For quite a long time we heard rumours and stories that Daimler-Benz of Stuttgart were about to enter the “small car market” with an entirely new car. Mistakenly we assumed it was aimed at the mass-market of Renault or Fiat which seemed rather ambitious of the Unterturkheim people. However when this new “small car” was announced it turned out to be a “small car” only by the standards of Daimler-Benz, not by the mass-production factories of cars for the peasants. This new small Mercedes-Benz was the 190 and it was a very reasonably sized four-seater saloon, barely down at the level of the top of the Renault and Fiat range. When Daimler-Benz had been talking about “the lower end of the market” they were obviously referring to the lower end of their market, and that of BMW in particular. Had they talked of a “compact” car, we might not have got off on the wrong foot!
The first 190 saloon that we saw was in the entrance hall of Munich airport (of all places!), and the display did not make any comparisons with any BMW model, the placards merely said “This is the new Mercedes-Benz 190” but it was pretty obvious at what sort of market it was aimed. Its reception in the motoring world seemed a bit luke-warm. A nice car, but why would anyone want a small Mercedes-Benz when they could have a big one. One criticism that was heard was that it lacked performance. It could be wound up on the Autobahn for sure, but it was not lively in the BMW 3 or 5-series idiom.
In order to rectify this appearance of lacking performance Daimler-Benz put in a crash-programme aimed at improving the performance of the 190. They contemplated turbocharging, but rejected the idea as not being in line with their philosophy of serious engineering, feeling that turbocharging was a quick and rather artificial way of improving performance. They preferred to attack the quest for more power from a more basic engineering angle and consequently decided upon an entirely new top end to the otherwise robust 4-cylinder engine. The design brief was for 4-valves per cylinder, operated by twin overhead camshafts; in other words a pure “racing” top end, but the end result had to be suitable for volume production with all the accepted Daimler-Benz attributes of reliability and longevity, as well as integrity of engineering. Their own research and development programme was very full and programmed for some years ahead on a multiplicity of projects, so they had little option in this “crash-programme” but to look outside their own research and development department. They could think of no-one more suitable than Cosworth Engineering, designers and makers of the Ford DFV Grand Prix engine that needs no introduction. Cosworth agreed to take the project on, with a very short time-scale, and Cosworth engineers and Daimler-Benz engineers worked in close co-operation on the original design of this new twin-cam 16-valve alloy cylinder head to fit on the normal 190 bottom end. It would be difficult to connect two more established engineering concerns than Daimler-Benz and Cosworth, and the end result was demonstrated by endurance runs, which also became record runs, on the Fiat test track at Nardi, in Southern Italy. Typical of the Unterturkheim standards, these records were over distances of 25,000 kilometres, 25,000 miles and 50,000 kilometres. On the vast oval test-track the prototype of the new 16-valve engined car averaged well over 150 mph for these impressively long-distances. This was in August 1983, and now, in little more than six months, this new model is in production, known as the 190E 2.3-16 and recently we had a brief opportunity of a test drive in one. At the technical briefing beforehand, by Dr Rudolf Hornig, head of the Daimler-Benz research and development department, someone asked why this new model was called the 190E 2.3-16 instead of having a popular name, like Cherry, Maestro, Prelude etc. Dr H looked at the questioner and said “We are engineers”.
The moment you set off in the 190E 2.3-16 you know what he meant. It is pure Daimler-Benz engineering throughout, and that means a feel of quality that is exuded by all the big Mercedes-Benz cars. It may be a small car by Unterturkheim standards, but that does not mean any lessening of engineering standards. The power-steering must be the best there is, the suspension and ride would have you thinking you were in one of the bigger brothers, the wind noise at 100 mph is non-existent and the whole car can only be described by one word, and that is homogeneous. Compact it may be, but it is still a Mercedes-Benz. The engine is so unobtrusive that you would never know it was a 16-valve twin-cam. It is not a racing-type “screamer” like a Ford BDA, or even an Alfa Romeo. It merely gives sufficient power and torque to waft the 190 saloon along at an impressive pace, without fuss or turmoil. Had it been anything other than a product of Daimler-Benz it would have seemed disappointing, but when you are behind that three-pointed star engineering integrity is the watchword and that means efficiency and solidarity. Although the fuel-injected engine runs up to 7,000 rpm, there is little point in taking much over 6,200 rpm which is where the maximum horsepower of 185 DIN it developed. Maximum torque is at 4,500 rpm, so you can see why you can’t describe the engine as a 16-valve “screamer”. Daimler-Benz and Cosworth Engineering have developed the twin-cam 16 valve layout as an impressive and efficient power unit. The bore and stroke are 95.5 x 80.25 mm giving a capacity of 2,299 cc (small by Daimer-Benz standards).
The five-speed manual gearbox takes the car very briskly up to 100 mph and more, and it should wind up to 140 mph in standard production form, so that one can visualise it cruising all-day on the Autobahns at around 120 mph.
The coming months will see it appearing on the German and European market and early next year a right-hand-drive version will be available on the British market.
It may be a small Mercedes-Benz, but it is a real Mercedes-Benz. — D.S.J.