New cars: Mercedes

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Six-pointed star

Outwardly there is barely a clue to indicate any difference, but then that is never the Mercedes way of doing things. Just as your four-cylinder 200 saloon might easily be mistaken for your neighbdur’s faster and dearer 300, so the appearance of the six-cylinder unit in the compact 190 shell could pass unnoticed altogether, at least from the outside.

So far the attractive little 190 has been offered in three guises, all powered by widely differing four-cylinder engines: the basic carburettor version with 105 bhp, then the most popular, the 190E, fuel-injected to produce 122 bhp, and finally the Cosworth developed E-2.3 16, sold in limited quantities as an excuse to go racing. The Cosworth remains the most powerful (188 bhp) and the most expensive of the small Mercedes at £22,600, since the newcomer slips neatly in below it to offer extra refinement for everyday motoring, rather than to upstage its prodigious performance.

Transplanted straight from the bigger 260E saloon, the six displaces 2599cc, and like the 3-litre version in the estate tested last month, utilises mechanical/electronic fuel injection, with all auxiliaries driven by a single V-belt. While the power figure of 166bhp does not approach the Cosworth, the torque ratings are reversed, the bigger six boasting 188 lb ft against the four-valve four’s 173 lb ft. This relative lack of torque is what spoils an otherwise brilliant performer: on the right roads the 2.3 16-valve excels, demonstrating its race breeding, but it is hard to progress smoothly through jammed traffic and towns.

Not so the new 2.6: this is a particularly relaxed unit, whirring in near-silence to its power-peak of 5800rnm and hitting the single-carriageway limit in 8.9 sec (add 0.1 for the auto). It does not feel especially rapid, a measure of the quiet and comfort inside, but a long journey is probably where the car will get into its stride.

The small saloon shares the complex five-link rear suspension of the mid-range cars, gaining thereby something of that limousine-smooth deportment, but with an extra responsiveness thanks to a less massive body. There are no other changes to the interior: clear but unobtrusive dials complement large simple controls, including a single stalk on the left covering indicators, flash, and that fascinating and effective eccentric-sweep wiper which clears most of the flush-bonded screen (and which Jaguar would do well to copy). All Mercedes sold in Britain include the automatic device which instantly takes up any seat belt slack in the event of an accident, and the famous airbag and ABS are optionally available on all models.

While mechanical refinement even of these compact cars is up to M-B’s expected standards, the size compromise shows up both in the limited rear seat space, and the rather short doors front and rear. Yet it feels as solidly constructed as other Mercedes, and offers many of the same options, such as self-levelling rear suspension (although internally-adjustable headlamps are standard) and the electric memory seat system.

Minus options, but including the power steering and central-locking, the 190E 2.6 overlaps the range of middle-sized Mercs in price: the new compact weighs in at £18,000, which would buy a 230E with extras. So it cannot simply be the lure of a “cheap” Mercedes which sells the 190 range.

The appeal of the compact size must also be significant; yet, surprisingly, the 190 2.6 is actually 3mph slower, albeit at a respectable 134mph, than the larger car using the same size engine. Apart from the 2.6 badge, only wider slots in the front spoiler and the twin-exhaust pipe hint at the extra pair of pistons.

While the five-speed manual box allows decent progress to be made in an unfussed manner, the four-speed automatic is more reluctant: even in “sport” mode it is over-keen to change up, and slow to kick-down, with a bit of a pause before speed begins to build. But fitting the same box to the Cosworth 2.3 16, another new combination, has produced an altogether more satisfactory result: with a torque converter to keep the engine spinning at the right sort of speeds, the low-speed flaccidity disappears, replaced by a welcome flexibility. Inevitably, the auto loses the responsive edge which allows the driver to trim the attitude of the manual car with great accuracy, but it becomes a truly enjoyable sporting automatic, of which there are rather few. GC