Timeless, beautiful, desirable. The Mercedes 190E is all of these things to me

Jason · Jun 6, 2021 11:00 AM

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You see, for someone who loves cars, living through the late 1980s to 1990s was as good as it got. This was an era where many carmakers didn't think twice about giving us sports and performance cars. And boy was it a great time.

Timeless, beautiful, desirable. The Mercedes 190E is all of these things to me 01

The 190E ended up becoming my first car, and while it wasn't in the greatest shape by then (well, it was a 17 year-old car when it came round to being 'mine'), what a first car it was. Most of my mechanical knowledge on how cars work were derived from this car, as it did break down every now and then. 

Timeless, beautiful, desirable. The Mercedes 190E is all of these things to me 02

Bank-vault cabin, replete with period-correct, lorry-sized steering wheel

Despite that, I loved the car to death. The flaky, peeling paint, the non-working speedometer, the lorry-sized steering wheel, and the leaky sunroof. Why did I adore the car so much? Well, who really knows? But here are some reasons to make sense of it all.

Still looks the absolute business today

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They are pretty rare sights today, but anytime one comes across a 190E, you can't help but turn and admire the old girl. I mean, just marvel at how timeless the car looks. There is not a bad angle on this car. Sure, it probably isn't God's greatest gift to aerodynamics (or, maybe it is, we'll get to that later), but boy was it attractive.

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Long snout, short rump. Classic sports sedan proportions

Bruno Sacco's pensmanship gave the 190E bang-on proportions. Seeing that it was Mercedes' first foray into compact sports sedans, this was remarkable. Starting with the classic long snout, short rump recipe, Sacco sprinkled his magic dust on the rest of the car, giving it a classy yet sporty physique that is unmistakably Mercedes.

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Even in its standard form, the 190E looked athletic and properly lithe. In fact, to my eyes, it looks better than its nemesis, the E30 BMW 3 Series (there, I said it). Of course, that didn't stop Mercedes from injecting more excitement into the 190E, and thus, the 16-valve (fondly known as Cosworth or 16V) and latterly, the Evolution models were born.

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Over-the-top styling was all functional

Sportiness? While the 16V models received a subtle dose of aggresion, the 190E Evolution II was so in-your-face that it made children cry when they saw one. When the Evolution II was unveiled, BMW’s then head of research and development, Wolfgang Reitzle, said, "The laws of aerodynamics must be different between Munich and Stuttgart. If that rear wing works, we’ll have to redesign our wind tunnel." Well, apparently they did. God's gift to aerodynamics indeed.

Mechanically ahead of the game

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 Bespoke Cosworth cylinder heads for the err.... Cosworth models

So, why was the 190E so competitive in motorsports? As with the W124 E-Class, the W201 190E was ahead of its time in terms of mechanical bits, This was evident in the suspension and also the powertrain. That gave it a very sound base for motorsports application. 

Regardless of which variant, the 190E came with a sophisticated five-link rear suspension. Let's not forget, this is the early 1980s. This blessed the 190E with superb ride and handling. I didn't know it at the time (being young and impressionable), but the 190E really did have brilliant driving dynamics.

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Left to right: Cosworth 16v, Evo I and Evo II

The gems however, were the 16V Cosworth and Evolution models, which took eveything great about the regular 190E and amplified it. Upgraded engines (with Cosworth-designed cylinder heads), suspension, aerodynamics and transmission (featuring a dogleg manual - push left and down for 1st gear) resulted in highly desirable, sought-after performance models.

190E Cosworth Engines
Model (Cylinders) Output Valves/Cylinder Fuel System
2.3-16 (4) 188 PS, 236 Nm 4 Inj
2.5-16 (4) 204 PS, 240 Nm 4 Inj
Evolution I (4) 205 PS, 240 Nm 4 Inj
Evolution I 
PowerPack (4)
235 PS, 245 Nm 4 Inj
Evolution II (4) 235 PS, 245 Nm 4 Inj

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From the get go, the Cosworth-engineered 190Es were race-winning machines. A certain Ayrton Senna (who?) won the 1984 Nürburgring Race of Champions in a 190E 2.3-16. Success also followed the Evolution models in DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters, a racing series in Germany) culminating in the 1992 Driver's and Constructors Championship.

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The image that shaped my childhood

The Mercedes-AMG C63 vs BMW M3/M4 sports sedan/coupe battle you see today? None of these would have happened if not for the W201 190E, and the E30 3 Series.

Wanna buy one? Of course you should!

Timeless, beautiful, desirable. The Mercedes 190E is all of these things to me 11

In Malaysia at least, Cosworth-engined 190Es are rare in the extreme. In my lifetime, I have seen only four or five roaming around in KL. Evolution models? Well, seeing that they were LHD only, these are even harder to come by. Any RHD 190E Evolution you see on the road are most likely to be  replicas.

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For the non-Cosworth 190E models, unlike the W124, the entire engine range consists of the M102 (4-cylinder) and M103 (6-cylinder) family, with 2 valves per cylinder. Speaking again to Mercedes specialist, Jason (not me) from JW Performance, we find out what makes the 190E tick.

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Mechanically, the engines and transmissions are similar to the ones in the W124 E-Class. As such, they generally last very long. What is worth attention in the engine department is the fuel delivery accumulator (RM 900) and divider (RM 1,600). Once it fails, the car would be difficult to start the engine.

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Over time, look out for worn differentials

The rear differential is also another point of concern with these cars. Worn differentials will cause excessive noise and vibrations. A replacement will cost around RM 1,000.

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Image credit

As with cars of this vintage, a suspension refresh is also something mandatory. If the previous owners have done so, then great. Otherwise, a full refresh can cost around RM 10,000, which includes absorbers, mounts, links and bushes. 

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Additionally, while you can still realistically find minters with great interiors, you'd most likely have to budget for a full refurbish inside. We're talking headliners, dashboard, seats, and door cards. Prepare to spend about RM 8,000

190E Maintenance Cost
Item Cost
Fuel delivery accumulator RM 900
Fuel delivery divider RM 1,600
Rear differential RM 1,000
Full suspension refresh RM 10,000
Full interior refresh RM 8,000

Conclusion

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What would older, grown-up me do if a mint-condition 190E became available for sale? I'd obviously jump at the chance. A Cosworth one? Take both my kidneys please. I actually did come across one recently, but the car was snapped up before I could even say MCO.

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Two cars that defined a generation. 
Image credit

That tells you all you need to know about the appreciation of the Mercedes-Benz 190E today. Back in the day, people were falling over themselves fawning about the E30 BMW M3 (they still are). It was quite lonely to be a 190E fan in my early days. Now, many see the 190E for what is: a true connoisseur's sports sedan, refined and athletic in equal measure. Borne of motorsport, but bred by Mercedes-Benz.

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Jason

Road Test Editor

Jason's foremost passion is all things automotive, where he spent his formative working years as a Product Planner and Trainer. An Advanced Driving Instructor by training and an all-round enthusiast, Jason loves going into intricate details about driving dynamics. Will drive anything with 4 wheels and a steering.

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