This new Streetwise is a perfect example of MG Rover making the best possible use of what it has. With its all-new, all-British entry in the Focus-Golf class, RDX60, still well over a year away, and sales across the MG and Rover ranges being compressed by aggressive competition, Britain’s last volume car maker has no alternative but to keep coming up with ways of freshening its range, and widening its appeal.
We’ll soon see the Indian-built supermini, CityRover, a car designed to appeal to the old Metro buyer. Importing that Tata-built model is a classic piece of opportunism – and it will probably work. In the meantime, we get Streetwise, the "urban on-roader" which sets out to convert a perfectly ordinary Rover 25 into a cool set of wheels for the younger owners.
It’s a dangerous game, courting ‘cool’ for commercial purposes. Commerce and cool are frequently like oil and water. And when I discovered that the £11,295, three-door diesel-engined S version seemed a pleasantly nuggety little car with bags of low-down torque (177lb ft at 2000rpm) and a general feeling of well-finished integrity, I was full of foreboding for what the 25-year-old driver would make of it. I’ve frequently discovered that he does not always agree with me.
Thus it was a nice surprise when the first 22-year-old I encountered reckoned he really liked the way the Streetwise looked. He didn’t blanch too much at the price either. Then a group of three were clustered around it when I left it in a shopping centre car park. They liked it as well, and one wanted to sit behind the wheel. These were good omens.
In essence, Rover has taken a bog-standard Rover 25, raised it an inch on its suspension, kit it with bigger wheels and tyres, and generally give it the "Allroad" treatment with plastic mouldings across the nose and grille, additional wheelarch mouldings and side rubbing strips, plus tough-looking strakes under the nose and tail.
There are short roof-rails, too, but there is absolutely no sign of the 4x4 system that goes into most soft-roaders – hence the jokey, but not unappealing, urban on-roader tag. Inside, there are various neat and thoughtful details: some brightwork on the dash, a fat gearknob, good-looking seats with generous side bolstering and individual seats in the rear, instead of the ordinary Rover 25 bench.
There are three models: standard, S and SE. The basic three-door starts at an impressive £9295 and is powered by an 83bhp, 1.4-litre version of Rover’s ubiquitous K-series petrol engine. For higher-spec models there’s a choice of the same engine in 102bhp form, or a 100bhp L-series direct-injection turbodiesel.
The base model comes with 15in steel wheels, and looks rather ‘steady’, but the others look impressive on their 16in blade alloys. Equipment is rather sparse: you have to be in an SE (starting at £11,295 for the base three-door) to get air conditioning.
On the road, Streetwise continues to benefit from the inherently decent handling and ride qualities of the standard Rover 25 and MG ZR (its ride rates split the difference between the two) and though it’s been raised a bit, it doesn’t feel the least bit ‘topply’.
The standard 25 is such a low car, that raising it for Streetwise only really puts you on an equal eye-level with people in Micras and Seat Ibizas. The ride’s quite good, too, though lumpier at low speeds than the standard 25. The steering is quick but rather lifeless; the brakes are powerful.