08/07/2009 05:57 | By Richard Aucock

On test: Rover CityRover review (2003-2005 model)

MG Rover CityRover


  • Bodystyle:5dr hatchback
  • Engine:1.4-litre 4-cylinder
  • Fuel type:Petrol
  • Transmission:5-speed manual
  • Date of test:May 2004

What is it?

Since production of the Rover 100 (nee Metro) ceased in 1998, MG Rover hasn't really had a supermini offering. The 25 (200) is kind of supermini-sized but traditionally priced to compete with family hatchbacks, meaning the company's long lacked a budget big-seller. The financial bottom line perhaps indicates this, as the company hasn't made a profit for several years. So, new model needed but no cash to develop it What to do? In MG Rover's case, scout around and find a manufacturer willing to let you rebadge one of its cars as an MG Rover. India's TATA is the company, Indica the car, CityRover the outcome. The what?

Where does it fit?

Indica is a conventional five-door supermini, designed by Europe's IDEA concern but developed and built entirely in India. There's a single engine (a former Peugeot 1.4-litre unit), a five-speed manual gearbox and conventional interior - all rather unexceptional. The CityRover takes all this and adds a new nose, different tail lights, new colours and better interior trims, and adds a little more soundproofing. Changes aren't major but enough to give it the look of a pretty desirable city car. It competes with the Citroen C2, Fiat Panda, Ford Ka and Seat Arosa on price, but size-wise is a rival for Citroen's C3, Fiat's Punto, Ford's Fiesta, Seat's Ibiza, Skoda's Fabia and the Vauxhall Corsa. It's one very roomy small car.

Is it for you?

If you like the idea of a 'British' supermini, you're likely to be interested; even though it's built in India, all profits go to the UK-based concern. And if you want an impressive amount of space for very little outlay, plus five-door practicality and a useful 1.4-litre engine, the CityRover is also likely to attract. However, don't expect European standards of driveability, build quality, refinement or technical specification - what's modern to India is a decade old to us. The idea of a 'budget' Rover may also confuse, though note that this 'isn't actually a Rover - it's a CityRover'. An important distinction.

What does it do well?

It's cheap and roomy. The 85bhp 1.4-litre engine is also a welcome feature in a class where smaller units are more common. The powerplant is surprisingly refined at low revs, and proves pleasingly torquey. It's easy to pile on the pace, and it's almost diesel-like in the way it slogs up hills. Frequent gearchanges are unnecessary, squirting around town is straightforward. The ride quality also eases edges off potholes, and seems resilient to scarred road surfaces - there are few rattles. Steering is light, the high seating position impersonates an MPV and it's easy to park; the body is narrower than most, and extremities are easy to gauge.

What doesn't it do well?

And here's the rub; it's simply not up to modern supermini standards. The seat doesn't go back far enough, and the base is too short. The clutch bites uncomfortably high. The gearchange is dreadfully sloppy, rubber and vague. Steering is lifeless and sticky. The engine sounds horrendous when revved hard. Body lean in corners is considerable. There's not an abundance of grip. Suspension is bouncy and choppy on flat surfaces, even though it does absorb bumps well. Handling is completely uninspiring, and few messages filter back to the driver. Crash safety is unproven, and side airbags lacking - and even the (optional) passenger airbag sits on top of the dashboard, like an ugly afterthought. Standard specifications in general are pathetic. It feels like an old car. And, we're afraid to say, we could go on.

What's it like to live with?

Build quality is decidedly approximate in places, the cheap dashboard plastics seeming third-world and unappealing. There's also a fierce smell of resin inside the CityRover, which you can never escape from. Controls are tacky, details such as a fuel gauge which goes from half-full to empty when cornering are worrying, and spec levels are shocking; standard cars don't even get power steering or a split rear seat! Fuel economy is poor (37.9mpg average), insurance only average and service intervals short by modern standards. And then there's the niggles; on our test car, using the remote locking often unintentionally left doors unlocked, as the system didn't seem to have the power to drag the lock secure. Worrying, particularly with that dodgy fuel gauge and noticeable gearbox whine in 2nd and 3rd thrown in.

Would we buy it?

No. Space and punchy engine are not enough; it's old-tech, unrefined and not particularly pleasant to drive. Not even a generous standard spec can save it - and when European and Far Eastern rivals can all manage to offer more for the money, this cannot fail to reflect badly on MG Rover. The promise is there, with better standards of build and more engineering input from the British company's clearly-talented engineers. But as it stands, this smacks of a rush job to fill a gaping gap in the market, which is neither up to the standards of European rivals nor with a sufficient price advantage to compensate. This, or a Fiat Panda for the same price? Rarely has the better buy been quite as clear-cut as this.

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