Joe Montana or Tom Brady? Madonna or Lady Gaga? The first love or the new flame? It’s in our nature to look in the rearview mirror, to measure the brightness of the present against the best of the past. It’s no different with car enthusiasts. For all the areas in which automobiles have improved — safety, performance, efficiency, reliability—they still live in the shadow of the past. The great thing about cars, though, is that we don’t have to rely solely on our memories. We’ll never know how twenty-eight-year-old Michael Jordan would have fared against twenty-eight-year-old LeBron James, but we can find well-kept classic cars—the icons that enthusiasts worship — and pit them against their modern equivalents. That’s just what we did with these seven matchups. It’s throttle cables versus direct injection. AM radios versus infotainment screens. Old-car patina versus new-car smell. So, was it really better then? Come back next Thursday for the next entry in this series.
The oldest car I’ve ever driven is a 1938 BMW 320 that belongs to the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville. That 320, with its robust straight six, felt incredibly modern given its vintage. The 1972 2002tii we’ve borrowed doesn’t feel as ageless, perhaps because the expectations are so high for a car that is central to BMW’s mystique, a car that Automobile Magazine founder David E. Davis, Jr., anointed as the beginning of a new movement.
Don’t get me wrong — you definitely do not want your girlfriend to have coffee with a guy who drives a 2002, because if she does she won’t be coming back. How did an object this perfect exist in the age of linoleum-floored, opera-windowed, cotton-poly crappiness?
Aesthetics and functionality are sometimes independent entities, however. For one thing, the 2002 is sized for a race of smaller creatures. This 2002tii’s slender key has a hinge in it, and I worry that I’m going to inadvertently twist it off in the ignition. I could snap the window crank and door handle like uncooked pieces of linguine. The tires are 165/13s. In contrast to all this daintiness, the unassisted steering is like arm-wrestling Ernest Hemingway at a bar in Havana.
You can adjust speed purely with the throttle. Let off the gas at 85 mph and engine braking takes over as the 125-hp 2.0-liter winds down below 4000 rpm with a palpable sigh of relief. On the highway, I repeatedly drop my hand to the shifter to go for fifth gear before remembering that there isn’t one. Body roll recalls my dog when he’s looking for a belly rub.
But you’ve got to remember that the ur-model of anything is usually improved upon. I used to own a 1979 323i, and even that buzz bomb was far more modern than the 2002. Fast-forward a few more decades, and the M235i retains the essential intimacy of the 2002 — the 4-series’ motorized seatbelt presenters are unneeded here — but brings performance that would trump BMW’s first supercar, the M1. The BMW turbocharged straight six remains one of the very best engines you can wish for beneath the hood of your car.
Yes, the 2002 laid down the formula, but its successors improved upon it. I mean, the 2002 has a warning light labeled “brake failure.” Brake failure needed its own light?
The M235i is a better car in every way, even if it doesn’t offer the element of rebellion that the 2002 had going for it. It’s impossible that it could, since it picks up a thread that started in the 1960s.
The 2002 was the first of its line, a revolutionary machine that won a new audience for BMW and established a formula that was constantly refined over successive decades. That description will never fit the 2-series. But it just might apply to the i3.
- 2.0L I-4, 125 hp, 130 lb-ft
- 3.0L turbo I-6, 320 hp, 330 lb-ft
- 4-speed manual
- 6-speed manual
- Curb Weight
- 2300 lb
- 3505 lb
- $4470 ($25,000 after inflation)
- Value Today: