Rover revisited

Testing the latest model Rover 3500 is a little like settling down to test only a dashboard, which is really the newest thing about the vehicle apart from the somewhat patched-up styling of this hybrid from Solihull. Nevertheless, driving the 3500 is invariably something to look forward to since it contrasts so sharply with the four-cylinder cars which share the same body and basic layout.

The contrast is a double-edged sword, though, for whereas the V8 is infinitely smoother and more pleasant under the bonnet, the lighter front end provided by the less obtrusive four-banger makes for more precise and responsive handling.

By far the strongest case for the four-cylinder TC, for instance, is its handling and the fact that it has manual transmission while the 3500 is restricted to a Borg-Warner automatic (which immediately presupposes a different marketing attention). But the heron-headed four is unfashionably rough in 1971 although its reliability, durabillity und performance are well-proven points. In fact, the TC has marginally more performance in some speed ranges than the 3500 – if the driver is prepared to work his left arm to the bone playing the gearbox game, that is.

The ease with which the 3500 does its job completely vindicates the no-substitute-for-litres people´s opinion on large-displacement engines. The Rover does everything it should in this respect: swiftness, silence, comfort, good economy, no hubbub. Grafting the V8 into what is basically a four-cylinder engine compartment is no mean achievement, but the general clutter is certainly no less than it was when the 3500 made its debut back in April 1968. If anything the test car had more plumbing then the original due to the addition of the optional Adwest power steering, a device to pacify those buyers who find that they prefer to lighten their wallets (by ₤74) and steering at the same time rather than struggle with heavier steering and a heavier wallet.

I have never found the purely manual steering to be objectionably heavy, even when competing with the Saturday shoppers for parking spaces recently vacated by Minis, but I can see the attraction, specially when the 3500 has to double-up as a mum´s car. It certainly lightens the load imposed by the 185 radials and the extra front-end weight, although there is a penalty for the steering is not nearly as positive at speed as it could be – indeed, should be. I found myself sawing away at the wheel, trying to get a steady line through long bends without a great deal of success in most cases, but on the credit side the 3500 was directionally stable and did not require more than the usual amount of correction for a Rover when assailed by strong crosswinds. The need for such a large steering wheel, as traditionally fitted to Rovers, is obviated by the power steering, but it remains nevertheless. Fitment of power steering does not preclude the wheel´s rake adjustment.

Steering notwithstanding, the 3500 remains a delightfil touring car capable of steaming along all day in the high nineties with no mechanical fuss whatsoever and not much wind noise either. The ease with which the Rover moves about is deceptive but the acceleration in the upper part of the middle speed ranges – let´s say 60 to 85 mph – is not specially impressive and can, in fact, be a down-right embarrassment under some circumstances. It is roughly this range that allows the TC to score with its very useful third gear which bridges the gap left by the jump from second to top in the three-speed, automatic-only 3500. The enterprising driver can, of course, manually lock the automatic in second and achieve some 85 mph, but this takes the engine down the other side of the power curve, so there is little to be gained. A four-speed manual gearbox is what the 3500 needs, but I doubt if we will be seeing one for quite some time. Probably not even in this model´s lifespan. Despite that more obvious shortcoming, the Borg-Warner is smooth and efficient and couples extremely well to the V8. Of course, the combination is at its best around town and for taking the pain out of peak-period commuting; it is very hard to fault the Rover in these roles.

Likewise, the car´s comfort is beyond reproach, even if it is short of legroom in the back. The test car was fitted with the optional (at no extra cost!) woven nylon trim. A geat deal more comfortable and pleasant to sit upon than leather, it adds unexpected depth and warmth to the appearance of the passenger compartment, although as yet there is no way of knowing if the synthetic will be as effective in the long term as plain old-fashioned hide. However, it would be unlike Rover to act impulsively on a thing like trim material, the quality of that incorporated in the previous models having enhanced the marque´s reputation and set the standard as well.

While the use of synthetic trim could hardly be described as a fashion whim, it is hard to exactly classify the motives behind the change to such an impressive instrument display after those days of utilisation of the simple but appealing strip speedo in a modul sitting on the parcel shelf. Admittedly the old module did not say very much – speedo, distance, fuel and temperature – compared with the elaborate display now in vogue with the Rover. All very efficient and quite easy to read but with the hand of conventionalism heavily upon it. What´s more, to accommodate the large diameter speedo and matching tachometer in the new binnacle, it has been necessary to raise the top of the cowl so that the facia is slightly assymetrical. Not that this is bad to all people, but short divers find that it tends to cut off the view of the frontal extremities of the Rover just when the car is being manoeuvred into a tight parking spot. Still, it is one of those things to which one adjusts readily enough – and for which the Rover can be readily forgiven.

The question we keep asking ourselves is simply if the 3500 is too old fashioned for the 1971 market-place. It is a car that certainly has its shortcomings, specially in terms of area utilisation; it is really only a four seater with limited rear compartment space if the driver and front passenger are tall, and the luggage boot is small if it is accepted on face value. However, the fact that the spare wheel can be mounted on the optional extra attachment point on the boot lid enhances the long-distance touring potential. And, of course, the 15 gallon fuel tank means a range of around 280 miles between petrol stops. The answer to the question is that it is probably long in the tooth but no less desirable for all that. After all, its general roadability is superior to many of the tin boxes of comparable price and the comfort and finish are just about what most people would expect for the money.

What is undeniably satisfactory about the 3500 is its enormously secure feeling, the all-disc braking system, the suspension that does not get fussed on secondary French roads at the same time as providing good predictable handling and – if not sensational – roadholding. Really pressed, the Rover leans its body quite a lot and finally breaks its back wheels loose in an easily corrected slide. Although it no doubt happens, the Rover is one of those cars which should be hard to loose under most circumstances, but not impossible under extreme conditions or as the result of excessive bravado.

Since CAR first tested the 3500, its price has risen from ₤1791 to its present ₤2149 which seems to be the standard upwards spiral these days. Even so, it still represents good buying in the prestige stakes if that is the sort of beastie that takes your fancy

Top speed 114 mph

0-60 mph 10,1 sec.

fuel consumption 18,3 mpg

UK 1971