By on February 24, 2009

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?

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30 Comments on “Capsule Review: Mercedes Benz 190E 2.3-16...”

  • avatar

    This is one of a short list of european dream cars for me. It needs a whole lot of RPM to get anywhere, but once you get it up there it’s no doubt a joy. I’ve only ever seen one in person, apparently an import from Germany.

  • avatar

    Great review. Great car.

  • avatar

    I always liked the 190 (W201) and W202 C-Class. They were nice, practical, sporty little cars in an era when you couldn’t really get that combination without some kind of compromise. Most other contemporary European cars of that size era were more spartan, and many were front drive. The Japanese competition was pretty pedestrian (Infiniti G20, Acura Integra), too. The Americans’ work of that era was awful.

    I once got to drive a C43 AMG, which was wholly unlike just about anything you could get: V8 power and a pretty good suspension tuning in something only slightly larger than a Honda Civic. I heard there was a C55, but I’ve never seen one.

    The problem, if I recall, was that these cars were the harbinger of all that Mercedes would do wrong for the next fifteen or so years. The baked-in reliability that people took for granted in the bigger Mercs wasn’t as strong in the 190. The C-Class was even worse.

    Still, they were very nice. I suspect any of them that are still running were the good ones and have more or less already been vetted by some other sucker.

  • avatar

    Great review. This article is spot on. I test drove a used sample of this car when looking to buy my first car. It was solid, smooth and the engine pulled well. I still smile every time I pass the Benz dealer that I drove it from. Only problem was that it was too small for my 6ft tall carcass and my knees were pressed against the steering wheel.

  • avatar

    You own one of these? It’s gotta be my all time favorite Mercedes (not that I’ve driven one).

    I see that you were performing coathanger aborti…speeding…on public roads again. Prepare for the arrival of the morality police.

  • avatar

    Automobile mag had a good write-up on the E30 M3 vs 190E 2.3

  • avatar

    @tedward: After One Lap, I returned the car to Aaron who showed it at various Benz owners’ gatherings and took it to the Car Corral at that year’s USGP. I sold it to a young enthusiast who drove it year-round and the Ohio salt took its toll.

    That fellow traded it in on a Jag XJR to a shop which kind of fixed the rust, put a four-point cage in it and sold it three times to three different owners, all of whom ended up trading it back in on something faster. I don’t know what happened after that.

    There wasn’t room in the article, but my 190E wasn’t the only W201 competing in 2005; a group of guys resurrected another 2.3-16 for “The Longest Day” at Nelson Ledges.

    The following year, I became involved in a project to build a W201 with an engine transplant from a C36 AMG for NASA’s GTS class. In the end, the costs ran out of hand, so the car got sold and I signed up at the last minute for a season in Leo Capaldi’s #68 Focus.

    I shouldn’t have sold the car… because I used the money to buy a “perfect” 944, which has only been “perfect” at draining my wallet.

  • avatar

    I’ve always thought these cars were nice looking. Even today, they still look modern. A few years ago I was looking for a 190D with the 2.5 turbodiesel, but ended up buying a Jetta TDI instead because the pricing on a used 190D was too much at the time compared to a new Jetta. I’d still love to have one though, so maybe someday.

  • avatar

    Hold on a second, a Chrysler wagon finished ahead of the ‘almighty’ E39 M5?

  • avatar

    You beat an E39 M5 with that? Was it trailing parts? Anyway, congratulations. I wonder if there’s an automotive equivalent to scalps hanging from a belt.

  • avatar

    To answer a question above about the switch from recirculating ball to rack and pinion: The w201 (190E) and w202 (first “C-class”) have recirculating ball and the w203 and w204 do not. The w203 debuted in the USA as a 2001 model year. In the E-class lineup, the W123 and W124 have recirculating ball but the W210 and W211 do not. The W210 debuted as a 1996 model year.

    Most people would say that dropping the recirculating ball happened at exactly the same time as the vehicles lost that “engineered like no other car in the world” feel.

