Vintage Views: Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16


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In 1984, the battle began. It was the inaugural season of the original DTM, the Teutonic touring car series formally known as Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft. Wheels started turning rapidly in German automaker think tanks to produce the perfect entry. This would be a war of brains and mechanical brawn, and the scene buzzed with activity and electricity.

Mercedes-Benz heeded the call and rolled out the 190E 2.3-16, a sports version of their smallest sedan. Its development was originally aimed at stage rally, but Audi’s quattro system rendered the rear-drive Benz obsolete in that arena. Production of the 190E 2.3-16 quietly continued for one reason: to dominate the touring car competition worldwide.

That’s right, like so many great drivers’cars, the 190E 2.3-16 went to market solely to meet FIA homologation standards for a high-profile racing series. To make the car eligible for the DTM series, Mercedes-Benz had to produce at least 4000 road-going examples, which they handily sold.

The homologation car’s engine is what really set it apart from the rank-and-file 190E sedans. Its Cosworth 2.3-liter, 16-valve four-pot produced a good 185 horses at 7000 rpm–a stellar amount of power at the time. That efficient powerplant was meshed with a dogleg gearbox and a limited-slip differential. The 2.3-16 also sported Recaro seats and a tasteful aero kit. Mercedes-Benz had created an exceptional track car.

But they didn’t stop at DTM. In August of 1983, before the series even made its debut, they took three of these small sports sedans to the Nardo test track for a highspeed run. The result? They traveled at an average of 154 mph for more than 30,000 nonstop miles, destroying nine world speed records in the process.

The automotive world was smitten with the 190E 2.3-16. It could hang with many sport coupes and reached 60 mph in about 7 seconds. It offered almost Porsche 911 performance, but with a trunk and a real back seat.

Unfortunately, rain was about to fall on the Mercedes-Benz parade. After an extremely impressive first year in DTM, BMW rolled out their own giant-killer, the much-heralded M3. BMW swiftly proved their product to be the greater German sports sedan.

Should the 190E 2.3-16 be consigned to the history’s dustbin? Never. It helped bring the M3 to market, and today it offers the better value. The 2.3-16 eventually made it stateside, where it was offered for the 1986 and 1987 model years. These versions suffered a slight drop in engine output, however.

Hagerty’s price guide currently lists an average price of $11,430 for the Benz touring car special, and values have remained flat in recent years. In fact, we have seen examples advertised for less than half that amount. In comparison, thanks to a recent price spike, a decent E30-chassis M3 now fetches at least $30,000.

The Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16 is a practical, limited-production, race-ready special that’s fun to drive. Perhaps now is the time to seek one out.

Shopping and Ownership

Chris Beger, of the Auto Clinic of Ormond Beach, is an experienced mechanic who’s well versed in the Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16. We turned to him for some buying and maintenance advice.

If you’re shopping for a 190E 2.3-16, take the first step you always take with an ’80s car: Look for rust. These cars, like most Mercedes-Benzes from the era, are prone to chassis decay; make sure to poke around at the rubberized undercoating to make sure the metal on the other side is still intact. They’re also prone to rust under the back seat, so if the seller will let you, sneak a peek back there as well.

Take a look at the bushings throughout the suspension as well as the motor mounts. These items tend to wear out quickly.

Sloppy-feeling gearboxes are common, but don’t let this be a turn-off. It’s rare to come across a car without this ailment.

These cars also tend to have bad airconditioning systems.

The timing chain should be replaced at 100,000 miles, and valves should be adjusted regularly. You can tell if the valves need to be adjusted by listening for a rattle before oil pressure is built. Likewise, the timing chain can also be heard if it needs to be replaced. All this work should be completed by a qualified professional.

As with many Mercedes-Benzes, these tend to see more trouble–deteriorating seals, especially–if they’re left sitting around. With proper maintenance, these cars are pretty bulletproof.

Another common ailment is a leaking steering system. Don’t worry too much about this: It may sound daunting, but it’s not that pricey to fix.

These are some great cars and overall are very underappreciated. The 2.3-16 is pretty rare, especially over here in the States. If you have the chance to get your hands on one, you would be hard-pressed not to take it.

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Comments
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chandlerGTi
chandlerGTi UltraDork
4/6/15 4:01 p.m.

I've owned two and you can buy a real cream puff for $8500-9500. It's a small car bargain in my opinion.

Trackmouse
Trackmouse Reader
4/6/15 4:26 p.m.

