Bare bones on a budget
25 November 2003

I once had dinner with the eldest son of the Maharajah of Jaipur. We were both students who shared a mutual friend, the only difference being that while he was the heir to a sizeable chunk of India plus the odd palace, I had just spunked my student loan on a full Janspeed exhaust for my Pug 205. But he was good company and I soon managed to twist the conversation around to the topic of choice: motors.Turned out he didn’t understand my approach to personal transport. The fettling, the fresh dampers; speed at the expense of mechanical reliability. To him, raised in India, a car was a method of transport, something that had a role easy to explain, but difficult to fulfill: it must NEVER break down. Conking meant waiting by the roadside, and that meant trouble.And so whereas knowing that the new CityRover is, in fact, a lightly reskinned Indian hatchback called the Tata Indica will no doubt have people giggling, it should actually serve as a point of reassurance. Line the CityRover up against a Ford Ka, Fiat Panda and a Hyundai Getz, and I’d put money on the others missing a beat before it.CityRover is a poignant reminder of how indulgent European small cars have become, and so it stands to reason that whether you will like or despise it depends entirely on where your sub-supermini priorities lie. Subscribe to the marshmallow-plastic-titillation that the established players are now offering inside, and the CityRover’s cabin serves as a reminder of how it used to be done.The grade of plastics and assembly quality is just high enough to be taken seriously on a production car. Just. At a time when Fiat’s Panda is dishing up all manner of cabin-fun, this car has an interior with no appeal whatsoever. And so I sat in the CityRover in a damp Autocar car park and wondered what on earth to make of it. On first impressions, in the showroom if you like, the answer has to be not a lot.But then this is a vehicle that Rover, in its own dangerously honest words, is ‘not expecting to be seen as the class leader.’ It is a budget car from a manufacturer strapped for cash, and it aims to offer simple, cheap, Rover-badged motoring. And you know what? Judged by those simple criteria, CityRover is a long way from being the joke you might expect.For starters, it’s very spacious. Four adults can easily sit in comfort and rear leg- and headroom shame that of a Ford Ka. The trim on this Sprite model is basic cloth and it has a split folding rear seat. Other than that, it’s bare: winders for the windows, and a few poorly placed buttons on the dash.There’s an 84bhp four-cylinder Peugeot-derived effort out front and it only has to lump 1040kg. A pretty dreadful gearchange does its best to spoil any real driver enjoyment, but the fact remains that on performance alone, Rover has singularly failed to meet its overall market expectations: it is class leading.Front struts and semi-trailing arms, all running Euro-spec springs and dampers, bring a busy ride, and grip from the 175/60 HR 14 Goodyears is moderate, but the turning circle is good and the power steering fingertip light at parking speeds. It’s a chassis that words well in its intended environment; not so well outside it.So dull innards aside, it’s not a bad car. But traditionally the incentive for choosing the utilitarian option has been a giveaway price, and this is where the CityRover stumbles. At £7,895 the Sprite doesn’t have electric windows or anti-lock brakes and is nearly a grand dearer than the cheapest Skoda Fabia.So where does that leave the CityRover? Well, it’s a spacious, brisk runabout with an immaculate paintfinish but a woeful interior. It’s cheap but not quite cheap enough, and it’s up against some much more desirable machinery. But given the available resources, it really isn’t a bad effort. If peppy performance and a Brit-badge matter more than show-off interiors, then it will do the job nicely. It also answers a question asked on the cover of this magazine back in July. ‘Are they mad?’ we asked of MG-Rover’s decision to sell the CityRover back then. At the time I thought they were; having driven it I don’t think they are.Chris Harris

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