    The recirculating ball mechanism, at least in my experience, is very slow on center but quickens as you turn farther and farther. At least that is my perception. Perhaps it is that rack and pinion slows down as you turn farther and farther. When switching from my recirculating ball daily driver to a rental car, I have no problems with gradual turns, but I tend to undershoot sharp turns because I don’t realize how much farther I have to turn the wheel.

    In addition to the actual mechanics of the mechanisms, most vintage Mercedes are set up with huge steering wheels, require a fair amount of effort to turn the wheel (not much “power” in that power steering), and require lots of turning of the wheel to go “lock to lock.” I think that has much more to do with people’s perception of recirculating ball steering than anything else. I’m currently driving a w202 bodied C43 AMG, which seems quite different from the various w124 bodies I’ve driven extensively, mostly because of the much quicker ratio and smaller wheel. Other than the lack of “power” in the power steering and the non-linear response at wide angles, you would probably not notice a difference.

    • 0 avatar
      Bulldog Drummond

      Hi there, driving in the uk is hardly the same as hammering the back roads but interested to read your comments on the Merc steering. I’ve had three 190E 2.0 autos. The first two were run into by red light runners…. by the way, even with a total write off you could still open the doors and walk away from it… so thanks Mercedes..
      I’ve found the steering  awesome on the freeway, I took four adults, one child and all our luggage around Germany and Denmark and it cruised as if on rails. With a lighter load and hitting the dirt roads, I’ve found the steering fingertip light… the sheer mass of the car is more of a problem in getting round on gravel but even trying to drive like a complete loon it still does what it’s meant to.  Others have commented on the engine characteristics- with the kickdown on the auto gearbox great for overtaking at 60 plus but a bit reluctant to get going from a slower speed.
      For what it’s worth changing the injectors, transmission fluid and filter, diff oil, in fact everything that can be poured in or out and it takes ten years off the car.
      OK enough idle chat,
      Hope the winter doesn’t get too cold over there!

  • avatar


    oh but there is, some grey scaled BMW logos would look very nice just behind the front fender of that Merc. Is that more or less tacky than sponsor decals?

    When I was younger a family member kept taking out deer on upstate roads; we’re talking 6 deer in 3 years. She would claim to be heartbroken by this, but apparently not enough to stop running over the damn things. So, I stole some bambi stickers from the little sister and mounted them just in front of the driver’s side door. No one noticed for three days and it cost me a lot of temporary freedom…but it was worth it. In hindsight I should have waited a few weeks until the car was being daily driven in NYC.

  • avatar

    There’s, shall we say, a wide variety of driver skill in One Lap. There are also many different ways to prepare for it. The fellow who has won it every one of the last four years is singlemindedly dedicated to the event and practices each track with his car ahead of time. Another guy arranged to have his car trucked to each track on the circuit to receive professional instruction. His VIR instructor canceled on him. During the event, he crashed at VIR.

    The One Lap winning formula is more or less this:

    * Get the most horsepower and brake you can.

    * Drive the tracks right before the event, in the same car, and load your Traqmate with those runs so you can adjust your pace on-the-fly during the timed sessions.

    * Don’t break the car.

    * Learn how to bracket-drag.

    There’s another way to game the system and become a “One Lap winner”, and I’ll be covering it in my next Capsule Review, which is of our 2006 OLOA car.

  • avatar

    To psarhjinian: There was a special factory-order C55 option for the w202. I don’t think they were available in the USA because of government testing regulations. (Why submit to all the government regulations/requirements to sell 3 cars?) Europe also had a special order limited slip differential, which was a totally different combined diff+transmission usually found in the V12 cars. I think you could also get a different differential ratio for higher gearing, which, coupled with removing the 155 MPH electronic nanny, might get you a few extra MPH on the autobahn.

  • avatar

    psarhjinian :

    You’re right. The first gen C-class was the beginning of the end for Mercedes quality. The first few model years had catastrophically bad quality. I remember LJK Setright confronting the head of Mercedes at the time in the pages of Car magazine about the issue. The guy said, really? Let me drive your model! He did, and was like all, “Oh shit!”

    Then the (then) new E-class came out, whose quality was also so bad that German taxi drivers demonstrated in front of Mercedes headquarters.

    It’s been downhill ever since.

