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Car Guy Diary – 3/19/2013 – Wheels of Clay (Photos)

Doesn't look like a performance legend, but it goes like one.
Doesn't look like a performance legend, but it goes like one.
Bart R. Orlans

When people we admire have hidden (and not so hidden) flaws, we say they have feet of clay. Can the same thing be said of cars? Do some cars that have long been admired, even made legends, have wheels of clay? Let’s find out by comparing a legend to a daily driver with few admirers.

First, the legend. Most folks don’t need to be introduced to BMW. The German brand has been making some of the best performance cars on the road for decades. The legend of the current cars coming out of BMW factories started in 1968 with the 2002 model. This compact sport sedan became the blueprint for future BMW sport sedans and was a much copied performance package.

With a curb weight of 2,183-pounds and a respectable 99 horsepower rating from its 2-liter single overhead cam four-cylinder engine, the 2002 offered sprightly performance that eclipsed the small sports car that were so popular at the time. The fully independent suspension allowed for a supple, yet controlled ride and enabled the 2002 to generate .710-g of lateral acceleration on the skid pad. In other words it rode and handled better than many sports cars of the day as well.

So there was acceleration, ride and handling…everything a sports car should have, but with the added bonus of a practical 2-door sedan body. BMW 2002 owners asked themselves why they should suffer to have a car that offered sports car performance. By buying this now legendary car the answer was clear, they didn’t have to.

This all sounds pretty darned good so far, right? Well, that’s how it is with legends. It sounds like the legend lives up to its reputation, but how would it cope against a pedestrian, regular Joe commuter car built 43 years later?

My daily driver is just such a car. My 2011 Chevrolet Aveo is the kind of car that, like Rodney Dangerfield, gets no respect. It is basic transportation and that’s about it…or is it? While most folks wouldn’t know an Aveo if it ran them over, the legendary BMW 2002 would do well to remember its name.

2011 was the final year for the Aveo and Chevrolet (well, Daewoo since it is made in Korea) had the car pretty much down to a science. It was the smallest, least expensive car to wear a Chevy emblem in America that year. It would be difficult to imagine how the BMW would have anything to worry about from an econobox with uncertain parentage but time and technology have come a long way since the 2002 first hit the streets.

With a curb weight of 2,543-pounds, the Aveo squeezes 103 horsepower out of 1.5-liters thanks to double overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, fuel injection, a dual-path intake manifold and a computer controller with the brainpower to launch an Apollo moon mission. While its suspension system is not quite as sophisticated as the BMWs, it is still able to generate .74-g of lateral acceleration on the skid pad, besting the legend in cornering power.

And what about the rest of the performance picture? Well, the BMW gets to 60 MPH half a second faster than the Aveo, 9.7-seconds to 10.2, and two tenths of a second quicker in the quarter mile, but that’s about all the BMW can best the Aveo at. The little Chevy gets to 100 MPH 5.6-seconds faster than the 2002, 35.7-seconds versus 41.3. The Aveo, even with its significantly smaller engine and higher weight, has a higher top speed, 110 MPH to 107 MPH. The Aveo also gets better gas mileage.

So, does the legend have wheels of clay? Is this even a fair comparison? In both cases, it depends. There have been two big changes since the BMW 2002 was building it, and BMWs reputation. First, technology has made huge leaps forward. 106 horsepower out of a measly 98 cubic inches was the stuff of racing cars back when the Bimmer was new. Today, every economy car, including the Aveo, can make that kind of power and then some from very small engines. All of the other technology that is spilling over from the Aveos little cup are things the old BMW could only dream of in 1968. That technology has made economy cars impressive performers that shame old performance cars in most ways.

The other thing that has changed are our expectations. New cars need to be trouble free, need no adjustments or tuning and run for way over 100,000 miles without a single problem. Again, the BMW wasn’t built to that standard, and neither were any other cars at that time.

So to answer the question, no, the legend does not have wheels of clay, but the average car has gotten so much better, it only looks, drives, accelerates and tops out like it does.


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