Third Time Lucky, but Second Time’s a Charm (Part Two)

Concluding our profile of the Mercedes-Benz W201 compact saloon.

Image: Autoevolution

Pilot production of the W201 began at Mercedes-Benz’s Sindelfingen plant in early 1982 in preparation for its launch on 8 December. Following an extensive modernisation programme, the company’s Bremen plant, which had previously produced commercial vehicles and the S123 estate car derivative of the W123, would also manufacture the new model from November 1983.

Critical and public reaction to the new compact Mercedes-Benz was hugely positive, with most reviewers praising the unprecedented level of engineering, build quality and safety features in a car of its class. The only significant criticisms were related to the paucity of standard equipment, limited rear legroom, and overly firm seats.

After almost a year on the market, the model range was augmented with the 190D, fitted with a new 1,997cc inline four-cylinder diesel engine producing 71bhp (53kW). A notable feature of the new engine was its unusual quietness. The characteristic diesel rattle was very subdued and justified its whisper diesel soubriquet – a function of its encapsulated engine block.

Aerodynamic efficiency

The range was extended upwards in 1984 with the launch of the 190E 2.3-16, fitted with a 2,299cc 16-valve engine producing 182bhp (136kw) and sporting bodywork addenda including a large boot spoiler, wheel arch extensions and side skirts. This model achieved a 0 to 62mph (100km/h) time of 7.5 seconds and a top speed of 143mph (230km/h). It would be the first of a series of increasingly powerful Evolution sporting versions tuned by Cosworth(1), culminating in a 1990 DTM(2) homologation special, the 190E 2.5-16 Evo II, of which just 502 were made. Its 2,463cc 16-valve engine produced 232bhp (173kW), giving it a 0 to 62mph (100km/h) time of 7.1 seconds and a top speed(3) of 155mph (250km/h).

Potent, if uncouth: 1990 Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.5-16 Evo II (c)

For the North American market, Mercedes offered larger capacity 2,298cc petrol and 2,199cc diesel engines. The petrol engine had an increased power output of 134bhp (100kW). The larger diesel merely countered the power lost to additional emissions control equipment, so its power output was identical to the European market 1,997cc engine.

When Mercedes-Benz launched its new W124(4) mid-sized saloon in January 1985, it also took the opportunity to update the W201. Larger 15” wheels were fitted, and the car gained a new and unique mechanism for its large single windscreen wiper: as it swept the screen, it was pushed upwards into the corners to increase the swept area. Heated windscreen washers also became standard, as did power steering and heated door mirrors from September of that year. A larger 2,497cc five-cylinder diesel engine producing 90bhp (66kW) was also introduced.

At the Frankfurt International Motor Show in September 1985, Mercedes-Benz unveiled the 190E 2.6. This new model was fitted with a 2,566cc six-cylinder petrol engine from the W124. It produced 166bhp (122kW) and achieved a 0 to 62mph (100km/h) time of 8.2 seconds and a top speed of 133mph (215km/h). Production of this model began in April 1986, with sales beginning in October. While not as fast as the 190E 2.3-16, the six-cylinder model was exceptionally quiet and refined. Motor magazine concluded that “the 2.6 litre straight-six realises the full potential of the 190”. Also in October 1986, Mercedes-Benz made the 2,298cc eight-valve petrol engine available to European customers.

A significant cosmetic overhaul to the W201 was unveiled at the Paris Salon in September 1988. The facelifted models were immediately identifiable by their colour-coded(5) lower bodyside cladding and matching bumpers, replacing the previous slim black side rubbing strip and dark grey bumpers. The new bumpers were reprofiled to optimise airflow. Inside the seats were revised to be more comfortable and liberate more rear seat legroom.

Quality, not luxury (c)

Autocar magazine road tested the base 190 in March 1989. The UK list price at that time was £14,200, which was £600 less than its closest rival, the BMW 320i (E30) four-door saloon, and £1,000 less than the (admittedly, larger and better equipped) Ford Granada 2.4i GL. For that price, the 190 was sparsely equipped and even a radio was extra. However, the 190 offered “build and design integrity that wouldn’t shame a car costing three or even four times as much”.

