Vintage Views: Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16

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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View comments on the GRM forums
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 Reader
4/6/15 4:26 p.m.

And parts are readily available at autobone?

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 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 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 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.

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