Take a cynical approach and you might say the new Rover Streetwise is a cosmetic make-over and a relatively low-cost way to extract extra life from an old model.
But, on the other hand, this latest off-beat version of the Rover 200/25 hatchback is a good idea that works soundly while creating more than usual attention.
More to the point, the car drives well, especially in 2.0-litre turbo diesel form.
MG Rover, however, sees the New Zealand future for the Streetwise lying more with the 1.8-litre DOHC K-series petrol version with six-speed sequential auto transmission.
That reflects Kiwi buyers' reticence about diesel cars rather than any slur on the L-series direct injection diesel motor which packs considerably more torque than the petrol engined versions.
The good thing about the diesel Streetwise is that you jump behind the wheel and immediately feel at home.
Okay, so this may be mid-1990s technology, but the car is a remarkably useful tool around town, offering smooth, highly flexible performance and good all-round visibility.
The evaluation model was fitted with optional rear park distance sensors, a $750 extra that is worth its weight in gold for manoeuvring in the city.
Sure the single overhead cam, two valves per cylinder Rover diesel is older, harsher and noisier than the BMW common rail unit used in the Rover 75 and BMW 3-Series. But the motor does have an intercooler between the turbo and inlet manifold plus the advance of electronic diesel control (EDC).
It's an instant starter, pulling high gears at slow speeds and the generous 77kW of power at 4200rpm equates to solid acceleration. Turbo response is somewhat abrupt when the wick is turned up but the creamy 210Nm of torque at 2000 revs makes the Streetwise remarkably tractable.
The five-speed manual gearbox is both smooth and positive, and the car is high geared to the tune that the engine is spinning at a modest 2220rpm at 100km/h in top gear. So you can expect to go a long way on a tankful.
In the official combined fuel cycle, the diesel averages 6.0 litres/100km (47.1mpg) but the car does even better than that on a diet of mainly open roads.
The L-series engine inherits features from the K family, including internal crankcase breathing passages for clean, leak-free operation, hydraulic tappets and low servicing costs. Toothed belt drives for the camshaft need only be replaced every 150,000 kilometres.
In the 1990s, Rover New Zealand was disappointed by slow sales of the Rover 220SDi diesel so it's understandable that the new regime envisages higher demand for the petrol version. But, for our money, the diesel wins all round.
Consumers always had difficulty reconciling the origins of the 200 series, with most believing the car to be little more than a rebadged Honda. Indeed, some of the car's features hark at Japanese origins.
Yet apart from three minor Honda parts, the 200/25 and Streetwise models are totally Rover. When the 200 was launched in 1996 it was the most "Rover" Rover since the 1980 Metro, and it went on to become known as the 25 series while Rover faced considerable turmoil. Where the Streetwise will sit in the local market is less clear since the car lacks any direct rivals. The well-equipped petrol version carries a retail price of $35,990, a figure that also buys a fair range of new product, while the special order diesel is likely to cost a little more.
It was always a good-looking car as evidenced by the fact that the model still looks fresh and tidy today.
In five-door form, the 200 looks more balanced and larger but both versions have a youthful appearance. The Rover is especially attractive from three-quarters rear, and there's a cosy, purposeful look about its body.
Front and rear overhangs are short, tracks are wide and a wheel at each corner generates a strong stance. Rover never wanted the original 200 series to have predictable styling and the Streetwise continues this theme.
The car is comfortable and reasonably roomy, although rear seat legroom is limited. Despite a seat height adjuster, the driving position is still too high and room between the steering wheel rim and seat squab remains tight - always a complaint on the 200.
Yet the Sebring sports front seats with black leather side bolsters and cloth centres are comfortable and supportive.
There's a revised Viking ship Rover badge on the bonnet and steering wheel and some special trim to give a lift to the looks of the already well-designed facia and gear lever surround.
Roof rails, leather-bound steering wheel and gear knob, air-conditioning, ABS with electronic brake distribution and 16-inch Blade alloy wheels are standard but it's likely the exterior will attract most attention.
The new tough, moulded bumpers and grille section, plus the matching grey rear bumper sections increase overall length slightly to 3980mm, but naturally there's no change to the 2505mm wheelbase.
Claimed to be scratch-resistant, the solid grey bumpers make the car look aggressive and presumably will be better equipped to cope with the rigours of urban warfare.
As if we needed to know that life can be pretty tough out there in the city.
Designers set out to make the Streetwise look more purposeful by increasing the suspension height by 80mm. That takes the car's height to 1495mm. The downside is a small fall-off in ride and handling.
Start to push the Streetwise through a corner and the car moves around more than the squatter 200/25.
In a way, it offers more fun at more modest speeds and maybe that's no bad thing in a world where stereotypes are the norm.
Of course, if you're expecting four-wheel drive and off-road ability, then this Rover isn't for you. It may look like it's ready to head for the boondocks but it's a straight forward, two-wheel driven, front-drive hatchback with no penchant for the rough stuff.
Many owners of four-wheel drives have absolutely no desire to clamber up muddy tracks or over farmland, preferring the simple image of an off-roader with its tall, strong stance. That's why car makers like Toyota build a 2WD version of the RAV4.
Rover makes no claims about the Streetwise being able to deviate from the highway, preferring to label the car an "urban on-roader". You could interpret that as somewhat meaningless but, let's face it, many cars are driven by fashion and style rather than function and form.
Most people will actually think you're driving a four-wheel-drive and if you want to complete the image and get a kick out of slapping some mud along the car's flanks, then why not? Just don't expect the Streetwise to become a best seller because there won't be enough people to agree with you.
by Donn Anderson.