In 1968, BMW was catapulted into the American consciousness with the now-legendary 2002 two-door sedan. In the years since, Car and Driver’s review of the car by David E. Davis has become the urtext of modern automotive journalism — the “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Right off the bat, Davis concludes:
“The BMW 2002 may be the first car in history to successfully bridge the gap between the diametrically-opposed automotive requirements of the wildly romantic car nut, on one hand, and the hyperpragmatic people at Consumer Reports, on the other.”
And he’s certainly not wrong. The 2002 is a bona-fide classic, and its reputation did more to establish BMW as “The Ultimate Driving Machine” than any other Bimmer that came before it. In short, it was the first successful “sport sedan” the world had ever seen, the one that every M-car, AMG Mercedes, Cadillac V, and Audi RS, and Lexus F that’s come since would have to acknowledge. But is the 2002 the “original sport sedan” like BMW claims? Did BMW really invent the segment?
It didn’t. The sport sedan as we know it came from the criminally forgotten brand Borgward. That car was the 1955-’61 Isabella TS, a 75 horsepower two-door that could hit 100 with a strong tailwind and go from zero to 60 in around 15 seconds – serious sports car numbers for its day. But it all went wrong for Borgward, closing its doors 54 years ago amid a scandal that’s become the most interesting conspiracy theories in automotive history. Now it’s back, with an all-new SUV that aims to pick up right where it left off: taking BMW head on.
In 1960, Borgward was the fifth largest automaker in Germany, and had a slowly growing foothold in the North American market. But after experiencing financial problems that year, a feature appeared in the popular German magazine Der Spiegel declaring that it was on the verge of collapse. Other outlets ran with the story, the company’s lines of credit were shut off by the banks in a panic, a supervisory board was appointed by the Bremen senate, and by September 1961, Borgward had closed its doors for good. As its creditors were paid off in full, the panic that took it down proved to be unfounded – the company had 4.5 million Marks left in the bank after all was said and done.
But there’s more to the story than that. At the time, BMW was Borgward’s closest competitor, and after an emergency restructuring in 1959, was in an equally precarious financial position. Even then, the senate’s appointment of Johannes Semler to the advisory board was seen as an odd choice – as he was already a member of BMW’s board. And BMW’s Neue Klasse cars, which appeared shortly after Borgward’s demise, were set to directly compete with the next-generation Isabella. It wouldn’t make sense to have a BMW board member work too hard on saving a rival, would it?
It could all be just a coincidence. After all, people have analyzed the company’s business model post-mortem and found that it was nowhere near as efficient as most of its rivals. But after Borgward’s collapse, many of its engineers were scooped up by BMW, and both Carl Borgward’s children and former designers from the design house Frua have claimed that the plans for the next-generation Isabella were stolen during the company’s final days, and that they bore a striking resemblance to the world-beating 2002.
We’ll never know what really happened with Borgward, but after half a century, it makes for a fascinating whodunnit/what if story. Besides, the new Borgward wants to hark back to its sporty past, not dwell on its demise, and it sees its new SUV as the best way to reintroduce a legendary brand to 21st century car buyers.
The new SUV, called the BX7, is a midsize five-seater with roughly the same dimensions of the Audi Q5. While the Borgwards at midcentury cut quite the dashing figure, the BX7 looks pleasantly contemporary, with a hint of Q5 at the rear, and a passing resemblance to the Buick Enclave up front. Power comes from a 2.0 liter turbo four that’s good for 200 horsepower, but a plug-in hybrid model will be available, and both will be mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission and have standard all-wheel drive.
Inside, the Borgward has all the features you’d expect from a premium SUV, like pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control, 360-degree backup camera, a 12.3-inch infotainment system, and a Wi-Fi hotspot. Since this iteration of the German automaker is backed by Chinese investors, it’ll hit Chinese showrooms early next year, with a European launch in 2017. There’s no word on whether we’ll get the Borgward over here, but it doesn’t seem likely.
While the BX7’s understated styling may not turn heads, its price will. In Germany, it’s expected to start at around $30,000, which undercuts its rivals from BMW and Audi by nearly $10,000. If it can match BMW and Audi on quality and performance at that pricepoint, then the German SUV market is about to get a lot more interesting.
It’s great to see a legendary nameplate return to the marketplace, and we hope that it can live up to the standards of affordable luxury and performance that made Borgward so special all those years ago. We’re hoping that the company’s next act will be a 21st century take on the Isabella.
Follow Derek on Twitter @CS_DerekS