Road test: Mercedes 190E

Downsize but upmarket

There is no unwritten law saying that a Mercedes has to be large, heavy and prestigious, but the excitement that heralded the arrival of the new 190/190E late in 1982 seemed to suggest that Daimler-Benz were about to tackle the Ford Motor Company. All sorts of comparisons were made with the Sierra and Granada as regards sizes, prices and performances, but they were all wide of the mark since the German company was in fact aiming to downsize without sacrificing its reputation for quality comfort and fittings,

The 2-litre Mercedes 190, which has been undergoing development since before the fuel crisis of 1973, was the fulfilment of an ambition to return to the compact class that the original 190 model joined in 1961, and the yardstick for the new W201 series is how well it carries the three-pointed star, and what impact it will have on the young executive market. So far, in Europe, it has been eminently successful in winning new customers to the marque.

The Mercedes has different images in different countries. In Germany — for instance, it is everything from a taxi to a businessman’s express. In the Third World countries is is a rugged car that commands a high price label, but outlasts its rivals and eventually represents better value. In the English-speaking countries the Mercedes is definitely a status symbol, carrying the cachet of success.

This year Daimler-Benz’s passenger car production should top the half-million mark for the first time, assisted upwards by the extension of the Bremen plant where production of the 190 will be concentrated. Last year most of the 190’s volume (over 100,000 were produced) was at the expense of the 200 model, production of which should increase again at the Sindelfingen plant near Stuttgart.

The 190 carburettor model competes quite well in the 2-litre executive class on price, at £9,685 not far apart from the BMW 320i, the Peugeot 505 GTI and the Ford Sierra XR4i. It has to be said though that the 190 is a sedate performer and would have a totally different appeal, the 190E model starting at £10,640 being the one a keen driver would consider.

Few customers would be invoiced for the list price though, one New Year bonus is the standardisation of five-speed manual transmission without a price increase. ABS non-skid braking is a very desirable extra at £924 while electrically operated windows will add £516, a sunroof £506, metallic paint £372 a headlamp wash / wipe £207 and the most expensive Becker radio / cassette £515, with an electric aerial so the total price of 190E could well exceed £12,000 on delivery.

The 190 series manages to maintain the traditional Mercedes lines while being substantially smaller, and has a creditable drag coefficient of 0.33 ensuring that it will perform well throughout the range. The shell is 600 pounds lighter than that of the 200, the 190E turning the scales at no more than 1,100 kg (21.6 cwt), so with 122 bhp DIN available the rate of acceleration is impressive.

We tested the last of the right-hand-drive, pre-production, four-speed models in December, finding that the widely spaced ratios don’t enhance the car’s behaviour, but have driven the five-speed which accelerates faster and is more economical into the bargain. The five-speed will just break the important 10-second barrier to 60 mph, whereas our four-speed model would get there in 10.1 sec, and both versions have a top speed of 121 mph. The five-speed model actually peaks in fourth gear, which is the same as top in the four-speed, while the substantially over-driven fifth ratio allows markedly relaxed cruising at up to 110 mph.

The four-cylinder sohc engine, which first appeared in 1980, has the feel of a power unit with a heavy flywheel. At tickover it is absolutely inaudible and free of vibration, in a way that would do credit to a 12-cylinder Jaguar, and a number of times we reached for the key before realising that the rev-counter was showing 800 rpm. Under acceleration in the engine is grumbly, unmistakeably a “four”, yet the 190 is undoubtedly a German car in that it’s superb on motorways, having the ability to cruise at 70 mph or at 100 mph with barely a change in overall sound levels. The low drag is achieved despite the rain gutters on each side of the screen, which keep the side glass clean in dirty weather without contributing to the wind noise level.

Having driven the car briskly for a week we were agreeably surprised to have an overall fuel consumption of 29.8 mpg, which is far better than a traditional Mercedes owner would normally expect. The Bosch LE fuel injection systems shuts off during the overrun period and the model has a now familiar economy gauge encouraging the owner to go easy with the accelerator. The heavy flywheel effect is noticeable during upward gear changes, the revs falling only slowly and making it more difficult than usual to match the engine and road speed properly. This was a marked feature of the four-speed, but should be less noticeable on the five-speed. The lever itself can be moved very quickly, on a narrow gate.