The 1,997cc engine, revised to produce 105bhp (78kW) and 122lb.ft. (165Nm) of torque, gave the 190 “lacklustre performance” with a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 11.2 seconds and a top speed of 117mph (189km/h), the latter attributed to ”excellent aerodynamics”. Fuel economy, measured at 28mpg over the test, was also described as excellent.

The gearchange was precise if not rushed, although somewhat heavier than on competitors’ cars, while the clutch was smooth and progressive. The all-disc brake setup provided excellent retardation. The handling was also described as excellent, with mild understeer moving to easily controlled oversteer at the limit. The ride quality was “as comfortable as any car’s this side of a Jaguar” and seat comfort and rear legroom was much improved over earlier versions.

Instruments and switchgear were logically laid out and easy to find and use, although the reviewer thought the unique single column stalk was “overworked”. Only the passenger side door mirror was electrically operated which, although logical, “smacks of cost-cutting”. Overall, the reviewer thought that the car’s static and dynamic virtues, coupled with its prestige, reliability and low depreciation made it “hard to ignore”.

1988 facelifted Mercedes-Benz 190E (c)

In February 1989 Mercedes-Benz introduced heavily reworked diesel engines, claimed to reduce particulate emissions by up to 40%. A year later the carburettor-fed 190 was replaced by a new model, badged 190E 1.8, which featured a shorter stroke 1,797cc fuel-injected engine producing 106bhp (79kW). The larger engined model was given a supplementary 2.0 badge to distinguish it from the new version.

Further changes were mainly limited to cosmetic and trim, including Sportline and Avantgarde models with new colour options aimed at a more youthful demographic.

The W201 ended production in Sindelfingen in February 1993 and in Bremen six months later(6). Total production over eleven years was an impressive 1,879,629 units. It might reasonably be assumed that the thinking behind the W201 was to expand Mercedes-Benz’s model range and that the smaller model was primarily aimed at the European market, where it was most successful.  However, Joachim Zahn, Chairman of Daimler-Benz between 1971 and 1979, later revealed in an interview that the main reason for the approving W201 for production was to anticipate the perceived threat of California outlawing ‘inefficient’ (i.e. large, heavy and powerful) cars by the 1980’s(7).

It may have been a long time coming, but the W201 was a hugely impressive car, bringing all of Mercedes-Benz’s engineering expertise and unrivalled quality to a new market segment for the company. That it was essentially unchanged and still competitive after more than a decade on the market is a tribute to the fundamental ‘rightness’ of the original design. There are still many examples around today, not cherished and pampered garage queens, but cars that continue to provide excellent service to their owners and stand as a testament to their quality and durability.


Author’s note: I was fortunate to run a 190E for a couple of years back in the late 1980’s. A record of my experience with it will follow shortly.

(1) Although often called the 190E Cosworth, its official title never included the name of the engine specialist.

(2) German touring car championship.

(3) Limited in accordance with the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ between BMW, Mercedes-Benz and other manufacturers.

(4) The W124 was, in design terms, closely related to the W201, sharing its silhouette in enlarged form and reiterating the company’s new ‘house’ style.

(5) The technique to colour-match plastic parts exactly in a high gloss finish that would be durable in service had not yet been perfected, hence Mercedes-Benz chose instead to finish such parts in a complementary colour with a slightly textured finish.

(6) The W201 enjoyed a rather shadowy afterlife until 2002 in North Korea, where it was manufactured and sold as the Kaengsaeng 88 and Pyongyang 4.10. Mercedes-Benz did supply CKD kits, first from Germany then from India, but there is a suggestion that the North Koreans then simply cloned the car.

(7) I am grateful to DTW contributor Christopher Butt for making me aware of the interview from which this information was gleaned.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

33 thoughts on “Third Time Lucky, but Second Time’s a Charm (Part Two)”

  1. Another excellent write-up, Daniel. Although, in period, I could never come to terms with the price of the W201 and its lack of rear legroom, I’ve always held it in high regard. Personally, I’d have ditched the 4-speed manual; offering one in an upmarket ’80s car wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) be even worth the cost of maintaining the tooling to manufacturing it.

