For most American enthusiasts, the Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16 will always live in the shadow of the mighty E30 M3. Although Mercedes was first to the sixteen-valve party, the US variant of the “Cosworth Benz” was slower, more expensive and infinitely more staid-looking than the iconic four-cylinder Bimmer. History’s verdict regarding the two cars is written on the Internet—the E30 has high residuals, fanatical owners and its own Special Interest Group of the BMWCCA. The 2.3-16 languishes in Craiglist ads, covered in rust, fraught with deferred maintenance. Shame.
Still, the 190E 2.3-16 had an illustrious competition history. Ayrton Senna was one of the first to race the model, driving to victory at the Nurburgring in 1984. Two decades later, the 190E would complete its time in the racing spotlight with a rather less celebrated pilot.
In February of 2005, I hired Benz maestro Aaron Greenberg to rebuild a 236k-mile basketcase 190E 2.3-16 for that year’s One Lap of America. Eight thousand dollars’ worth of parts and hundreds of hours spent in bodywork and labor later, Aaron delivered to me a car which performed more or less to 1986 European spec. In the One Lap dragstrip trial, it turned a 17.839-second quarter-mile, good for seventy-ninth place and just ahead of a non-turbo PT Cruiser.
Over the course of some thirty-eight hundred miles and timed events at nine different racetracks, the 190E was mechanically flawless. The W201 “baby Benz” was derided upon introduction for being simply too small and too cheap inside (the people who complained about the 190’s interior couldn’t see the future). Measured against a Nineties luxury car from any manufacturer, the Benz is rock-solid, impeccably styled, built from indestructotinium. Over the course of eighteen-hour driving days, the 190E’s enormous steering wheel and iconoclastic control philosophy proves perfectly designed for long-distance travel.
Modern auto writers are obsessed with the 2.3-16’s “dogleg” first gear, which is down and to the left of the “H”. It’s an annoyance, but on-track it’s clearly the best idea, as it makes the most stressful race shift (third-to-second) easy as pie while also preventing the so-called “money shift” out of fourth.
It is difficult to drive any length of time in a pre-W210 Mercedes-Benz without coming to believe that they really were “engineered like no other car in the world.” Control efforts are well-matched. Although the stoppers aren’t designed for competition use, they’re reliable and informative over the course of a few laps. A larger wheel/tire package than originally installed (215-width Kumho MXes on seventeen-inch AMG wheels) bring cornering limits up to what you might expect from a modern Ford Fusion Sport or Mazda3. On a straight road, the modestly powered 190E’s (about 170 hp for three thousand pounds) falls behind all but the most underpowered of modern econoboxes.
As with a Corvette, Lexus IS or new-generation Civic Si, the 2.3-16 is steered by eye, not by hand. While the transition from grip to understeer is clear and well-indicated, the granularity of that transition is low-information. At best. This is Autobahn steering, designed to moderate the input and prevent unnecessary oscillation. During a late-night run in convoy with some higher-powered “Lap Dogs” through the Carolina back roads, the W201’s chassis’ natural balance made up for the steering, allowing me to play slide-and-catch despite fatigue and darkness. I could stay on the bumpers of hard-charging Bimmers and Vettes for nearly a hundred miles.
Of course, it wouldn’t have been a “Cannonball” without a little top-speed testing, so somewhere, ahem, east of Laramie we found ourselves running with the 190’s spiritual successor, a C55 AMG, in a quest to see how fast this old car could run. Up through fourth gear the pull was steady if not strong. But the oft-quoted one- hundred-and-forty wasn’t quite within reach. A quick blink of the headlights freed the C55 to run away from us as the needle quivered on the 210 kph subdial mark. Still, this twenty-year-old Mercedes tracked straight and true through the whistling wind.
We finished the 2005 One Lap of America just behind a HEMI Magnum and just ahead of an E39 M5; not bad for a car that couldn’t even hang with Sentra SE-Rs on level ground. But very, very far behind the leaders. I stepped out of the car after seven days, having done half of the track events and ninety percent of the transit driving, curiously refreshed. Those old Benz engineers knew what they were doing when they built the W201. It’s the only small sedan that has ever really captured my heart. Perhaps that’s because it’s less of a genuinely clean-sheet approach to the class and more like a W124 260E (which arrived later) left in the dryer too long.
Mercedes-Benz never tried again to compete on equal terms with BMW, choosing instead to buy AMG and let them tune the small sedans for big torque and straight-line heroics. Still, the record will show that in 2005, although we lost overall to the E36 and E46 M3s, where the tracks were tight (BeaveRun) or scary (Nelson Ledges), we prevailed over the Munich contingent, sometimes by ten or fifteen seconds. There was magic in the old Benz even after 236k miles. How many new German cars will be able to say the same?