"Cars built this well are few and far between," quipped a Rover 600 ad in the spring of 1993. It was true enough, even if Honda's Japanese engineering integrity was the guarantor of that truth.
Underneath the British-badged car was a Honda Accord. The new 600 was the latest product of a fourteen-year partnership between Rover and the Japanese company.
To look at the 600, however, you'd be hard pressed to tell where it had come from. Indeed, it had its own charm. Cars are more than simply the sum of their parts. They are irrational, tactile, and visceral; and style is a key component of their appeal.
Everyone seemed to like the way it looked. A French poll - and they say the French know about these things - saw the 600 voted the world's most beautiful car. It won a Design Council transport award in 1994. BBC Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson, a notoriously tough critic, was fairly won over, calling it "a delightful breath of fresh air" among rivals that looked "depressingly similar."
Indeed, the 600's mix of subtle curves framed by angular edges stood apart from the jelly-mold "aero" cars which had arrived to copy the 1982 Ford Sierra (a style which came to America with the 1986 Ford Taurus). The new Rover proffered a silhouette that was a sight more sophisticated than the curiously bland, if mildly aggressive, Honda Accord. That was a surprise, for the Accord's underpinnings had forced compromises on the Rover team. They'd even had to retain the Honda's doors.
It was much to designer Richard Woolley's credit, then, that nothing on this fairly flowing car seemed out of place, even down to the regal, near-vertical chrome grille which served as its focal point.
Inside, things were less enticing. Nowhere was Honda's emphasis on practicality more evident than in interior design, and the British team had been given no choice but to pick up the Accord's dashboard.
The added wood and chrome clashed with the plastic, desperately ordinary fascia; although the plush Rover velour seats were as comfortable as ever, and Honda packaging made the 600 quite spacious. If rear legroom was a touch cramped, well, so too was that of premium cars, the BMW 3 series included.
One could see why a Honda interior fit Honda well enough. The Honda instrument cluster was the clearest in the business, save perhaps for BMW, and Honda ergonomics were similarly a lesson in ease and clarity.
But the vaguely mysterious, subtle seduction of Rover's soft curves jarred with a cockpit so practical that it almost felt plebian (and no matter how well screwed together).
On the other hand, if Honda engineering served as reassurance for those who had once tried British Leyland and vowed never to go back, then perhaps Rover could console itself in thinking that the familiarity of the Honda dashboard would be equally comforting to an import intender. Take the front ashtray out, and it was even stamped, “Honda” underneath. How's that for reassurance?
The disappointment of its dashboard apart, the 600 looked well on its way to blend Honda performance - some of the most advanced technology available - with Rover elegance. In doing so, it should have opened a new market for Rover cars.
But Rover hadn't had a true midsize executive car for decades. Moreover, the Rover brand was tarnished. Once an emblem of portly dignity and polished patriotism, a tasteful and understated alternative to flashy Jaguar, Rover had suffered quality issues in the ‘70s under the stewardship of the publicly-owned British Leyland conglomerate.
So while the 600's svelte if slightly standoffish lines carried a certain stiff upper lip, its British aloofness also translated to some delusional pricing.
That wasn't helped by BMW's purchase of Rover, a year after the 600's launch. BMW was used to premium pricing. Rover could not support the profitability BMW demanded of it, and wound up discounting its cars while also missing its sales targets.
Paradoxically, where Rover envisioned a return to the aspiring young professionals segment, BMW - whose 3 series owned that corner of the market - reckoned the 600 was perfect for older buyers and fleet managers. Cynical observers reckoned that BMW's strategy with Rover was "good - but not better than us."
The Rover 600 proved very reliable, scoring third overall in Which Car's 1997 survey of its readers.
A brand so tarnished, however, needed a bolder, more innovative statement than a solidly engineered, quietly elegant car, no matter how dynamically competent and ultimately reliable it might have been. Despite the 600's dynamic competence, its marque's baggage combined with its own understatement to make for a tough sell, even without an internal battle with BMW.
Inevitably, BMW chairman Joachim Milberg announced on March 28th, 2000, that the Rover brand had "not been strong enough to do the job," reporting that BMW had in 1999 borne a loss of more than €1.2 billion on Rover cars, following €957 million lost in 1998. He admitted that BMW had failed in its takeover of Rover.
BMW divested itself of Rover. The British company stumbled along, on its own, before collapsing in 2005.
The Rover 600 neatly spanned BMW's ownership of the company, beginning a year before the Bavarians' involvement and ending a year before they gave up.
Rover built 271,322 copies of the 600 in six years, which is fair enough for a car with a single body style that was exported in limited numbers.
Ultimately, not enough buyers were so drawn to subtle beauty and pleasantly familiar elegance to overlook the brand baggage and blunt interior and find a thoroughly engaging, endearingly cosseting car underneath. Given the 600's solid engineering and sheer dynamic competence, that was a particular pity.
Recalled car enthusiast Brian Bold in his travelogue and memoir, Road Works: Drives of a Lifetime: "It's a long journey home on the train, a full day before we are walking back down our road.
"From someway off I can see the Rover 600 parked on our drive. It looks dated, and its silver paint is dull with traffic film, but I feel the joy of familiarity surge through me.
"It won't be long before I'm sitting in its comfortable seat again and letting its automatic gearbox take the strain out of driving.
"How could I have been tempted by sexy curves and flash technology when I'm so relaxed at this wheel?
"Maybe I can't keep up with younger cars anymore."