80s Rock-Star : Mercedes-Benz 190 E 2.3-16

Car Specifications
Engine: 
2299cc, 16-valves (full technical specifications at the end)
Cylinder Layout: 
4-cylinders in-line
Top Speed: 
230km/h
Transmission: 
5-speed Manual
0-100km/h: 
7.5 seconds
Power: 
185bhp at 6200rpm
Torque: 
235Nm at 4500rpm
Features: 
  • high-revving 4-pot sounds great at 7000rpm
  • engine pulls strongly

Cult Car Central revisits the Mercedes-Benz 190 E 2.3-16 (W201)
Vital Statistics
Car: Mercedes-Benz 190 E 2.3-16 (W201)
Year of Manufacture: 1985
Owners: 8
Original Registration: 1st November 1985
Mileage: >200k km
Revisited: 16th May 2010

(Click on thumbnails to enlarge images)

Ask most people from the PS3 generation about 'Cosworth' and this quick game of word association is likely to throw up models from the Japanese rice-rocket pantheon such as the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and Subaru Impreza WRX/STI. More mature enthusiasts would associate the 'C' brand with fast Fords, since some of the most evocative Ford cars were touched by the UK-based performance company, such as the Sierra RS500 Cosworth (the original whale-tail spoiler), the Escort Cosworth and the Sierra Sapphire Cosworth.

However, a lesser known fact is Cosworth Technology Limited's hand in developing the 16-valve engines (mostly head-work) of the sports variants of the compact Mercedes-Benz 190 E (W201); mind you, this was way before the days that AMG was a part of Mercedes-Benz; however as a side-note, an 'AMG Power Pack' was released for the 2.5-16 at approximately the same time as the introduction of the 190 E Evolution I in 1989.

Read more about Cosworth's initial involvement in the legend HERE

Today, the term 'baby Benz' is used in reference to the A-Class, but back in the 1980s, the compact 190 E - that would later evolve into today's C-Class - was the baby of the era. In fact, some even credit the 190 E with opening up (or should it be, making accessible) the Mercedes-Benz brand to the masses of young, upwardly mobile executives the world over (as opposed to what seemed to be an over-reliance on larger cars)

Until the arrival of the 190 E in 1982, the three-pointed star never had a contender in the compact executive sedan segment, which meant the BMW 3 Series and the Audi 80 pretty much enjoyed a long winning streak. When its run finally ended in 1993, some 1.9 million units had been produced.

Unfortunately, such is the common perception of the brand - among 'younger enthusiasts' in Singapore - that when one says, "I drive one", the response is almost always, "so ah pek (dialect for 'old uncle')." Tell them it's from 1985 and the conversation rapidly goes downhill, as many of these fringe enthusiasts struggle to make sense of the '190 E' nomenclature.

Unlike modern Mercedes-Benz cars, '190' didn't represent the engine size nor 'E' the model range, so their initial impressions will be that it's some variant of the E-Class with an engine capacity of 1900cc... As much as the 190 E represents an 'evergreen' model to many people, few are familiar with the sportier 16-valve variants of the range.

To clear the air, the model evolution (no pun intended) of the species started with the 2.3-16 (1983 Frankfurt Motor Show), which was followed by the 2.5-16 (1988 Paris Motor Show), 2.5-16 Evolution I (1989) and finally the flamboyant 2.5-16 Evolution II (1990 Geneva Motor Show), which featured aggressively flared fenders and an oversized rear spoiler that many mistakenly believe to be an after-market add-on (because the wind-tunnel tested aero-kit was completely unlike anything Mercedes-Benz ever designed).

Contrary to what some people continue to believe, the Evolution I and II were only available in left-hand drive only and in a limited run of 502 units each.

Two major milestones were associated with the launch of the 2.3-16. Prior to its public launch, Mercedes-Benz put three pre-production cars through a gruelling high-speed endurance (50,000km over 200 hours, including pit stops for tyres, fuel and driver-swops; there were 6 drivers per car) at the Nardò Ring.

The cars were modified for capacity and aerodynamics rather than reinforced or strengthened, since the intention was the demonstrate the resilience of the component parts and ultimately, stamina of the cars.

Two of the cars averaged 247km/h over 50,000km (securing three world records and nine international class records), but the third was retired due to a part that was required to be repaired under the regulations, rather than replaced.

The 190 E 2.3-16 finally made its debut to great fanfare at the 1983 IAA in Frankfurt following its stellar run at the Nardò Ring.

