give JRT a good push in the US, but maybe not immediately. A sadly depressed auto market, plus the strength of the British pound, continues to darken the outlook for 1980. The company sold about 42,000 cars here in 1979 and expects to do no better this year.

Revising its philosophy some time ago when it found it couldn't develop a large following in the US, the company is concentrating on those parts of the market that "have always been most successful for us: sports and luxury cars," Mr. Whitehead says.

During the 1970s the importer reduced its dealer body from around 1,200 to just over 400, thus increasing the number of cars sold per dealer, with improved profits and efficiency.

Later this year the Solihull facility will also be building TR-7s and 8s, thus putting all Rover-Triumph assembly into a single plant.

"There will be no delay in production of the Triumphs, because we'll start producing Triumphs at Solihull well before production at the current plant stops ," asserts Tony Ball, chairman and managing director of BL Europe and overseas operations.

Meanwhile, BL has just introduced a new Morris sedan, the Ital, in Western Europe; and in October it will unveil the Metro, a larger version of its 20 -year-old Mini. Neither will be sold in the US.

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