By on April 20, 2011

Before Lexus began it’s pursuit for perfection. Before Acura had built the Legend and seared the J.D. Power surveys. Even before there was such a thing as an ‘affordable sports sedan’. There was this car.

The Baby Benz was on the periphery of what was class-leading in the early-80’s, and what was clearly class-lagging by the early 90’s. It had great handling but… not a lot of power. Great pedigree but… not cheap at all for an entry level luxury car. Lots of features… but boy did it break your bank account when they broke. And break they did.

Rent: This car must have broke at least eight or nine people before I got it. The prior owners were my once and future customers. They had paid off about two-thirds of a Taurus when one of their jobs disappeared. I gave them weeks. Then a couple months. Then I just had to get the vehicle back. It was depressing. They were nice folks who had simply ran out of money.

I gave them a well-deserved credit boost and they returned the Taurus to the lot, which I then wholesaled for the remainder balance due. Two months later they came to my lot with this car. Let’s just say that renting a 26 year old vehicle with no air would not be the smartest thing to do these days. But financing a 21 year old car? As I always tell folks whenever they go car shopping… it’s not the car that’s important… it’s the owner. That is unless we’re talking about a Benz. They’re different. Very different.

Lease: Who in their right mind would finance a higher end vehicle that is this old? Well, my mentor did all the time. He used to take these old mini-Benzes along with W124’s, and finance them out the door for $600 down and $60 to $70 a week. He did this up to a couple of years ago when he decided to sell his garage and focus on the retail side. It was for healthy and sanity reasons (his employees were mostly nuts). Plus the A/C systems in these Benzes can’t survive a Georgia summer to save their asses from first base.

And God help you if you ever try to dismantle the factory alarm system. His shop had one that stayed benched in front of their repair business for 3 full months. Eventually he had a Benz dealer handle it… for more than it cost to buy the thing. Whether they are young or old. A true Benz is never cheap to own. Never.

Sell: Since it fails the low cost of ownership test that all finance vehicles must pass, I put it on the retail block. Aftermarket chrome wheels were already on it. The sun shined at just the right angle for picture taking. Sunny with a cloud. Plus it was gold in a way only a $300 paint job can offer. Did I mention how people always buy with their eyes? This one was city bound.

Four pictures on Craigslist and $1300 later, it was sold to a fellow whose return on his mouth had apparently doubled in the last year alone. The only with thing more gold than this guy’s mouth was Mr. T’s neck.

Keep?: Like a rolling virus. It sucks gas. Can barely haul it’s own…. but I will say it’s authentic The steering is still genuine old school Benz which is precise, involved and almost missile like on the road. It’s also cheap to keep here legally so long as you do-it-yourself and buy your junkyard parts by the pound. By the way. Us wacky Georgians have some very weird rules when it comes to cars.

A 1985 vehicle in the progressive state that is Georgia is exempt from emissions and title processing. You only need a bill of sale for anything older than a 1987 model. No inspections. Not even a cursory glance.

A signed contract and the ad valorem / tag fee is all you need. The ad valorem on this Benz will cost about the same as a case of Bud Light if you’re in the country… or three Frappucinos if you’re in Atlanta. It’s not bad at all to own an old car out here. But I can’t afford an old Benz. Once you put a pre-Euro version on the road it spends money like…well… a pre-recession American.

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19 Comments on “Rent, Lease, Sell or Keep: 1985 Mercedes 190E...”

  • avatar

    I came very close to buying a 190E 2.3-16 with a manual transmission. Now that was a car (considering we did not get the Evolution II here in the Colonies). Steve, I’d flip this one and never look back. Nice wheels, though.

  • avatar

    Sell.  My experience with German engineering and quality in the last few years (MTU engines) is that the Germans are luckier than talented.  Until the product goes POOF.  Then they are neither.

  • avatar

    Ahh. These introduced the multilink rear suspension that survives to this day in Benzes and in the Chrysler 300. The waning days of brilliant German mechanical overengineering. Perhaps also the waning days of the old Mercedes approach: let the engineers do their thing, then figure out how much you have to sell it for. Result: very few understood why such a small car was worth so much money.

    Sell was absolutely the correct answer.

    • 0 avatar

      I think they also introduced the cool single windshield wiper on a cam.  In my family we called it the “uniwiper.”  Other than a somewhat slow sweep rate they are a thing of beauty… and were (at least in my family’s experience with 4 different w124 bodies over the years) one thing that never broke.

  • avatar

    Selling it was right idea.  Buying it?  Ummm…
    Look, even when Benzes were supposedly “reliable” they were still expensive to keep up.  Anything that broke was costly, and that over-engineering more often than not bought you over-complexity.  This car, and the 190s and C-Classes that came after, are the worst mix of complexity and cost-cutting you could imagine.