From the driver’s point of view the 190 series could be nothing but a real Mercedes. The 16 in steering wheel, the straightforward and informative instrument design, the excellent heating system with separate controls for driver and passenger, and the general level of interior appointments are in no way sacrificed . . . smaller does not mean cheaper, in the perceived sense. A giant-sized single wiper clears the screen very efficiently, but is slightly offset to complete its arc on the left side of the glass, the “blind spot” on the right being more marked than is usual in Continental cars. We feel that the wiper spindle should be moved a couple of inches to the left, for the British market, to take car of this problem.

The seats are firm, of course, but are height adjustable and give an unfashionably good view along the bonnet, in contrast to many modern designs, in which the driver can see no further forward than the windscreen wipers. The range of seat adjustment is excellent, but the sacrifices that needed to be made have been effected towards the back of the car: a six-foot passenger would be uncomfortable behind a six-foot driver, his knees pressed into the seat-back, and headroom could be a problem too, due to the subtly falling roof line.

The luggage compartment is no bigger than average for this class of car, so in these respects the 190 customer could be a little disappointed. In Britain, though, we would imagine a typical customer to be in the 25-35 age bracket, maybe with young children, or perhaps a lifelong Mercedes owner who is downsizing before retirement. Either way, the shortage of accommodation for passengers in the back seats, and their luggage, may not be too much of a problem.

Much was made at the announcement, of Mercedes’ multi link rear suspension design, the result of eight different studies and 70 variations, about a third of which were built and tested. The goal was to give the relatively light car the same ride comfort as the heavier S-class saloons – a level of comfort which is easier to achieve with a greater weight – and to a large extent the designers succeeded. The 190 really does have a comfortable ride, disturbed very little by undulations and bumps, through one surprising drawback we found when checking the acceleration was considerable axle-tramp on a damp surface.

The 190 handles extremely well, and generally feels a good base for the much quicker 16-valve version which is due to go into production later this year. the power assisted recirculating ball steering could do to be a little sharper, perhaps, though it could be at the expense of kick-back through the steering wheel.

ABS non-skid braking is no longer a rarity, not on German cars anyway, and our test in the 190E finally convinced us that this is a highly desirable option, if only for the peace of mind it gives. Extremely wet and blustery weather, after a long, hot summer does wonders for sharpening the concentration, leafy lanes or high-speed motorways presenting their hazards. Fortunately we did not need to test the ABS in an emergency, but braked harder than was absolutely necessary a few times just to see how it performed. Up to 70 pounds brake pedal pressure the brakes feel perfectly normal, but beyond that the point the pressure relief valves pulsate very perceptibly to warn the driver that he is beyond the threshold of adhesion.

On wet or icy roads the ABS system cannot stop the car as quickly as on a dry road, and anyone who expects to stop within a very short space is asking for trouble. A normal degree of awareness is still called for, and then the ABS will stop the car in a shorter distance than would otherwise have been possible. Its greatest advantages will be on roads which are unexpectedly slippery, or on surfaces which offer different levels of adhesion on one side or the other – wet leaves, or a ribbon of ice along the nearside, maybe.

Those who buy the 190 or 190E will not judge it not so much by a value-for-money criterion as by the image it gives them, and how its inherent quality outlasts potential rivals. Retained value is a powerful sales incentive too, and though it is too early to judge, a Mercedes customer would expect that value to remain high for a good many years.

It is difficult to say how well we liked the car. The 190E earns respect but is not quite as enjoyable to drive as we’d hoped, a 2.3 litre version, never mind that with 16 valves, might be a better proposition altogether, should such a model ever become available. On the other hand the standard of design, build and fittings is a cut above average, and is bound to appeal to many people prepared to pay upwards of £10,600 to have Stuttgart quality. -– MLC