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The Sterling 825 Was an Acura Legend Without the Reliability

It should have been so sweet: America loved Acuras. America loved Britain. So why wouldn’t America love an Acura from Britain?

In my last installment, I talked about how British Leyland (later Rover Group) discovered the secret of rebadging and reskinning Hondas in order to sell decently built cars to the British public. We discussed the Ballade-based Triumph Acclaim, the Concerto-based 200 and the Accord-based 600, but I left out one very important Rover: the 800. See the Acura Legend models for sale near you

The 800 was based on the Acura Legend, sold in the UK as a Honda. (Back then, the Legend nameplate was spread out across the trunk lid, leading my colleagues at the British magazine where I worked to refer to it as the “Leg End”.) As with the 600, the 800’s sheet metal and interior trim were developed by Rover, and body-style choices included a slick-looking hatchback version, as well as the standard saloon (Brit-speak for “sedan”). Unlike the 600 — and once you read the rest of this sentence, you won’t need to read the rest of the story, because you’ll see exactly where it’s headed — British Leyland also supplied the electrical system.

The 800 did well in Britain, a popular alternative to full-size cars from Ford and GM and a low-cost alternative to the big Germans. The 800 also saw success as a cop car (and owing to its size relative to other vehicles in the market, it’s probably the closest thing the Brits have ever had to a Crown Vic). All was going swimmingly, so British Leyland (by then known as the Rover Group) decided to export the car to the United States.

Cue the sad trombone.

The Rover 825 came to the U.S. in 1987 under the Sterling brand name. Initially, U.S. buyers were intrigued — remember, this was at the height of Reagan-Thatcher cooperation, and just a few years after Prince Charles and Princess Di got hitched. The UK was cool in the U.S., and buyers were enticed by the wood-trimmed dash, the leather-lined seats and the slick fastback body not offered on the U.S.-market Acura Legend. Besides, the engine and the mechanical bits were from Honda. How bad could it be?

How many tragedies have begun with that same question?

Here’s the problem: Brits and Americans have very different standards of quality. I remember a long-term wrap-up of a Daihatsu Charade at our British mag — this would have been a few years later, in 1993 — and the staffers were amazed that it started on the first try every morning for 365-or-so days straight. In the U.S. during the late ’80s, we were wrapping up a decade of some of the worst domestic cars ever made. We had seen our V8 engines drop from 350 to 150 horsepower and been subjected to several laughable (and ultimately failed) attempts by Detroit to design a halfway-decent 4-cylinder front-wheel-drive car. We had discovered the Japanese, so we no longer needed to put up with poor build quality. Plainly put, what passed for decent build quality in Britain was pathetic in the U.S.

And so it went with the Sterling 825. Trim fell off. Electricals failed. The paintwork was terrible. And after a few short years, the car started to rust. Contemporary J.D. Power surveys told the story: The Sterling was near the bottom, while the Acura Legend was near the top. One of the unique selling points of the Sterling, by the way, was the Sterling Plus Motor Club, which offered hotel accommodations for stranded owners — one marvels that Rover didn’t go bankrupt from the lodging bills.

Rover attempted to address the quality issues, but Americans, once bitten, were twice shy. Sterling sold over 14,000 cars in 1987 but less than 6,000 in ’89. By 1991, Rover was offering a $6,000 rebate on Sterlings, and still Americans stayed away in droves. A year later, Rover gave up on the Sterling.

Still, Rover didn’t go back to the UK with its tail between its legs. At the same time as the automaker brought the Sterling to the U.S., it also started importing the Range Rover, which went on to become a huge success … perhaps because you couldn’t buy a better one at an Acura dealership. Find an Acura Legend for sale

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  1. The most humorous characteristic of our silver 87 825 was that, as it rusted, the emblems on the bonnet and boot self destructed so you could not tell what it was. The car was actually trying to hide it’s identity. I fixed that by applying several pounds of bondo, some paint and a couple brand new Rover “Viking Ship” emblems bought while in England. Bad solder joints, bad tranny, door latch springs just broke in half, engine ran great and the wife loved it to the end. The buyer loved it too, even after honestly explaining everything wrong with it and telling him not to ever top off the fuel tank because it leaked.

  2. I bought one in 1988 and loved it. I realized that the brand wouldn’t last in the US because the US dealers were killing the factory. I took the car in for first scheduled oil change and the dealer kept it for a week. He changed out the radiator, the wood trim in the interior and replaced the driver’s seat. None of this work was needed but they charged the factory for all of it. I was astonished that Leyland had such disloyal dealers.

  3. I inherited a beautiful Sterling and they indeed are beautiful inside and out. When my father bought the car they offered 0% financing and we all were impressed with the Acura engine, which was awesome. The legendary Rover reputation of lasting power was also encouraging. As the article says….over time about 5 to 10 years electrical problems started showing up. I shared this with a friend that owned a Land Rover and at the time she was really struggling with the same type of thing. Eventually Land Rover worked out the kinks as far as I know but the Sterling was abandoned. I sold the car to a mechanic that was excited about fixing the issues I had and is interested in preserving it.

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