And parts are readily available at autobone?

chandlerGTi
chandlerGTi UltraDork
4/6/15 9:00 p.m.
Trackmouse wrote: And parts are readily available at autobone?

No, but easily ordered from a specialty house, benz dealer or rock auto much like other cars of this era and provenance.

Knurled
Knurled UltimaDork
4/6/15 10:14 p.m.
chandlerGTi wrote: I've owned two and you can buy a real cream puff for $8500-9500. It's a small car bargain in my opinion.

Now I'm starting to wonder if I used to know you from somewhere else.

FE3tMX5
FE3tMX5 New Reader
5/16/15 5:45 p.m.

It shares a major amount of parts with the other 190s. I rebuilt the entire rear suspension using standard 190 arms and bushings. Rear self leveling shocks are proprietary- but there "normal" aftermarket shocks/springs available.

KyAllroad
KyAllroad Dork
5/16/15 7:25 p.m.

And was the source of great amusement on a Top Gear episode as everyone was caught out by the dogleg gearbox.

Fueled by Caffeine
Fueled by Caffeine MegaDork
5/16/15 9:53 p.m.

I heard Martin brundle said this was the finest rwd chassis ever.

ThreePedalSteve
ThreePedalSteve New Reader
4/16/18 10:05 a.m.

Put 430,000 miles on my '86 190E 2.3-16 manual over a sixteen year period with only timing chains, and clutch replacement. And a dozen clutch slave hydraulic cylinders. I would just carry an extra and change them roadside. 

The real question to collectors- "Why is the e30 BMW M3 bringing 2X original sticker price, while the sixteen valve MB brings less than a quarter of its list price?" There are far fewer of the Benz's and they dominated DTM in their day. 

 

CyberEric
CyberEric Reader
4/16/18 10:52 a.m.

I really want to love these, but the one I drove had a TERRIBLE gear box. It was so bad I was laughing. Maybe it just needed a refresh, I dunno. Not that E30s have the best gearbox either. MB doesn't make manuals for a reason was my takeaway. 

The whole car felt like a far cry from the E30 M3 I drove, but again, it could have been a particularly ratty example. I love the looks of the 190E, though. Maybe I need to give one another try. 

Edit: Sounds like the sloppy gearbox is common, and can be helped, maybe. 

LanEvo
LanEvo HalfDork
4/18/18 6:26 a.m.
Ed Higginbotham said:

Unfortunately, rain was about to fall on the Mercedes-Benz parade. After an extremely impressive first year in DTM, BMW rolled out their own giant-killer, the much-heralded M3. BMW swiftly proved their product to be the greater German sports sedan.

I don't know if I'd go so far. As the DTM series went on, the arms race escalated with various Evolution models. The 2.5-16 Evo II won a ton of races against BMW. They generally did better at high-speed tracks (due to aero) and at the Nurburgring, where Mercedes had better reliability. And they were the overall champions in 1992.

LanEvo
LanEvo HalfDork
4/18/18 6:33 a.m.

Full disclosure: I race a 2.3-16 in vintage racing and with the BMW CCA. I'm probably biased.

FE3tMX5 said:

It shares a major amount of parts with the other 190s.

And some of the "special" parts on the 16v compared to regular W201's (like brakes and wheel bearings) come from the W124 and R129 chasses.

KyAllroad said:

And was the source of great amusement on a Top Gear episode as everyone was caught out by the dogleg gearbox.

That was a lot of schtick. For one thing, those guys are old enough that they've driven a million other cars with dogleg gearboxes. I know Jeremy used to personally own a Porsche 928 with a dogleg 1st. Besides, there's a lockout ... so you can't "accidentally" put it into reverse. You need to pull up on the lever and push it against a fairly stiff gate.

LanEvo
LanEvo HalfDork
4/18/18 6:41 a.m.
CyberEric said:

I really want to love these, but the one I drove had a TERRIBLE gear box. It was so bad I was laughing. Maybe it just needed a refresh, I dunno. Not that E30s have the best gearbox either. MB doesn't make manuals for a reason was my takeaway.

Considering the original Euro M3s used the same Getrag 265 gearbox, I guess you'd expect them to feel pretty similar ;)

I've owned a few 2.3-16 models and plenty of E30/E36 BMWs. They all feel about the same as far as gearboxes and clutches go. Mercedes does have more bushings in the shifting mechanism, so it can get pretty sloppy if you have a ratty example. Cheap and easy to fix.

pilotbraden
pilotbraden UltraDork
4/18/18 6:43 a.m.

