Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16

The quality of the design and build of this classic 1980s Q-car still shines through and its Cosworth-developed 16-valve engine is a star turn

You can’t say that Daimler-Benz has never made a bad car, for it has made several, mainly gutless six-cylinder models churning out 50bhp per litre or less. But this November marked the launch, 25 years ago, of the ground-breaking 190 saloon, which was and still is a very good car indeed. And of those, the Cosworth-engineered 2.3-16 and 2.5-16 versions were gems.

A small saloon like the 190 was a major departure from what the market had come to expect from Stuttgart-Untertürkheim, whose product line, a few brilliant efforts aside, was becoming rather staid. And it was a major investment: from its inception in 1976 to its launch six years later, the project absorbed no less than two billion Marks.

Final responsibility for the vehicle was down to two men: Professor Werner Breitschwerdt, head of engineering, and Bruno Sacco, head of styling. The car was one of Sacco’s finest efforts, and the motor sport department, with idleness seemingly imminent, immediately fixed a collective eye upon it. They had rallying in mind.

The idea of a high-performance version of the 190 came along even before the launch of the base model, which was initially conceived as a 2-litre car, using the reliable M102 series engine, which could be taken out to 2.3 litres. It was this enlarged block which would form the basis of what happened next.

Since the demise in 1961 of the Borgward firm, whose 1.5-litre Formula 2 engines had broken so much ground, four-valve technology was rare in Germany so if Daimler was to develop a performance version of the M102 it would have to look overseas – which is how Cosworth Engineering came to be involved. Even better, it had its own new foundry, so after a discreet approach from Stuttgart, a development file was opened and work began. The objective was an engine which could produce about 190 brake horsepower, or an increase of 40 per cent over the donor unit, reliably.

Cosworth’s work was restricted to the light-alloy head itself, the 10.5:1 Mahle pistons and the beautifully crafted exhaust manifold. Even the standard con-rods were deemed to be strong enough. The result would be the highest-revving road car engine that Daimler-Benz had ever built. It would never be known as a Cosworth and was never badged as such, but the connection was artfully leaked. Completed top ends were shipped to Germany, a task which was made easier when the production line was shifted to Bremen.

As Cosworth developed the head, so Daimler-Benz, in its reassuringly anally-retentive way, further refined the car. The 190 had already been developed in the Stuttgart wind tunnel to have a startlingly low drag coefficient, so now they set about making improvements in comfort, handling and grip – this was never going to be a cheap car, so to attract buyers from Porsche’s market it would require a certain ‘feel’. The five speed manual transmission would be by Getrag, with a limited-slip differential.

Bushes and anti-roll bars were stiffened, the car was lowered and a body kit was designed which offered a reduction of lift in proportion to the weight distribution (47:53) of the car. The engine undertray was modified, the steering quickened, and the result was a 1260kg car with a drag coefficient of 0.32 and 185bhp. That is the car we drove. Always try the first one; it’s what they were all about.

The public debut of the new car took place at the opening of the decaffeinated Nürburgring in spring 1984, when the main event was supported by a race for 2.3-16s. Many of the great and the good were entered, in identical smoke silver cars, and the race was won by a comparative unknown, Ayrton Senna da Silva. A hint of things to come arrived when he ran Alain Prost (who had given him a lift from the airport) off the circuit in the first lap, a moment which would rather come to define their future relationship.

Nobody imagines that an over-square four-cylinder engine with 16 valves and high blood pressure is going to sparkle at low revs, and this car is no exception. The tickover is promising, with that distinctive flat chuffiness of a well-cammed four-cylinder 16-valver running high compression. In standard form the rev-limiter allows 7000rpm and, frankly, not that much happens below 5000. It’s brisk, to be sure, but the punch between 5500 and peak power at 6500 is quite startling, as the exhaust note hardens and the engine lights up. These cars have shimmed tappets, so expect to hear some slight evidence of that. There is little of the blaring, minigun delivery of the later DTM race version, but even so it is far from subtle, and, due to the knackered state of the engine bay insulation on this example, far from quiet.

