Vintage R&T Review: 1976 Cosworth Vega – A Better Vega (But Not A High Performance One) For Twice The Price Of A Mediocre One

How did Chevrolet spend years working on the Cosworth Vega, and end up with nothing more than a Vega the way it should have been in the first place, with a perkier and less rough but certainly not a high performance engine? And then price it at twice the price of a regular Vega? Or 50% more than a 1976 Camaro LT V8 went for. One of the great mysteries of the 1970s.

This will make our third Cosworth Vega post. The first was by me back in 2012, and not surprisingly, a GM Deadly Sin (#27), titled “Too Little, Too Late, Too Expensive”.  The second was by Ed Stembridge, when he surprised us with a lavish and eloquent tribute to the development and history of the CV, as well as the story of one that he bought, and later sold. Of course, this happened in 2020, and Ed’s CV was pretty extensively modified to make significantly more power, which was of course the production CV’s Achilles heel. Well, that and an exorbitant price. I’m using some shots of Ed’s CV in this post.

So for #3, we go back to Road & Track’s test of a privately owned CV, as apparently Chevrolet was limiting access to them. Were they concerned that the press might be a bit let down after the years of hype and heightened expectations? Not unfounded fears, it turns out.

R&T starts off a bit less than positive, pointing out that the CV was several years late. And then pokes fun at Chevrolet’s PR comments about their new baby:

“One objective of the Cosworth Vega is to generate excitement and bolster interest in the GM domestic small car market. Aimed at the genuine enthusiast generally enamored of the present small imported sportsters, the Cosworth Vega is a practical demonstration of the Vega’s vitality, design depth and versatility. It is more than just an engine, it is a design concept built on existing Vega chassis and body design without any major change. In this car, the knowledgeable small sportster enthusiast will recognize and appreciate American design innovation and engineering imagination…”

Jeez; how utterly clueless. Sounds like a bad translation from another language. No wonder the CV was a flop and GM went tits up. “The small sportster enthusiast”? Who talks or writes like that, in 1976? Someone in Detroit completely out of touch with what’s been going on for quite a while.

Anyway, by the mid ’70s it wasn’t so much “small sportsters” but sports sedans like the BMW 2002 that should have been the CV’s target. But the 2002Tii had significantly more power (130 hp) than the CV’s 110 hp, without having to resort to exotic four-valve DOHC heads and all sorts of other high tech hardware. And in the end, that 110 hp was essentially the same as a base 2002 or 320i.

The good news was that the reduction in stroke resulting in 2.0 liters displacement took a fair amount of the 2.3 L Vega engine’s roughness away. But the bad news was summed up in this line: “For all its exotic features, however, the Cosworth Vega engine is not a high-performance unit.”

R&T points out that 55 hp/L is a quite modest output, and compared it to the rather similar Jensen-Healey engine, also a 2.0 L with high-tech four-valve DOHC head, but only with carbs instead of the CV’s fuel injection. Yet it made 140 hp, to the CV’s 110. What happened?

It really is one of the greater mysteries of the time, given how much time and resources GM threw at the CV. And ends up with a high-tech but quite middling engine.

And the results are painfully obvious in the stats: 0-60 in 12.3 seconds. Decidedly slower than a BMW 320i. 1/4 mile: 18.5 seconds @74 mph. Very modest.

And another unfortunate compromise: no air conditioning available. It’s 1976, and folks are getting used to having a/c in all kinds of cars, most of all from GM.


Yes, the CV handled well, but so did the regular Vegas. And not all was well even then: there was transient oversteer, which happened in part because the quite slow 22.5:1 ratio manual steering was simply too slow to respond fast enough in a succession of rapid maneuvers, like in the slalom test. A faster variable-ratio power steering would have solved that problem, but like the a/c, it was not available.

R&T was not able to generate skidpad speed and lateral acceleration numbers because the CV’s expensive engine started smoking ominously after only half a lap of the 100′ foot circle. Still a genuine Vega at heart, no matter how hard the Chevy engineers tried.

Here’s the rather painful summation: “with the Cosworth Vega engine the Vega now runs the way it should really have run all the time – easy, smooth, good response…” But expecting folks to pay more than double the price of a Vega to have a proper-running Vega was clearly not a viable proposition.

Now if it had had 150 hp, it might have been a different outcome.



Cosworth Vega: GM’s Deadly Sin #27   PN

CC: Cosworth Vega #2196 (Detailed History of the CV and Personal Ownership Experience)  Ed Stembridge