Twin test XJ40 vs. Rover 800 - two of the most important British executive cars of their era were launched in 1986, both dispensing with tradition to appeal to a rapidly evolving market. But which was best? Words Craig Cheetham. Photography Paul Walton.
XJ40 vs Rover 800 - British executive saloons of the Eighties go head-to-head
Launched in 1986, both followed a considerable gap in launches by their manufactures, both dispensed with tradition to appeal to a rapidly evolving market, and both had a chequered history. We discover which is the better car today.
If there is one area of the classic car market that’s booming at the moment, it’s cars from the Eighties. Nostalgia has undergone a sea change of late, and well preserved and smartly presented cars are big news, even bread-and-butter models, although there’s nothing bread-and butter about the Jaguar XJ40 or Rover 827. In their day, they were desirable objects, competing at the very pinnacle of the executive car market.
The XJ40 was a long time in gestation. Work began on the XJ Series replacement as early as 1972, and some of its styling cues were already apparent on studies created in 1973, a whole 13 years before the XJ40 made its motor show debut. Its protracted development was down to a lack of budget and political infighting within British Leyland, Jaguar’s owner at the time. Jaguar’s engineering team, led by ‘Lofty’ England, had bold plans. The XJ40 would have a choice of V12 or slant-six engines, the latter derived from the former.
Both cars have a following today, the XJ40 having finally come of age to be considered a ‘proper’ Jaguar, and the 800 as an icon of the Eighties
The first stumbling block, ironically, was Rover. Also owned by British Leyland, the brand was developing its own XJ rival before Jaguar was drawn into the fold, and the first decision that BL had to make was which one to go with. Rover’s P8 was a long wheelbase saloon with styling reminiscent of the popular P6, but, much to the annoyance of the company’s senior management, BL’s chief, Donald Stokes, decided to ditch the project as he didn’t want the two brands to compete directly.
By the time the XJ40 appeared in 1986, Jaguar was once again an independent entity and Rover returned to its previous status as the flagship brand of the newly renamed Austin-Rover Group. Just up the road from Browns Lane, at Canley, Rover’s engineering team was working on a massive project to reinvent the brand. The mission had begun in 1981 with the Triumph Acclaim, which was essentially a Honda Ballade, rebadged and manufactured at the former Morris factory in Cowley, Oxford. The Acclaim was then replaced by the Rover 200, consigning the Triumph brand to the history books, and this time there was some Rover mechanical engineering in there, too, although the car was essentially still the next generation Ballade. The 800, though, was the first project to be wholly developed as a collaboration between the two brands.
Its Japanese equivalent, the Honda Legend, shared the same platform, electrical systems and powertrains, but the two cars had different bodywork. Under the bonnet, Rover provided its M-Series 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine, and Honda a choice of 2.5- or 2.7-litre V6s.
Had Rover not rushed the Cowley-built 800 into production (against Honda’s advice), it would have been a brilliant car. The styling, penned by Roy Axe, was brilliant: simple, clean and exceptionally modern, with well-balanced proportions. The interior, too, looked great – at least in pictures, where some of the cheaper plastics were less conspicuous. And while it was nowhere near as composed as the XJ40 to drive, it was still a decent steer. Both cars have a following today, the XJ40 having finally come of age to be considered a ‘proper’ Jaguar even by the most hardened traditionalists, and the 800 as an icon of the Eighties. The challenge – as much now as then – is choosing between the two.
The Eighties was a fashion-conscious decade, and each of these cars is evocative of the era.
The Rover is more thrusting and dynamic – adjectives that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with the brand in a modern context, but in 1986 people still had memories of iconic Rovers such as the P6 and SD1, and the 800 was worthy of that lineage. In lower trim levels, it looked quite plain, but V6 models with alloy wheels and smart interiors were desirable and handsome cars. It was these 800s that competed with the XJ40.
The four-cylinder models were much cheaper and largely aimed at fleet customers, but an 827, especially in ‘Sterling’ trim, was an exceptionally plush vehicle. Our test car is an 827Si, a slightly lower trim derivative with velour upholstery, but still well-equipped and stylish, with the largest-capacity engine.
The XJ40, meanwhile, wasn’t shy of looking backwards with its traditional profile, although that does beg the question that if development work on the XJ40 had started in the Eighties, might it have looked quite different? We’re glad it didn’t.
The car we have here is a base model, albeit with alloys from a later Sovereign and leather trim, along with a 4.0-litre engine. All were offered as factory options, and it was the entry-level XJ40 that was closest on price to a high-end Rover 800.
One of the biggest evolutions in car design of the Eighties was in interiors, with increasingly stylish, upmarket cabins that were aided by huge leaps forward in injection moulding, which allowed car manufacturers to make the most of some far more advanced shapes.
Whereas, previously, doors and dashboards were separate, in the Eighties interior design started to integrate them, and the Rover 800 is a great example of this. It has an avant-garde dashboard, which curves around to meet the top of the door cards, enveloping the driver within a proper cockpit. It retains a modest amount of wood trim, but far less than upmarket Rovers of old, while the seats are firm and supportive. They feel a little hard and unwelcoming at first, but are extremely supportive over a long journey.
The Jaguar, on the other hand, is much more traditional. The cabin is instantly more inviting, with high-quality veneers and supple leather, while the seats are armchair soft. It’s a more serene environment and one that’s very easy to get used to, but the ergonomic layout is less intuitive than that of the Rover.
