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