Why you’d want a Mercedes-Benz W201
Responding to the 1980s downturn, the Mercedes-Benz answer to the BMW 3 Series cleverly integrated the look and feel of the W123 into a smaller shell, with almost as much space inside and a low drag coefficient (lower, in fact, than the similarly-sized Ford Sierra).
All-new five-link rear suspension incorporated anti-squat technology, while the front boasted gas-filled struts and anti-dive geometry, giving an excellent ride/handling compromise that trounced the opposition.
Boasting a high level of refinement and noise insulation, the 190 (carb) and 190E (injection) were effective mile-eaters and, being high-geared, could be economical, too. Other innovations included asymmetrical door mirrors.
Impressively light for its size and quality, the 190 didn’t compromise on structural integrity but became prone to rust in old age, as thinner steel in low-stress areas could be penetrated more rapidly – despite strategic zinc-plating and wax-injected box-sections.
The addition of the homologation-special 2.3-16 marked a sea change for the traditionally conservative Mercedes, which still held back from adding badges to mark the involvement of tuning guru Cosworth.
Though expensive, most sold before they were built. Comprehensively re-engineered, including hydropneumatic rear suspension to reduce squat under acceleration, its 16-valve twin-cam head and electronic ignition were matched by a close-ratio Getrag five-speed ’box, limited-slip diff and vented front discs.
Though not staggeringly fast, its handling was outstanding while retaining a supple ride. The only major criticism concerned price: it was £2500 more than the quicker BMW M535i.
The fact that top 3 Series had straight-six engines forced Mercedes’ hand, leading to the 190E 2.6. Finally it could compete on power, smoothness and sophistication, while retaining reasonable fuel economy.
Apart from the performance models, most customers chose the excellent Mercedes automatic gearbox and the few manuals tend to be poorly equipped.
Early examples will soon be tax-exempt in the UK, which is likely to boost values.
The homologation cars were built in smaller quantities and are priced accordingly: there were 17,037 2.3-16s built from 1983-’88, followed by 4784 of the 2.5-16 to ’93. In a different league are the Evo Is and IIs, all of which were LHD.
Images: James Mann
Mercedes-Benz W201: what to look for
See above for what to check when looking at Mercedes-Benz W201 190s for sale.
These Mercedes engines are capable of huge mileages: many have passed 200,000 miles and some substantially more.
If well maintained, they should go on almost indefinitely, but neglect has consequences – most commonly head-gasket failure due to inadequate corrosion inhibitor in the coolant over a long period.
Corrosion is the 190’s big enemy, and can be rampant. Inner wings under the washer bottle and the battery are two areas that need careful checking.
The door cards are notorious for breaking away at the top and replacements can be hard to find, so check they are in good order and correct for the car.
The front suspension was unusual, with the MacPherson strut separate from the spring. Look for broken coils, leaky dampers and worn balljoints.
Ensure the alloy wheels are correct and undamaged. Ride height is often reduced, and check for broken rear springs or failing self-levelling.
Mercedes-Benz W201: before you buy
Mileages of well over 200,000 are common and mechanically not usually a problem, provided they have been well maintained – little-used cars generally have better bodywork, but may need more care on the mechanical side.
A key engine issue is the timing chain on pre-facelift single-cam four-cylinder engines, which can stretch and even break at high mileages: it should be replaced at 70,000-mile intervals. Facelifted cars had a much more durable duplex chain.
Head-gasket failure is not uncommon, and is usually caused by neglecting corrosion-inhibitor levels in the coolant.
Bosch K-Jetronic injection is normally reliable on regularly used cars, but lack of use can cause issues.
The automatic transmissions are bombproof provided fluid levels are maintained. Manual gearboxes rarely need more than new bushes in the selector linkage to freshen them up.
Check the rear axle isn’t leaking or noisy.
Options included a sunroof, air-con, electric windows and mirrors, armrests, MB-Tex or velour trim, and bodykits (Sportline, AMG, Cosworth).
Some cars with ABS also had ASD – an automatic differential lock that operated at up to 25kph to aid traction on snow and ice. Look for a dashboard warning light if it’s fitted.
Suspension gets a hard life, so check for broken springs, worn balljoints, failed shock absorbers and hydropneumatic self-levelling (if fitted), and rusted-through suspension mounts. Aftermarket lowering springs are popular, but will upset the ride/handling balance.