    In retrospect, I think every maker of compact executive cars (especially Lancia) needs to take an extremely good look at what made the W201 work so well, from styling to engineering, and from quality assurance to after-sales service. If I were to buy one of these cars now, I’d get an early-’90s, well-equipped, injected 2.3 with a catalyst, and I’m sure I’d be a happy camper.

    1. Good morning Konstantinos. Thank you and glad you enjoyed the piece. Likewise, I’m a big fan of the W201 but I think I’d plump for a 2.6 litre version with the lovely straight-six engine. £7k to £8k will get a decent one in the UK.

      The only thing that worries me if, having run a 190E back in the late 1980’s, I might be disappointed with one now, given how much automotive technology has moved on in the intervening years. Never meet your heroes, as they say!

    2. Much as I like six-pots for their superior smoothness compared to anything with fewer cylinders, I wonder if the extra weight of this particular engine would affect the car’s handling.

    3. has a 2.6 six with just 48,000 kms at 15,000 EUR.
      I’d still prefer a C124 3.2 24V…

    4. Yes, I’d rather have that one too, but a good one comes probably with a very different price tag.

    5. has enough of C124 320 12 V at less than 10,000 EUR.
      They’re all automatic and therefore not my kettle of fish.

  2. Just look at that dashboard … I wish EVERY contemporary car interior designer would. It just glows with quality due to its simplicity and common sense, coupled with solid materials.

    Thanks for an excellent reminder of this very fine saloon. I still see a surprising number of these on our roads, which perhaps should not be such a surprise given the obvious quality of the engineering and build. If Mercedes (or anyone) manufactured something as excellent as this again I’d be straight on the waiting list.

    1. Oddly enough they are vanishingly rare in Denmark. I think it´s because the 80s were a tough time here and few were sold. I can´t recall the last time I saw one but Es and S´s and the W-123 are common enough.

    2. As for the dashboard, I fully agree with you. S.V. Robinson. The 190 was a very common sight here until a few years ago when cars older than 25 years were no longer road tax exempt. Lots of 190’s were exported at that time or even discarded.

  3. Good morning Daniel and thank you again for this interesting series. I’m looking forward to your account of your W201 ownership. As much as I like and admire the 190, if I had been in the market for a 4-door car in the early eighties (and had the legal driving age too!), I wonder if I would have actually chosen one. There were just so many other cool 4/5-doors back then to choose from with either similar performance and lower price, or better performance for the same price. Think Renault 18 Turbo, Alfa Romeo Alfetta, Ford Sierra 2.8i, Peugeot 505 GTI, Lancia Prisma 1.6ie, Saab 900i. For example, picture a delicious Peugeot 505 GTI and a driving holiday in France for the price of a well-spec 190 E 🙂

    Having said that, like I mentioned before, as a classic car for the weekends I wouldn’t mind a nice pre-restyling 190 E in red, with tan MB-Tex interior of course!

    1. Good morning gentlemen. S.V., likewise, I would buy a W201 today (albeit with the caveat I mentioned above). Cesar, choosing to drive a 190E appeared to be a perverse choice for a single and unattached 26 year old when most of my contemporaries were driving Golf GTI’s or similar. All will be explained on Sunday!

    2. All of those are cars with a certain appeal – each one has its strengths. It is highly likely that there was very little cross shopping among them and the 190E. Most likely buyers were looking at the price and thinking of other cars at that level such as larger mass-market cars like the Granada and Rekord. Maybe the 505 might have been an alternative though it was getting old by the time the 190E was getting established.

    3. For me I’d love an early poverty-spec example, with single door mirror.

      I think there’s something hugely appealing about knowing that you’re paying for high quality design and engineering rather than bells and whistles. It appeals to the same pleasure centres in my brain as a decent mechanical wristwatch versus something like an Apple Watch.

