When people talk about the sports sedan, the first car to come to most people’s mind is the BMW 3 series. It has been a dominant leader in the segment for decades, and when you look back to the car that started it all you can see why. More than 40 years ago BMW introduced the Neue Klasse sedan, a sports sedan designed to bring the enjoyment of driving to many by way of a useful everyday car with performance and style. Since the first BMW 2002 rolled off the line in 1968, the demand for sport sedans has been strong though few carmakers actually succeed in creating a truly sporty sedan.

Since the beginning, European car companies have been the dominant force in the sports sedan field. From the long list of great entries out of Europe, a few stand out as the notable benchmarks in the class. Fellow German car maker Mercedes Benz have been building competing sports sedans since the 80’s, starting with the W201 model 190E. Over-engineered and built with good driving dynamics in mind the 190E was Stuttgart’s answer to the BMW E30 3 Series. The 190E saw racing duty and special versions built with Cosworth engines and unique body kits. As an answer to the BMW M3, the Mercedes Benz 190E Evolution II made a big impact in enthusiasts’ opinions of the Stuttgart-based company’s ability to make a compelling sports sedan. This would carry over to the C-Class vehicles and their subsequent AMG performance models, like the C32 and C63 AMG to competed against future BMW M3 models.

Mercedes was not the only German brand breaking into the sports sedan arena. Audi has been working at the sports sedan class since the late 80s with nowhere near the same success at first as its German rivals. Relying on the age old American tradition of stuffing a V8 in a small car, Audi built the S4 around the idea that a small sports sedan with a big engine and all wheel drive could muscle its way into people’s hearts. Even with racing success in America, the S4 wasn’t as big a hit as the BMW and Mercedes Benz counterparts and it would not be until the B5 in the early 2000’s that Audi would pick up steam in the sports sedan segment.

Over in Japan, the sports sedan segment took on a different shape. In an era when Japanese car makers were masters of the front wheel drive (FWD) architecture, Honda and Nissan were building their sports sedans on FWD platforms. Nissan graduated the Datsun 510 to the Nissan Maxima, a car that would get the 4 Door Sports Sedan (4DSC) label. Nissan used the VG line of engines from the 300ZX coupe in the Maxima to produce respectable performance for the late 80’s and early 90’s. Carrying on for 30 years, Nissan kept the Maxima 4DSC as a high output V6 with FWD, but size would grow each generation eventually moving the sedan upmarket and out of the sports sedan field.

It would take until the late 1980s for the US automakers to catch on to the concept and enter the sports sedan segment. Ford made its first attempt at entering the segment with a modified version of its uber-popular family hauler, the Taurus, with the Super High Output (SHO) edition. The model’s following grew into the 1990’s as the SHO was a fast and agile sports sedan with a high strung Cosworth V6 with Yamaha heads that would allow the mill to scream to a 7,000 RPM redline, and featured a 5 speed manual to drive the front wheels. Beyond the SHO, American car makers wouldn’t hit any notable homeruns until Cadillac introduced the ATS in 2012. A small RWD sedan with a peppy inline 4 and V6 offering, the ATS was the first true sports sedan to take on the king aka BMW 3-series. With the 2016 ATS-V’s performance numbers closing the gap on even BMW’s coveted M-badged 3-series and with the huge amounts of praise it’s received from the press, it appears that the age of the American sports sedan has started with numerous other models now entering the segment such as Buick’s Regal GS, Chevrolet’s SS, Ford’s Fusion Sport and Taurus SHO and even the extremely satisfying Tesla Model S.

The last couple years has seen an explosion in the sports sedan market and it has grown to one of the hottest segments for automakers to join. It seems as if today all major players have joined the race to building the ultimate sports sedan, but even with all the competition in the space, we will never forget that it all began with a small German car built to drive like no other vehicle on the road; and having the term “Sports Sedan” coined for its uniqueness to everything else in the market, it’s easy to see why Clarion Builds chose the BMW 2002 as its first project.

Alyson Yarberry