Initially, Mercedes-Benz's intention was to showcase the prowess of its latest road warrior in the world rally series, but these plans were dashed when Audi introduced quattro to the world of rallying.

In the end, Mercedes-Benz took the 190 E (in 2.5-16 Evo II guise) to battle in DTM, where it went head-to-head against its BMW arch-rival and Ford's RS500 contenders.

The second milestone for the 2.3-16 took place at the Nürburgring Grand Prix circuit in a publicity event to celebrate the track's opening and first F1 race in 1984. 20 identical 2.3-16s took to the field in a 'celebrity' race of sorts. The driver list was a veritable 'A-list' in the world of F1, including past, present and with our benefit of hindsight, future luminaries of the sport.

Some of the stars included Stirling Moss, Niki Lauda, Alain Prost, Phil Hill and a young upstart who would proceed to mop up the field (literally and figuratively, since it was a wet track) that day in a spectacular display of driving prowess and an indomitable spirit of competition... Ayrton Senna.

Production of the 190 E 2.3-16 finally started in 1984 and the car was available in two colours: Smoke Silver and Blue-Black. Homologation requirements meant 5,000 units had to be sold in a year, but this was easily surpassed in 1985.

Compared to the regular 190 E, the main difference, visually speaking, was the 2.3-16's subtle aerodynamic-kit, which included a discreet boot-spoiler, fender extensions to accommdate the wider tyres, front/rear aprons and a smart set of 15-inch Fuchs alloy rims (which require serious back-breaking work to keep clean of brake dust!). The rims were also nicknamed Gullideckel, after the storm drain covers they resembled.

Original gauges: voltmeter, lap timer, oil temperature
Interior upholstery was available from the factory in either full leather or half-leather guises. This particular example came in the latter, with a tartan/plaid checked fabric (reminiscent of Burberry's trademark design) mated to leather. The front sports seats and rear '+2' are Recaro OE, which goes some way to explaining the comfort and support afforded by the seats even today, some 25 years later.

Also, the only concession to wood in the cabin is the Zebrano gear-surround panel, which is starting to look a little worse for the wear (replacement at today's prices is approximately 300+ Euros).

Nakamichi CD-500 completes the retro look; illumination is in matching Amber
More testament to the 2.3-16's focus on serious driving is the trio of gauges below the head-unit (Nakamichi CD-500 retro-fit; matching amber illumination is a bonus) that measure Volt level, Oil Temperature and Lap Times. Regarding the digital Lap Timer, one problem that many cars of this vintage face is the 'bleeding' of the LED.

Under the instrument binnacle, the 2.3-16 has rev-counter on the right (clock at the bottom) of the speedometer and another display on the left to monitor fuel economy (!!), fuel level (2.3-16 has a 70L fuel tank capacity versus the 55L of the standard car), oil pressure and water temperature.

notice the dog-leg first gear pattern
Another quirk that isn't so evident is the shift pattern of the Getrag-sourced 5-speed manual transmission (incidentally, this is the same gearbox found in the BMW E30 M3). The 2.3-16 features a 'dog-leg' first gear (left and down), with the remainder 2nd-5th gears in a 'H' pattern.

This feature has its roots in racing, where first gear is only used when moving off from standstill (and getting out of gravel traps); the rest of the time, only 2nd-5th gears would be used around the circuit.

The original leather gear-'knob' on this car did not have a shift-pattern on top, which made it problematic to leave with workshops, since not many were familiar with the first gear location.

The owner replaced this with an updated (for that era) gear shifter that displayed the shift pattern on top, but even then, you'd be surprised at the number of people who didn't bother checking before trying to engage first gear.

The original rubber pedals were wearing out, so they've been replaced with a set of sand-blasted OMP pedals, which not only offer better grip, particularly when the soles of your shoes are wet, but also help spruce up the austere cabin to some extent.

plaid half-leather interior is factory standard
The gem in this car is found under the bonnet: the high-compression M102 (W123 8-valve engines were used as the base for Cosworth's work) 2.3-16 (for 2.3L and 16-valves) produces 185bhp and 235Nm as standard and comes with some seriously gorgeous mandrel-bent manifold work (some owners have changed these to aftermarket items, but we think that's just wrong, but then again, we're sticklers for 'stock' condition insofar as it's realistically possible). 

