Curbside Classic: Mercedes 190E (W201) – Das Beste oder….Baby!

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If the average age of cars on the road is creeping upward, it’s difficult to notice in Upper Arlington, the wealthy Columbus, Ohio suburb where I unexpectedly found this Mercedes 190E.  My pictures neither accurately represent the vast number of late model European SUVs which have replaced cars like this in the area nor do justice to its stunning condition.  With only 50,000 miles on the odometer, it’s easy to imagine this 1984 or 1985 model belongs to one of the shrewd, well-heeled seniors slowly leaving the area and was quite possibly its owner’s final nice car purchase.

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Many such people in the area have left behind beautifully preserved homes over the past decade, which are often gutted in favor of garish makeovers by the wealthy young families buying them, if not razed altogether to build new, oversized houses on their now valuable lots.  In a similar fashion, the historical value of this functional, and now classic, Benz regularly goes unrecognized.  Let’s not commit a similar sin in overlooking what an important car it was, both for the marque, and the industry as a whole.

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Designated within Daimler-Benz as W201, six years were spent creating the 1982 190, using an egalitarian approach to engineering, ensuring that the same degree of detail and thorough development that distinguished Mercedes’ larger models went into their newest, least expensive offering.  Making the most of this investment, the company applied the fresh technology that debuted in the “Baby Benz” to subsequent redesigns of more expensive models.  This trickle-up approach prevented the car from becoming an expensive adventure in the vein of GM’s Y-body compacts (were GM wise enough to use that car’s aluminum engine blocks, independent rear suspension and unit bodies in their mid and full-sized models, Mercedes might have had a very different history).

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What also makes this car important-besides the introduction of new technology which would ultimately receive fame in the company’s more expensive models-is its styling.  It defines its maker’s aesthetic sensibility as practiced under chief stylist Bruno Sacco and, indeed, is mentioned as his favorite achievement. Sacco succeeded Friedrich Geiger as head of design in the early seventies, but remained confined both by the brand’s evolutionary styling framework and by long gestational periods for upcoming models.  So, while his name may have been attached to the W123 and W126, it was likely only with the W201 that his hand was free to pen the shape he truly wanted.

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What he and his team created is by all accounts a successful design, looking at once athletic and modern without conceding any bit of poise or dignity.  There is clear influence of the C111 gullwing concept car, with flat, planar surfaces, a distinct wedge shape and obvious attention to aerodynamics.  This is most evident in the beveled, tapering edges of the short, tall decklid and in the frames of the flush side windows.

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At the same time that it was very new looking when compared with the company’s previous efforts, it remained appropriate to the era and maintained its contemporary image years later.   Management was suitably pleased as Sacco remained in charge of styling well into the ‘90s, with the attractive (and highly flawed) W210 being his last car.  Only when Mercedes introduced the W221 (2006 S-class) did we see a genuine break from styling in Sacco’s idiom

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Despite its success in design, however, the car failed to make a splash in the United States.  While the same styling and engineering informed W124’s success in the American market, the W201 itself was a victim of both its marketing position and overall sophistication.

For starters, its dynamic excellence was too subtle to appreciate.  Mercedes had always favored stability and control in high-speed and/or rough conditions over sheer agility or comfort.  In the days before stability and traction control, successfully achieving this was a considerable accomplishment.  With the aim of maintaining traditional Mercedes traits in a compact package, slow-ratio recirculating ball steering, fed through a gigantic wheel, remained along with disciplined damping.  As with other models, a long wheelbase, soft bushings, generous suspension travel and amply padded, coil-sprung seats were used to take the edge off the ride.  On sixteen valve models, the addition of hydropneumatic damping for the rear axle-previously only available on station wagons and high-end S-class models-helped remove whatever harshness remained in the chassis.

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At the front end, MacPherson struts were adopted for the first time, allowing ample space for powertrain componentry and crumple zone deformation in the new, compact car.  Additional wheel location was provided by generously sized lower wishbones directly mounted to the body using two large bushings.   As was standard practice for the company, springs were mounted separately, inboard of the damper units, in the front suspension and also, for the first time, at the rear axle. This more expensive and uncommon approach aids in the packaging of components, allowing greater travel and, I suspect, reduces potential for bounce by affording greater leverage to the dampers, mounted several inches outboard of their associated springs.

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Most significantly, the camber and toe changes theretofore associated with independent rear suspension didn’t affect the car.  Instead of relying on commonly used semi-trailing arms, Mercedes debuted a radical multilink axle in which five control links mounted to a subframe located the rear wheels through bushings of varying stiffness. At any position within their considerable travel, varying degrees of load could be placed upon these links to locate the wheels such that they always remained perpendicular to the road surface, irrespective of forces acting upon the car.  It was a revelation in its time and has become standard practice today.

Unfortunately, instead of applying the new five-link rear axle’s optimized geometry and resultant greater margin of safety to allow for sharpen turn-in and greater throttle adjustability, it was fully used to further enhance the brand’s characteristic unflappability.  This meant that, for those who could appreciate Mercedes’ approach and afford Mercedes’ prices, the car was very secure and relaxing to pilot in all conditions.  The ultimate result, however, was less than exciting for the casual enthusiast, who had his or her choice of more wieldy, overtly sporting cars among the competition.