Mercedes-Benz W201 price guide
- 190/1.8 £500/2000/6000
- 2.0 £750/3000/7000
- 2.6 £1000/5000/12,000
- Cosworth/2.5* £10,000/16,000/27,500
*c£100,000 for a good Evo I, c£200,000 for a good Evo II
Mercedes-Benz W201 history
1982 Dec 190 (carb) and 190E (injection)
1983 190E 2.3 added in the US Sept 1997cc diesel 190D launched
1983 Sept 190E 2.3-16, dohc Cosworth head
1984 May Five-cylinder 190D 2.5 added
1986 190D 2.5 turbo (not for the UK) Sept 166bhp 190E 2.6 (UK from April ’87)
1988 Facelift, more rear legroom, duplex timing chain on 2.0 July 2.5-16 replaces 2.3; 2463cc Evo with bigger spoiler (502 built)
1989 Mar 231bhp Evo II with wild bodykit (502 built) Sept injected 1.8 replaces carb 190
1992 Catalytic converter standard
1993 Production ends
The owner’s view
“I always loved the Cosworth-engined 190s when I was a kid,” says James Marshall, “but when I was old enough to drive, I couldn’t afford to insure one.
“This is my second: I had a Champagne Silver car before, but this is the best colour! It came from a family member and has a fully documented history. It has only covered 78,000 miles from new.
“I love the way the Mercedes drives, but I don’t use it very much in an effort to avoid putting too many miles on it – I keep it in storage and just take it out for a couple of weeks each year.
“I’ve got an E30 BMW M3 Convertible, too, and a Peugeot 205 GTI project taking up garage space. I’d like to get a Series 1 Ford Escort RS Turbo, but I’ll be keeping the 2.5-16 long-term.
“It’s 100% as it came out of the factory, and could well be the best in the UK.”
BMW E30 3 SERIES
Initially a two-door, the E30 acquired four doors when the 190 broke cover. With a wide range of engines and options, shop around for the best-equipped cars, but beware rust and poor past repairs.
Sold 1982-’94 • No. built 2.34m • Price now £3-100,000
Good value when new, 900s were well built and durable, with almost Cosworth levels of performance from the Turbo. Rust and neglect are the biggest enemies of this very affordable classic.
Sold 1978-’93 • No. built 908,810 • Price now £2-15,000
Mercedes-Benz W201: the Classic & Sports Car verdict
A rot-free 190 will give much pleasure. There are many variables: Sportline trim can add 20% to value, and six-cylinder cars are the most sought-after of the single-cam models, followed by the 2.0E.
It’s easy to get blinded to the key considerations – service history and body/mechanical condition – which are far more important than spec. Be patient, and the right 190 in the right condition will come along.
- Durable cars that are a pleasure to drive
- Most are still moderately priced, except for the ultimate performance models
- Diesels, 1.8s and carb 2.0s can be uninspiring
- Rust, inappropriate modifications and poor maintenance can turn any 190 into a money-pit
Mercedes-Benz W201 specifications
- Sold/number built 1982-’93/1,879,629
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, ohc 1797/1997/2299/2498cc ‘four’, single carb or fuel injection; 2599cc injected ‘six’; 2299/2463/2498cc dohc injected ‘four’; diesel 1997cc ‘four’ or 2497cc ‘five’, with optional turbo
- Max power 88bhp @ 5000rpm to 231bhp @ 7200rpm
- Max torque 122lb ft @ 2500rpm to 181lb ft @ 5-6000rpm
- Transmission four/five-speed manual or four-speed auto, RWD
- Suspension independent, at front by damper struts, lower wishbones rear five-link, self-levelling on 2.3-16; coils, anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering recirculating ball, with optional power assistance (standard on some models)
- Brakes discs, with servo (vented front with ABS on top models, optional on others)
- Length 14ft 6-7in (4420-4445mm)
- Width 5ft 8½in (1740mm)
- Height 4ft 5½-6½in (1361-1383mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 9in (2665mm)
- Weight 2376-2948lb (1080-1340kg)
- 0-60mph 13.8-7.1 secs
- Top speed 106-155mph
- Mpg 23-35
- Price new £12,590-24,670 (1987)