On paper, the 100km/h mark comes up in 7.5 seconds; potent for that era, but probably only equivalent to a Swift Sport in today's context (that's not the point though).

plaid half-leather interior is factory standard; seats are Recaro OE
Even with >200k km on the clock, the engine still pulls like a freight train and for a Continental car of this era, the red-line is surprisingly high at 7000rpm. The gear-shift is reasonably short-throw, but notchy, with close ratios for brisk acceleration.

Unlike many other cars, the 5th gear is not an overdrive gear, but was direct drive, i.e. 1:1, which means it will happily pull in 5th all the way to its 230km/h top speed! (have a look at the full tech specifications below for more details)

OMP pedals provide additional 'motorsports' feel
Steering still relies on a recirculating ball system (versus rack-pinion), so there is some initial vagueness about the straight-ahead and initial turn-in (compared to the standard 190 Es, the steering ratio on the 16-valvers had already been tuned for sportier responses), but one quickly gets accustomed to this; an upside is still the ridiculously tight turning circles the car is capable of!

Ride is firm, yet retains some degree of comfort. Compared to many modern cars today, the build quality and 'solid' feel of the 190E helps us understand the true meaning of Teutonic quality; the car is from an era that still permitted one to reference Panzer tanks with no guilt whatsoever.

Another 'first' for the 190 E was the use of a rear multi-link suspension, which contributed to the car's dynamic potential, coupled to the LSD (Limited Slip Differential) and hydraulically-actuated self-levelling rear suspension (front self-levelling and automatic height adjustment was available as a cost-option).

The original front brake-discs have been replaced by Brembo OE discs. Braking feel is strong in spite of the car's 1350kg kerbweight. However, this isn't the type of point-and-squirt car that some might be more familiar with where you might need to stamp hard on the brakes after a particularly reckless overtaking manoeuvre.

It's perfectly possible to cruise leisurely around town when the roads are packed, yet it is still possible to have an indecent amount of fun in, particularly when the roads are slightly wet.

Despite its 2665mm wheelbase, rear space is only useful for children (it's only a 2+2). Boot space is commodious to accommodate the needs of small families.

Original 15inch alloys from the Singapore distributor

At highway speeds, the car tracks straight and true with none of that floaty feeling that blights some older cars, thanks in part to the downforce provided by the trunk spoiler. However, we don't think we will be attempting another high-speed run any time soon.

At the moment, the car's North-South Highway sweet spot is in the 150-160km/h cruising range - we reckon it's better not to take chances in these cars since you never really know what could 'let go' at an inopportune moment.

In mixed driving, the engine returns an acceptable fuel economy that is in the 9+km/L, which is pretty good considering the size of the engine and old-school mechanical 'electronic fuel injection' system (Bosch KE-Jetronic).

photos by mp

Fast Facts : Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16
ENGINE
Engine: 2299cc, 16-valves, in-line 4
Maximum power @ rpm: 185bhp @ 6200rpm
Maximum torque @ rpm: 235Nm @ 4500rpm
Bore x Stroke (mm): 95.5 x 80.25

TRANSMISSION
Driven wheels: Rear
5-Speed Manual (with 'dog-leg' 1st)
Gear Ratios: 4.08/2.52/1.77/1.26/1.00:1 / R 4.40
Final drive: 3.07

PERFORMANCE
0-100km/h: 7.5 seconds
Top speed: 230km/h

SUSPENSION
Front: MacPherson struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Rear: Multi-link with hydraulic self-levelling

BRAKES & TYRES/WHEELS
Front: 284mm ventilated discs
Rear: 258mm discs
Wheels: 15-inch alloys
Tyres: 205/55R15 Continental ContiPremiumContact2

DIMENSIONS
L x B x H: 4430 x 1706 x 1361 mm
Wheelbase: 2665mm
Turning circle: 10.6m
Kerbweight: 1350kg
Fuel tank: 70L

Summary
Compared to many modern cars, the 2.3-16 does feel its age. Interior quality gives one an impression that it is hewn from a solid chunk of metal, but the interior architecture is more functional than beautiful. It feels decidedly edgy in start-stop traffic, but it is only when the road clears and you let the engine scream that the car really comes into its own. More important was how ahead of its time it was in terms of engineering and technology and its contribution to what would later evolve into today's AMG cars - mp
Photos: 
Original gauges: voltmeter, lap timer, oil temperature
Nakamichi CD-500 completes the retro look; illumination is in matching Amber
notice the dog-leg first gear pattern
plaid half-leather interior is factory standard
plaid half-leather interior is factory standard; seats are Recaro OE
OMP pedals provide additional 'motorsports' feel
Original 15inch alloys from the Singapore distributor
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