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Smaller. Lighter. Better.

April 21, 2007

With gas prices what they are these days, and with efficiency commanding a premium all its own, it is a frustrating and lamentable fact that our cars keep getting bigger.  Look, for example, at the current Honda Civic, a "compact" car which is bigger than an Accord of ten years ago.  Or take the BMW 3-Series.  A 2007 335i weighs in at approximately 3,950 lbs.  That is approximately 200 lbs heavier than a 1997 540i.  There are plenty of other examples out there.  The Toyota RAV4, the Ford Explorer, and just about any compact pickup.  The current Dodge Dakota is, believe it or not, every bit as big as the iconic 1994 Dodge Ram.

There are many factors to blame for this constant bloating.  One would be the constant game of oneupsmanship, with every automaker striving to deliver best-in-class legroom, headroom, passenger space, or what have you.  Another would be the additional weight of safety features.  Airbags are pretty light, but the miles of cabling, the traction control systems, strengthened door beams, and other bits add up.  You can also blame sound-deadening materials, more and more elaborate sound systems, navigation displays, and all the computer hardware necessary to run them.  Even the green movement packs on the pounds, unless you want to fool yourself into believing that those electric motors, battery packs, and various pieces of hardware mean nothing.

In light of this size and weight gain, I find it impressive that the industry has realized the efficiency gains it has.  Today’s porky BMW 335i manages a fuel economy of 21/29 miles per gallon.  The lighter 1997 540i, by comparison, managed 18/24.  In human terms, that would be akin to gaining twenty pounds and being able to not only run a faster mile, but to burn less calories doing so.

Just imagine the gains that could be realized if these cars were put on a diet.

Well, one of them is.  Sort of.

I’m referring to the BMW 1-Series.  Already on sale in 5-door and 3-door trim in Europe, it will be making its way to our shores next year as a two-door, honest-to-goodness coupe.

What makes the 1-Series so special?  The first is that it is smaller and lighter than a 3-Series.  The second is that it is every bit as much a BMW.  It rides on its own dedicated platform and cuts none of the corners that previous entry-lux rides such as the BMW 318ti and Cadillac Catera did.  The third?1seriesrender_2

The third reason the 1-Series is so special is its engine lineup.  Rather than giving it to us with some little four-banger, BMW has said it will arrive in the U.S. with the same engine lineup as the 3-Series.  Which means we can expect the inline-six and the new, 300-hp twin-turbo six out of the 335i, in a smaller, lighter, more affordable package.

Okay, so it would mean sacrificing some passenger room, but one could reasonably expect a 135 to be not only a more engaging drive than the 335 (same power, less weight), but more affordable and fuel efficient to boot.

Now, I’ve gone on record as saying I hate trunks.  And I do.  Given the choice, I’d opt for a hatchback any day.  But…with the 1-Series…I venture I’d be willing to make the sacrifice.

*This being a vehicle post, I have no expectations of comments

**The orange car in the picture is a BMW 2002, which pretty much established BMW’s reputation for driving dynamics and led the way to the 3-Series.  Many enthusiasts hope the 1-Series might offer something of a return to the 2002.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jamie permalink
    April 23, 2007 9:49 am

    Okay, I see some hypocrisy in your post. Why are you spouting on about bigger cars if they get better gas mileage? Also, if you’re worried about the environment/gas mileage, wouldn’t you rather it have a smaller engine? Why exactly do you need 300-hp twin-turbo six? If you can justify that kind of engine, then you have no business critizing people who can justify huge over done SUVs.

    *You said you wanted comments….

  2. April 23, 2007 10:39 am

    Nice post, honey.

    My point about bigger cars is…imagine the economy gains that could be realized if today’s engine technology was installed in lighter, less bloated cars. Imagine if, instead of weighing 4,000 lbs, the 335i weighed 3,750. There’s a reason motorcycles get the insane mileage that they get.

    And yes, a lighter car would certainly make a smaller engine less of a punishment. Consider the Lotus Elise. It’s powered by a small four-cylinder, but because it weighs less than 2,000 lbs, still delivers supercar performance.

    The thing about BMW’s twin-turbo six – it delivers 70 more horsepower than the naturally aspirated inline-six, with NO MILEAGE PENALTY. In essence, it uses direct injection, twin turbochargers, and some other nifty technology to deliver the power of a V8 with the mileage of a six.

    That’s just the thing about the 1-Series. Equipped with the same engines, but in a lighter platform, it will deliver not only better performance, but better fuel economy than the 3. Equip it with smaller – or less powerful – engines, and the weight advantage will make it a match for the larger 3 with a larger engine.

    Therefore, one could expect the base 1-Series, which I can only guess will take after the 328i and thus be called the 128i, will be pretty close to on-par with the far pricier 335i. If there were a mileage difference between the two engines, the advantage of the 1-Series would be even more apparent.

    Either way, though, lighter cars equal more performance bang for your buck, be it in handling, power-to-weight ratios, or fuel economy.

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