The Rover is the more practical, too. The XJ40 lacks leg- and headroom in the rear, while the boot is long but shallow, meaning it won’t swallow large boxes.
The fleet market was much more important for Rover than Jaguar, so the 800 is more useful as a result, with a vast, deep luggage compartment and excellent rear legroom. In terms of packaging, it’s streets ahead. But it’s the Jaguar that is the more pleasant place to sit.
The Jaguar has a significantly bigger engine, so you’d expect it to be the livelier of the two cars here, but, while it certainly aces the Rover on paper, it’s far more closely run from behind the wheel. The XJ40 feels just like a Jaguar should. There’s power in spades, but it is set up so that you only have to use that power if you need to; it has a long, progressive throttle response and it only truly wakes up if you bury the pedal. If you’re pottering about town, it is wonderfully smooth and serene, unlike some large-engined cars that are overeager to transfer their power to the tarmac.
By contrast, the Rover has a sharp throttle and it takes off quickly from the line, the Honda-sourced automatic gearbox and programmed fuel-injection working to give an immediate response. It’s less eager as you put the power down because, like many Japanese engines, it doesn’t reach its peak output until higher in the rev range. That means it’s great fun to drive quickly, but it isn’t necessarily the mild-mannered executive you’d expect – you have to work it hard to get the best out of it. On the plus side, when you do, it gifts you with an amazing engine note. The V6 is smooth, but also an aural delight, which makes pressing on far more pleasurable than it should be. Despite being a big car, it also feels extremely light. The steering is, if anything, over-assisted, but the body control is excellent for such a big car, with a firm ride and impressive levels of grip.
The Jaguar is softer, more wallowy. It doesn’t feel as assured at first, but when you get used to its characteristically supple ride, you soon discover that the chassis is, in fact, really well set-up, with a perfect balance between grip and ride quality. The steering is far better, too, with more weight to it without feeling overly heavy.
Henry Smith’s car, tested here, is as good as an XJ40 gets. With less than 60,000 miles on the clock and recently renewed suspension bushes, it feels immeasurably better to drive than many XJ40s on the market.
In essence, then, these are two very different cars that were built to serve the same purpose, and each has elements of its character that are endearing in their own way. The key to enjoying them is to find a good one, as a ropey example of either can very quickly turn into a money pit.
Both are prone to corrosion, especially on earlier models. Later examples of each are much hardier, though the scarcity of good early examples makes a decent one of either quite collectable these days. Both are prone to electrical maladies, the Jaguar more so than the Rover. Again, later examples of each are far better, so there’s a lesson here: both cars were under-developed when new.
Mechanically, there is little to choose between them. The Honda 2.7 is an exceptionally reliable unit, although its cambelt changes need to be kept on top of, while the PGM-FI (programmed fuel injection) relay can occasionally lead to non-start problems. Some parts are getting hard to source now, too, although the 2.7-litre engine was used in several American Hondas and components are often easier to source from the USA.
The Jaguar AJ6 is a superb engine and one that has proven its reliability time and again. Mileages of more than 200,000 are easily attainable without major problems, though head gasket failure and water pumps are known issues.
So, what of market values? Well, just two or three years ago, you would have had a fighting chance of finding a decent XJ40 or Rover 827 for less than £1,000, but those days are gone – unless you get really lucky.
Even ropey XJ40s are worth £1,000 these days, and while rough 800s are still available for pin money, the Rover is now a much rarer car than the XJ40, and that means the good ones fetch strong money; £2,000 to £3,000 will get you a tidy one, but the very best examples are £5k and upwards.
Jaguar XJ40s have a broader spectrum of prices. It’s still possible to find a good one for between £2,000 and £3,000, but there are indifferent examples within that price range, too. It’s essential that you spend time looking for the best. Indeed, many buyers are happy to pay more than that (sometimes a lot more) for a really good one. The days of the £10,000 XJ40 are upon us, as that’s now the going rate for a superb dealer example.
Given the rapid rise in interest for these Eighties classics they’re a safe investment, as well as being interesting cars to own and drive.
So, which of the two is the best buy? Back in the day, the 800 was aspirational. It was often the car you’d buy if you couldn’t quite run to a Jaguar, but with high-end 800s and lower-trim XJ40s overlapping in price, there was a comparison in the late Eighties that is just as relevant today.
Of the two, it’s the Rover that is, arguably, the more interesting car, and it took Rover in an entirely different direction – its first front-wheel-drive large car and a massive leap forwards in terms of technology and interior design. There are some very good reasons why it was the UK’s best-selling executive car for over a decade, not least the fact that the executive car dimensions disguised what was actually quite an edgy and rewarding driving experience.
But, despite those attributes, it lacks the one thing that makes the Jaguar our winner. In 1990, Jaguar used a very clever advertising slogan for the XJ40. It read, ‘The moment you get in you know you’ve arrived,’ which sums up the XJ40’s appeal beautifully. It feels like a very opulent place to be and, despite its many and obvious flaws, there’s a wonderful sense of occasion about driving it. Every time you turn the key, it feels special. And that’s unique.
Thanks to: Henry Smith for allowing us to use his XJ40, and to James Edwards at Prime Vehicle Sales (01487 834546), where the Rover is currently for sale at £2,500