  • avatar

    These cars are absolutely impossible to find.

    2.3s and 2.6s abound (especially in automatic trim), but you simply can’t find the 16v.

  • avatar
    Johnny Canada

    because I used the money to buy a “perfect” 944, which has only been “perfect” at draining my wallet.

    Thanks for that. I came very close to buying a “perfect” 944. I missed my chance, and regretted it for years. I feel better now.

  • avatar

    She would claim to be heartbroken by this, but apparently not enough to stop running over the damn things.

    Oh, that makes me laugh. Poor woman. Poor deer!

  • avatar

    I’m not a German car fan, but if I was my Holy Grails would be a 190D 2.5 Turbo with a stick (the 1400 2.5Ts imported to the US in 1987 were all automatics) and the 190E 3.2 AMG (that one didn’t make it over here either).

  • avatar

    I’d love to own any W201, never mind the 2.3-16. They were the last “real,” brick-shithouse MB.

    Really, when I stop and think about it, the 80s cars I see the most often are Mercedes-Benzes, even in this rust-belt town that I’m in.

  • avatar

    paul_y: you can find plenty of w201 for practically no money at all. I’d suggest you get a w123 or w124 instead, though.

  • avatar

    I have owned two W201, one W123 and one W124. They were all of comparable quality. But I have to say my favorite was the W201 (190e). It was a great size. I started with a 1992 190e 2.3 which was a great touring car. The next was the 1992 190e 2.6 Sportline. This car had the lowered 2.3-16 suspension, the same bucket front and bucket rear seats as a 2.3-16 (but in leather), but with the inline 6 and an automatic. And I have to agree with everyone about the steering… it felt best at high-speeds. Over 90mph the car was so settled it defies explanation.

    I still love and miss that car.

  • avatar

    One more thing… I just LOVE the capsule reviews. Keep ’em coming!

  • avatar

    Yes! I’m a fan of these capsule reviews too.

  • avatar

    I love this review. The W201 is my favorite Merc. I would love to own one.

  • avatar

    glad to hear it…this actually got me in quite a bit of trouble. The amusement factor of what I’d done wasn’t quite enough to override the pain-in-the-ass factor of having crying and pissed off women (they teamed up) howling for my head. My father put a stop to it almost immediately, and I was out there inside of 15 minutes scraping them off.

    On a positive note, she’s only killed one deer since the sticker incident (over a decade ago) so maybe I had an impact.

  • avatar

    Great stuff, thanks for that. I owned a 23-16 for 10 years until it was stolen from my home in Cardiff in 2002. Still mourning.

    What a car it was! The European version had 21hp more than the american 23-16, which means that maybe it wasn’t as fast as tne E30 M3, but had so much to offer. The LSD rear diff, the dogbone getrag transmission, self leveling rear suspension with adjustable ride height from inside (post ’86 model year) four bucket seats and a glorious engine sound as it hit the rev limiter at 7200rpm.

    As for the recirculating ball steering, well it matched the whole experience. The car was not as harsh as the M3, maybe even not as sharp to drive, but it was a true Mercedes nevertheless. The large steering wheel was slow around the center but acurate when it mattered most, close to full lock.

    My only regret with this car was its weak timing chain that snapped on me only a few hundered km past its replacement milage. A fact that was confirmed to me by the chief engineering of the project, much latter, in 2006 when I met him on an AMG trip I made during my peak auto-journalism years (he is the same guy who lead the 6.2 AMG V8 project btw). The 2.5-16 had a double chain reinforcement for exactly that reason.

    You can still buy the car in Germany today. Some are in great shape. It’s on my list when it turns 30 (i.e. 2016) so that it will be tax exempted here in Greece.

    Great car!

  • avatar

    Test drove one of these in 1988 but got a BMW 535is instead. Always thought that 190 was the forerunner of modern 4-cylinder engines, which are all 16-valve today.

    Another nice car from that era was the Porsche 944 16 “ventiler”. Ran nice on the track and no turbo to worry about.

  • avatar

    I need help with brake discs specs… Idon’t know them, I have a w201 2.6 1992 with manual tansmission. its a charm to drive.

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