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If chassis design and exterior styling belonged to a machine light years ahead of other sedans, powertrains reflected early 1980s engineering.  Original offerings in the US consisted of a 2.2 liter diesel with 72 horsepower in the 190D and a 2.3 liter four cylinder in the 190E, with a crossflow aluminum head.  As it lacked a turbo, acceleration with the 2.2 diesel was glacial, with sixty mph coming up in about nineteen seconds with either transmission.  The first-ever fully enclosed engine compartment earned the 190D the nickname “whispering diesel,” but it remained an offering for the diesel faithful or the exceptionally stingy, as the 2.3 was far from a gas guzzler and, offered considerably more performance from its 113 (eventually 130) horsepower.  But, while torquey and durable, it was a gritty, uncharismatic unit, with a 5800 rpm redline.  The recalcitrant manual transmission and downshift-averse, hydraulically controlled automatic did the engines no favors.  As the market was overcoming fear of fuel shortages rival manufacturers offered competition that was often faster, if less efficient.

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Mercedes kept juggling its powertrain offerings, betraying its panic over the car’s flagging success in the US market.  A 90 horsepower, 2.5 liter five-cylinder replaced the 2.2 for 1986, accompanied in 1987 by a highly desirable turbocharged variant with 122 hp, which was inexplicably discontinued after only one year.  The engine continued, sans turbo, before Mercedes dropped the 190D from its US lineup altogether in 1990.  The dated 2.3-liter four, discontinued one year earlier, was reintroduced in 1991 in the interest of lowering the car’s starting price, having learned very little over its two-year sabbatical.

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The excellent, Cosworth manufactured 2.3-16 valve arrived in 1986 but was significantly detuned in US form, and with 167 horses, not powerful enough to justify its considerable expense at 35,000 1986 dollars.  It too was discontinued following the 1987 model year, during which the 158-hp 2.6 six from the 260E was shoehorned into the car, requiring a redesign of the radiator support.  Though seemingly not part of the initial plan for the 190, it most effectively suited the car’s character, offering smoothness and a steady, even spread of power.

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Whether the 2.6 was successful in aiding the 190’s reputation for indifferent performance is less certain.  Mercedes kept updating the car until its eventual retirement; lowering the ride height and adding lower body cladding for 1989; adding ABS and a driver’s airbag for 1986 and, in 1992 and 1993, offering a rare and appealing Sportline option for the 2.6, with firmer suspension, 205mm wide tires, larger seat bolters and a faster steering ratio.  But by the late 1980s, there was a host of compelling and more powerful options for less money.  This constituted the most significant challenge the W201 faced in the US.

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This shouldn’t be taken to mean the 190 didn’t offer its own unique host of virtues.  On the contrary, Mercedes offered a combination of compactness and security no other manufacturer offered.  No cars of the era, bar Audi’s quattros, were as stable in extreme conditions and even they were not as balanced.  The BMW 3-series, while nimble and durable, was a rather unruly handler until it was replaced in 1992.  The Acura Legend wasn’t in the same league was as far as dynamics were considered and it was generally bland.  None of the competition was as solid or composed over rough pavement and none were nearly as safe in a crash.  Indeed, if we ignore its powertrains, the 190 really was the car of the future, setting new standards in safety, handling, and overall refinement unmatched until the 1990s.

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For American buyers, none of this changed the fact that promises put forth by the car’s athletic silhouette and high price remained unfulfilled.  By giving buyers what they needed, not what they wanted, the 190’s attempt to capture younger, affluent American buyers missed the mark.  It met the goal of bringing Benz virtues to a state of the art compact car, along with impeccable style, but in the US, where speeds were lower and gas was cheaper, it took the company’s larger and more powerful models for these traits to really shine.

The W201 was, on the other hand, a massive success in Europe, where the majority of the car’s 1.8 million sales were made, and it strongly influenced much of the car’s subsequent competition.  Audi’s 1986 80 and 90 models aped the Mercedes’ tall, narrow architecture and intense focus on aerodynamics, high-speed stability and safety, becoming bland and bloated in the process.  BMW’s class leading E36 3-series adopted a tall build, multilink rear axle and wedge shape, looking quite different than the coeval E34 and E32.

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But while the competition was influenced by W201, Mercedes sought popularity with US buyers by cheapening the car’s successor, adopting virtually nothing in the way of advanced technology upon its introduction eleven years later.  If the 190’s excellence versus its rivals was too subtle to register, it was simply absent in its replacement, the aptly named “C-class.”

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I can’t speak to the success of Mercedes’ sell-out in terms of profit margins or sales volume, but for savvy observers, it is clear that the company has surrendered its position as an engineering juggernaut, beginning with its replacements for the W201 and very similar W124.  Their current cars are more viable within their price classes but no longer advanced relative to the competition.  The company also struggles to find a design language as successful as that introduced by this landmark car, with recent models being a pastiche of nostalgic and progressive stylistic elements.  Sadly, it all brings to mind the overwrought McMansions now built next to the clean, functional homes in which this car and its owner most likely live.

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