      I’m grateful Mercedes-Benz didn’t pursue the hatchback 190!

    4. They probably should have done the hatchback and not the eventual A-class. They´d have wiped out VW´s higher spec Golfs assuredly.

    5. The 190E hatchback shown in the photo John posted was an aftermarket conversion by Shultz Tuning called the 190E City and not approved by Mercedes-Benz. One odd detail of the conversion was the retention of a rear-quarter window, which makes it look at first glance like a five-door car.

      In the early stages of development of the W201, Mercedes-Benz produced its own three-door prototype, which was a dinky little thing:

      Did that tailgate and those tail lights come from the S123, the estate version of the W123?

    6. The rear glass and gasket does look familiar, and so does the door handle.

    7. Poverty spec was really poverty spec in those days. 4 speed gear box, a single mirror, no tinted glass, no rev counter, no radio, no central locking and nobody seemed to care that much either. They sold them anyway.

    8. Mercedes didn’t fit five gears be ause handling an additional one would have distracted the driver. Same goes for rev counters. But all of their cars had standard fog lights and belt tensioners.
      That’s setting priorities…

    9. If that were true they wouldn’t offer them as options I reckon and their cars would have an automatic gearbox as the only option.

  4. When I was cycling to school every day back in the late eighties in Waterford , I had to pass doctors surgery by my old school, he was the proud owner of a gold color 190E with beige leather, i used to be transfixed by the three pointed star on the bonnet and the elegance of the lines- on rainy days my dad would drop me in his immaculate MK2 escort…. makes me chuckle now thinking his escort would now be worth far more than the 190E! love the site folks keep up the good work

    1. Hi Dave. Thank you for your kind words and welcome to DTW!

    2. The ‘Stadtwagen’ was a personal pet project of Erich Waxenberger as a test bed for a short wheelbase rally car.

    3. Just drove back from Waterford to Kerry this afternoon – thank God there are no foreign tourists, even without them the traffic queues were mental….

    4. I was told recently, by someone who visits regularly, that traffic congestion didn’t occur any more? When I lived outside Dublin some years ago travelling to the West Coast was an absolute nightmare assuming , of course , that you could get around the motorway without any trouble…

  5. Daniel: that early 3-door prototype (named the “Stadtwagen”) does indeed have an S123 tailgate and taillights. I am, currently finishing up an article in which this Stadtwagen (among some others) will be further examined, so stay tuned!

    1. There’s something decidedly weird about the Stadtwagen – and I’ve just remembered what it reminds me of. Check out the first few seconds of this:
      Assuming the Stadtwagen had RWD, would it have made a good substitute….?

    2. The ‘Stadtwagen’ was a personal pet project of Erich Waxenberger as a test bed for a shoer wheelbase rally car. So the video isn’t that far off.

    3. A Sradtwagen with the Evo II engine would be fun!

  6. My only, and very minor, criticism of the 190 I purchased as a second car for the princely sum of £500 some years ago was the construction of the door cards. They were described on various MB Forums as being made out of egg boxes which , in my experience, was pretty accurate.
    I managed to purchase second hand ones for all four doors but then had some interesting experiences removing the old and fitting the new. This work also revealed aftermarket electric window winders which needed repair. This led me to a local auto electrician who used to fit these for a MB Main Dealer. Issue quickly resolved!
    Subsequently ran a S124 which needed a new wiring loom and guess who made that for me? Correct – the same auto electrician who also made looms for F1 cars.

  7. An acquiantance at an old job and her husband drove a W124, when it was already well on its way to becoming a classic (mid-to-late 2000s I think, so not a good time for MB). She had no affinity with cars, but delighted in telling the story of how, as they stood waiting for a traffic light, someone ran over and offered a substantial amount of money to buy it there and then.

    The 190 is one of very few Mercedes-Benzes that I genuinely like (along with the 300SL, the Pagode roof SL, the W204 C-class, and possibly the Red Pig). Such a neat design, well-proportioned, near-impeccable detailing. A stark differentiator between quality and luxury.

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