I had one. I would like to have another one. I don't have any complaint against the gearbox

Old_Town
Old_Town New Reader
4/18/18 7:51 a.m.

While not ideal, are the automatic versions of these soul-sucking? While I'd prefer the manual autos seem to pop-up on CL for cheap...

grover
grover Reader
4/18/18 8:27 a.m.

Didn’t VW used to use a dogleg that required you to push down to get into R? I never saw it as a problem. 

CyberEric
CyberEric Reader
4/18/18 10:55 a.m.

In reply to LanEvo :

Good to know. Yeah, I currently have an E30 and the gearbox is awful. At the time, I was working at an Acura/MB dealership doing car porting. Coming from the Acuras Integras probably made the 190 feel that much worse in comparison, and that particular 190 was probably pretty beat up. A refresh would have helped, but even then, I sort of doubt I would have loved the shifter feel. 

Frankly, I lot of the older German cars feel a little "obtuse" to me after driving more modern sports cars. E30s, E34 M5, that 190,  old 911s, etc. Maybe it's just me. It's funny because I sort of like it, in the same way I like dialing a radial phone or wearing a vintage blazer, but it feels a bit... unathletic. Still a cool car. 

j_tso
j_tso New Reader
4/18/18 11:02 a.m.

Does anyone have any experience with how the 2.3-16 compares with the 2.6 inline 6?

I read the US-spec 2.3-16 was "detuned" from the Euro version and only made a few hp more than the 2.6.  I think the 6 would be obviously heavier, but torquier and smoother.

 

CyberEric
CyberEric Reader
4/18/18 11:05 a.m.

In reply to j_tso :

I actually remember liking the 2.6 I6, felt pretty torque-y and smooth. I'm pretty sure it only comes with the auto trans though. At least I don't ever remember seeing one with a manual in my days at the MB dealer. 

LanEvo
LanEvo HalfDork
4/18/18 2:42 p.m.
j_tso said:

Does anyone have any experience with how the 2.3-16 compares with the 2.6 inline 6?

I read the US-spec 2.3-16 was "detuned" from the Euro version and only made a few hp more than the 2.6.  I think the 6 would be obviously heavier, but torquier and smoother.

Very different cars. The 16v feels much lighter over the front axles, the steering box has a quicker ratio, and (at least in stock form) the suspension is stiffer and the wheels/are wider. Overall, the front-end feels much more planted when changing directions. And, even though the US-spec engine is detuned compared to the Euro versions, it still LOVES to rev ... and sounds amazing doing it. Feels like a sportscar. The 2.6L is smooth, quiet, and torquey like a modern car. Not much excitement there.

CyberEric said:

In reply to j_tso :

I actually remember liking the 2.6 I6, felt pretty torque-y and smooth. I'm pretty sure it only comes with the auto trans though. At least I don't ever remember seeing one with a manual in my days at the MB dealer. 

5-speed manuals (regular H-pattern) are pretty easy to find in Europe. But they didn't sell many here in the USA (maybe none at all). Not sure it's worth the hassle of converting. The 2.6L works great as a daily driver with the auto box.

LanEvo
LanEvo HalfDork
4/18/18 2:46 p.m.
Old_Town said:

While not ideal, are the automatic versions of these soul-sucking? While I'd prefer the manual autos seem to pop-up on CL for cheap...

I had one a few years ago. It's not too bad, but the auto doesn't like to hold onto gears unless you floor it. So it does kill some of the fun.

Then again, you can convert to manual without too much trouble. Lots of us 16v nerds have parts hoarded away: I've got a complete spare transmission, complete engine, an extra block, and two spare heads. Just last week there was a guy on the 190rev forums selling a complete conversion kit for a fair price. If you poke around abit and get active on the forums and FB group, you'll find what you need. I wouldn't bother swapping a regular W201, but it's worth it if you're starting with a 16v.

Stanger2000
Stanger2000 New Reader
4/19/18 9:13 a.m.

Always liked these cars,  and have always looked long and hard at plenty of examples that pop up on CL.  But they are just too small for me (or us I should say).  Not sure how a rear facing babyseat + a fwd facing 4 in 1 would fit in the backseat, let alone with enough room for the driver without the driver looking like Joey Logano strapped in the cockpit.  That and the wife would prob 'raise questions' if a 25+ yr old Benz came into the picture....reality sets in.

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