For a lot of automotive history, if you wanted a nimble handling performance car, your choice was limited to cramped roadsters like the Cobra, Corvette, and various MGs, but in the late 70’s through the 80’s that all started to change. Sports sedans exploded out of Europe and became a huge portion of the enthusiast market, uniting speed with practicality and good looks. Read on to find out where this segment came from, and where it may go in the near future.
The origins of the sports sedan, like so many performance cars, began in auto racing. In the 1960’s European sedans, already smaller and lighter than their American counterparts, saw themselves being campaigned in road rallies and in British touring car races. The sedans at the time, like the Ford Cortina and Mercedes 300 SE, were all pretty humdrum family cars, so modified “homologation” versions were created with bigger engines, upgraded handling, and fatter tires.
300 SE at the Nurburgring, 1964 Image by Mercedes
We’re sure the intent from manufacturers was to get these cars on TV and use to sell more base models at the dealer, very similar to the big body Chevy and Hudson sedans that made up most of the field in the early days of NASCAR. Just like the birth of the muscle car in America, some of the performance engines and parts would later trickle into the mainstream and give buyers affordable, fun to drive cars like the BMW 3 Series and Volvo 240.
The peak of the European sports sedan craze would hit in the mid-80’s, when the first BMW M3 battled the Mercedes 190E and Sierra Cosworth on the touring circuit (although the E30 M3 was only officially sold as a two-door.) Both the Bimmer and Merc used big bore 2.5-liter four cylinder engines. Despite their size, these powerplants revved to nearly 8,000 RPM and made over 200 naturally aspirated horsepower in homologation trim. The successes in this era would lead to several generations of the M3, as well as the larger M5 sedan. Mercedes has also kept the party going with countless AMG-tuned sedans over the years.
190Es and E30 M3s on track in 1990 Image by Mercedes
Then 90’s Japan saw the emergence of Subaru WRXs, Mitsubishi Evos, as well, as four-door versions of the Nissan Skyline.
2000’s Subaru WRX
In the 2000’s, GM threw their hat in the performance sedan ring with the CTS-V, the Pontiac G8, and later the Chevy SS. Now, these cars took a lot of care in handling dynamics, but they’re also powered by LS small block V8s, so you would never mistake them for a European car. The G8 and SS were sunset after just a few years, while the CTS-V was able to hold out through 2019. Succeeding it are four and six cylinder-powered V series sedans with the limited CT5 V8 Blackwing at the top of the heap.
Image by Cadillac
Like seemingly every other segment, sports sedans have been slowly but surely pushed out of the American market by crossover and SUVs, but don’t fret, there are still a few solid options out there if you look hard enough. There are the aforementioned Caddies. There’s a new, faster (if uglier) M3 on its way, and the Alfa Romeo Giulia has been here a minute. There are also some really cool sedans coming out of Korea, like the Kia Stinger and Genesis series. If you want to go electric, you can even pick up the new Porsche Taycan. We at The Starting Line have faith that this exciting vehicle segment can continue on in one form or another for decades to come.
We’ve also recently sold a fresh Chevy SS sedan as well as a BMW E92 M3. If you’re looking to buy or sell a premium sports sedan, or other enthusiast vehicle, contact us about our consignment services.