  • avatar

    Really?  I thought this era of Benzes held together pretty well.  I often see them for sale with over 150,000 and sometimes over 200,000 miles on them. I figured that was a good sign of durability. I kinda like them and considered getting one someday.  Oh well, another one off the bucket list I guess…

  • avatar

    I had one.  The worst car I have ever owned for the dollars spent.  Great warranty, though, that kept me from paying for a lot of the problems.  New, it took 4 trips to the dealer to get the AC working.  Then, both rear window regulators cratered.  Then various switches quit switching and the moon roof clutch burned out. The dash cracked (replaced under warranty).  The clear coat paint gave up the ghost. It would never keep in tune.  The automatic transmission was the worst I have ever encountered; downshifts were crashes. It would start off from a stop in 2nd and then, being so underpowered, would shift down with a crash.  Then …!  You get the idea.
    The best parts of the car were the seats and carpets.  They wore like iron.  That car put me off Benzs for life.  The rear suspension was also great.  No problems with rear seat and trunk loaded.

  • avatar
    thats one fast cat


    I read this and I suddenly get very wistful for the C4C program.  I would give this car a lethal injection of sodium silicate and not even think twice.

    “I pity the fool” who is the proud new owner.

  • avatar

    I put over 100,000 great miles on one of these that I bought…At a flea market.
    It was a puff ’93 model 2.3 ,bone stock with all electrical toys working. ( Rare for a Benz). I snagged it for $5800 with 93,000 miles on the clock.I babied it, changed oil religiously and treated it like an airplane (Replaced things BEFORE they broke,on my schedule). I bought a repair manual,learned to do most minor stuff myself and (this was the trick to low ownership costs) found a GREAT independent mechanic that worked on Benzes and Volvo/Saabs. He was a former dealership mechanic that hated having to make his “ball joint” quota so he hung out his shingle and stayed busy and successful.
    This car returned an honest 32 MPG on the interstate (it was a pig in town) and was a great first car for a couple of teen drivers. My 18 year old ran a red light and totaled it and walked away with nothing more than hurt pride. I sold the carcass on Ebay for $1200.

  • avatar

    I have had two W201 190e’s… a stock 2.3 (1992) and a really really sweet 2.6 Sportline (1992) (rare, and had most of the bits from the 2.3-16 but with the 2.6 6-cyl)

    Both were consummate mile crunchers… you could drive all day and feel fresh.  They just eat up the mileage and wear like a cast iron pan (they’re about as heavy too) but only if you maintain them properly.

    Sure, the transmissions were slow to respond… they were mechanical.  No electronic controls, fully hydraulic.

    They were gas hogs in town, but did better on the highway, they were wildly solid, and library quiet.

    I’d LOVE to have one again actually.

    I traded my Sportline for a 1995 E300D, and drove that tank to just under 500K miles!

  • avatar

    11 1/2 years ago, when I just got married, I was thinking about buying a 190 for my wife.  She promptly vetoed the idea (not a car person at all).  Instead bought a Civic EX sedan.  She’s still driving the Civ, which has been a typical bulletproof Honda. 

    Man am I glad I didn’t buy the baby Benz.  The 190 still has a nice look but after buying and getting rid of my A6, I know about the cost and feeding of luxury German cars. 

    The other thing about the 190 – it’s got a pretty cramped interior, especially the back seat. 

  • avatar

    Currently have a 86 2.3 16v. Currently pulling the head, looking to get ~1500 worth of head work done. If it isn’t a special car, sell it like the plague and walk.

  • avatar

    I was lucky to receive my Fathers 11 year old 1986 190E 2.3 on my 16th birthday. The car was a tank and effortlessly ate up highway miles. Yes, the A/C didn’t work. Yes, some of the switch gear broke but I loved it anyways. It was also easy to work on. Case in point, once while driving, i suddenly realized that the gas pedal had become disconnected from the engine. A quick twist tie under the hood quickly fixed the issue. The old Benz currently resides in an old garage whose door i can no longer open. Its been 10 years since i’ve seen the old girl. Maybe i better go find a good locksmith…

  • avatar

    Spray paint it black and call it The Hammer.  Remember those?

  • avatar

    Man, those wheels are hideous!

  • avatar

    Those wheels will attract the wrong attention from the revenue-collecting constabulary…

  • avatar

    Terríble wheels!
    I am a bit puzzled by the remarks concerning reliability and cost of ownership. Over here in Germany, the W201 has a good reputation. Its even in the discussion among enthusiasts for last true Benz. Well maybe there’s a difference between owning a Benz  in the US and in Germany.

  • avatar

    I feel like this is way off. You’re trying to bash on a car thats over 20 years old and saying its expensive to fix?

    I bought mine for 1200, put about 2000 in parts in it and it drives like new. Though I can do most of the work myself I did swap in a 3.0L strait six from a 300E (Its a direct swap, same block bored over). The motor, with a referb head was 700 shipped. Midrange power is faster and it gets better mileage than most newer cars. Keep in mind it did this . . . 20 years ago. Buy a 20 year old Civic, see how that works out for you.

    How much is your car payment? Mines 0, and try and make a car go as fast for 3k. It eats my wifes 2011 civic for breakfast.

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