Its name was the cleverest thing about it. Or it would have been, had the Rover marque not been so stained by years of messy history.
The next best thing about the this small supermini was the neat and classy array of chrome ‘C I T Y R O V E R’ characters across it tailgate, this one of the few positives to be found in this tale of the last whimperings of MG Rover.
In the broadest sense, acquiring the rights to use this Italian-designed supermini might have seemed a good idea for a company struggling to survive. MG Rover had not launched an entirely new model since the ludicrous De Tomaso-based MG SV.
A new supermini – even an old new supermini – was a model that might sell at a decent rate and make a profit, so cheaply could it be landed at a dock ready for UK sale.
Dock? The CityRover was not made at MG Rover’s Longbridge plant but at Pune in India, this car made by Tata Motors, whose sister automotive business these days is Jaguar Land Rover.
The Tata Rover
The CityRover was a (very) lightly modified version of the Tata Indica, the Indian company’s first car. The Indica was capably designed for Tata by Italy’s IDEA, whose previous credits included many Fiat Auto models from the early 1990s including the Fiat Tipo and Tempra, the Alfa Romeo 155 and Lancia Delta, as well as the Nissan Terrano/Ford Maverick.
The Indica was engineered to be very affordable, was powered by a modified 1.4 litre Peugeot engine of more than average grunt and had an interior spacious enough to carry inadvisably large numbers of passengers, as was highly likely in its home country of India.
It debuted in 1998 and sold very strongly until customers uncovered its patchy quality. Recalls and a reworked version recovered the Indica’s reputation sufficiently to restore its best-selling status and it was this modified version, known as the Indica V2, that became the basis for MG Rover’s version.
Not good enough for MG Rover
When MG Rover’s engineers got hold of an example for evaluation their improvements list was long, and included the need to improve a gearchange that moved like a blunt carving knife through gristle, the high-riding suspension and an interior finish barely worthy of a van.
But the management largely ignored their suggestions, allowing only light modifications to the suspension, which was lowered 20mm and used stiffer spring rates, these changes complemented by a quicker steering rack and larger wheels.
The engine was cleaned up to meet mandatory emission requirements, one of its mountings reworked to reduce vibration into the cabin and the transmission’s final drive ratio was altered to compensate for the larger wheels.
New front and rear bumpers, the application of the nastily-cheapened Rover Viking badge and the devising of Sprite, Solo, Select and Style trim packages completed the budget makeover, save for the issue of price. Which was clearly going to need to be low, despite the roomy interior, inoffensive styling and surprisingly peppy performance, 84bhp pushing 1040kg of Tata steel along quite effectively.
The low price was needed because this car was already a five-year old design, because no effort had been made to lifts its interior and its gearchange continued to provide pesky manipulation battles for your left hand.
The £900 brand new Rover?
Still, the pricing should have been easy to get right. There were rumours that the unit cost of a CityRover was somewhere in the region of £900-£2000. Even £2000 sounds on the low side, but whatever the truth there seems little doubt that the cost to MG Rover was easily low enough to allow it to make a decent profit, and return to a market that it had deserted when the long-running Metro was deleted.
But the Longbridge management seemed to be in the grip of the kind of reality loss that had so far produced the unsaleable MG SV, the rear-drive MG ZT V8 and a two-season assault on Le Mans.
So at its September 2003 launch, the basic CityRover Solo was priced at least £1000 too high at £6495, and the £8895 asked for the top-of-the-range Style was laughable against a mid-range VW Polo.
Self-inflicted sabotage – and James May
The self-inflicted sabotage didn’t end there, MG Rover proceeded to launch the CityRover by stealth. There was no significant advertising, no proper press launch and fatally, it denied Top Gear a test car.
Instead presenter James May got plenty of laughs testing a dealer demonstrator using subterfuge and a hidden camera. It was, he reckoned, the worst car he had ever driven while working for the programme.
Despite all this, other sections of the press gave it middling to positive reviews. They liked its space, go and paint finish, but the gearchange, the cabin plastics and the mean equipment levels knocked it back.
So did the arrival of a new Fiat Panda, this neat new basic car good enough to collect a Car of the Year award.
40,000 sales a year, they thought…
With all this against it, together with MG Rover’s wavering enthusiasm, the forecast sales of 30-40,000 units annually looked about as likely as BMW deciding to buy MG Rover back.
Even a speedy stabbing of a smartphone calculator indicates profits of at least £50 million a year on these numbers, making MG Rover’s reticence weirder still.
Sales accelerated like a New Year’s day road-sweeper, the inevitable price cut soon arriving along with plans for a mildly revised model, due in 2005.
The facelift that never was
And that was the fateful year in which MG Rover went under, though not before a boat-load of 1200 revised CityRovers had set sail for Britain.
These orphaned cars got no launch at all, being disposed of by receivers PriceWaterhouseCoopers, which is why you can find examples registered as late as 2007.
Around 8600 CityRovers were eventually sold, some 5000 surviving today despite super-low used prices that now start from under £500. The Indica’s underlying robustness must have plenty to do with that, along with the fact that many were bought by Metro-loving pensioners.
The CityRover shambles produced a dismal book-end to the small-car history of the company that that brought us the 1959 Mini, and still more dismal for the bizarre way in which the project was handled.