Once you dive off Skyline Boulevard and onto Alpine Road, the rest of the 2002 comes into play. The unassisted worm-and-roller steering is very accurate, a remarkable thing in the days when not much was expected from a strut-type front suspension. At the same time, the steering is also remarkably slow, so you need your best rally-car hand discipline to windlass the oversize wheel back and forth to follow the tight, deeply cambered corners through the redwoods. The 2002 prefers to track through the corners, letting its steel-belted, 165HR-13 Michelin radial tires (originally an extra-cost option) do all the work, but if you jump on the brakes too late and stand the car on its nose, the semitrailing arms of the rear suspension will toe out and let the back of the car slither sideways. This combination of slow but accurate steering and a rear suspension that can be eager to deliver directional assist went on to define the BMW 3-series until the 1990s.
Only the diehards noticed when the 2002 disappeared after 1976. Altogether, about 400,000 cars with the 2002 designation were built before production stopped in July 1976, just about the number of 3-series that BMW now builds in a year. Only 86,887 2002s were sold in the United States. The rampant currency inflation of the early 1970s had made the 2002 seem very expensive, and few people seemed disappointed when the 320i replaced it, although the new car proved to be heavy, slow, and lacking in personality. For a while, 2002 loyalists inspired a big market for high-bolstered sport seats and small-diameter steering wheels, but when the 1980s arrived and everyone had money, sales of 3-series BMWs boomed as 2002s were left to rust into oblivion behind college fraternity houses.
Today the 3-series is BMW's public face around the world, but its character still has much to do with the 2002--the impression of functional German engineering, the swell of power from a smooth-running engine, the communicative steering, and the supple ride. Yet there are times that this spirit of the 2002 seems a little too deep inside the modern3-series, as if it has been overwhelmed by thirty years of sedan-think, an ever-increasing burden of leather-upholstered, electronically distilled this and all-weather, triple-variable that. When the 2002 was new, it called out to young drivers, and every weekend you would see several of them on Skyline Boulevard, just back from an adventure in the cool, green light beneath the redwoods.
BMW won its reputation in the 1960s because its cars were comfortable, practical, and easy to drive--in addition to being just plain fast. This is the combination that defines BMW. Yet the balance between comfort and performance is a delicate one, and the modern 3-series is in danger of tipping the scales in the wrong direction as it becomes ever larger, ever more complicated, and ever faster. More horsepower might not be the answer. It might be good to think of the 2002 as the balance point, a sedan with the simplicity and soul of a sports car. That's what first led Americans to turn their hymnals to verse 2002, just as our founder, David E. Davis, Jr., famously noted in 1968.