Indirect gear performance is quite astonishing for a car of this heft; I find myself in third and fourth most of the time (fifth is 1:1), and 50-80mph via second and third (we are on private land for this) feels like about six seconds. This is quick, as is a standing start quarter-mile in 15, with 90mph at the end of it. In short, performance is on a par with an early 2.4-litre Porsche 911 (it will reach 143mph), but it is delivered without that car’s handling quirks.

Recently rebuilt at 114,000 miles, this example has good oil pressure and compression. It is a seriously efficient engine, one which will happily cruise all day at autobahn speeds. After all, three prototypes, only slightly modified, sustained an average of 154mph around the Nardo test track in Italy in 1983. For eight days and nights.

Brakes, ABS-assisted, are excellent rather than startling and the self-levelling suspension, coupled with the multi-link rear layout (still in use today) offers levels of stability and grip at speed which were then unknown in a rear-wheel drive saloon, and rare even now. Handling is basically neutral; I tried hard to generate amusing oversteer, but it was beyond me at road speeds. There must be a breakaway point, but I couldn’t find it. This is a safe and generous car, and particularly competent on minor roads, as I learned on the trip home, wildlife-dodging on the B3081.

As you would expect of any 1987 car built before the unpleasantness of that October, soon after which little light-switch economies tended to appear elsewhere, the build quality is magnificent and the car is clearly sturdy, with all the weight in the basic shell – bonnet, boot, doors and roof are flimsy by comparison, and the extra body kit is GRP.

The only nit-picking concerns mere trivia: the interior is gloomy and short of storage. Aside from that, this is the perfect 1980s Q-car rocketship. But it was costly at the time; with all the options available, it was quite possible to spend the thick end of £35,000.

It did not end with the 2.3-16. There is evidence to suggest that some found this first version somewhat feral compared to what Mercedes customers were used to; a 2.5-litre version of the car accordingly appeared in 1988 which, although nominally (15bhp) more powerful, was little quicker, though clearly more civilised and even a little roomier. The engine, being stroked, had lost some of that over-square urge of the earlier car, while slightly longer gearing meant that it would be better suited to the excellent Mercedes automatic gearbox which, if fitted to the 2.3, can be something of an ordeal.

Audi had torpedoed any rallying ambitions for the 2.3-16 when it unveiled the wondrous Quattro, so the competition department, observing private entrants at work in French touring car races, lobbied hard for a track racer. This triggered the appearance in October ’89 of the homologation special, the Evo I, of which 502 were built, all LHD, all blue/black, and recognisable by their deeper arches and much larger spoilers. Mechanically they differ a little from the 2.5-16, with shorter-stroke cranks, which recovered lost revs. Further, AMG, having cut its teeth on the mighty 6.3, offered a top-end tuning conversion which delivered 235bhp.

A year later, a second generation, the Evo II, arrived. Again 502 were built, and this car was characterised by a truly outrageous body kit which still startles today. It was highly effective, rather to the dismay of BMW engineers, particularly as the two firms were by now locked in showroom combat in the DTM (German saloon car championship) race series, in which the Evo engine regularly (and reliably) delivered more than 350bhp.

The 2.5-16 continued in production until 1993. Of both engine types, more than 26,000 were produced, so they are (Evos aside) not particularly rare, and represent something of a bargain at present. Expect to pay £3000-£5000 for a decent one, and the better the condition (they can rust, like all steel cars) the more of a seller’s market it becomes. Running costs are very much what you’d expect. It’s a Mercedes, and it’s 20 years old, but parts supply is excellent. It’s also a much better-mannered car than the BMW M3.

I have driven most of the contemporary alternatives to these cars and there is no doubt that this one is a forgotten treasure. Everything it does happens with total aplomb and builds confidence instantly. No doubt, if pressed, it would go slightly bonkers, and there are tuners (inevitably, in Scandinavia) who regularly run them up to 450bhp at 9000rpm using forced induction. But as an exercise in what two billion Marks used to buy, it is a seminal little car. It’s very German – but in a good way. Which is why, as it was for sale, I bought it.