Can’t lie, we’re not entirely sure how we’ve missed the mighty Mercedes-Benz 190, especially given that we’ve covered lots of old Mercs including the W123 and of course, the W124. Maybe it’s because we now have a W124, so that’s all we have eyes for. Maybe we’re lazy? Maybe on deep, subconscious level, we don’t like the 190? Who knows. All that matters is that we’re here, now, singing the praised of this formidable four-door. Buy one, they’re great.
Need more convincing than a throwaway line at the end of a sentence? FINE. We’ll do this properly then. Because we like you. Are you sitting comfortably? Then we shall begin.
Introduced in 1982, the Mercedes-Benz W201 was welcomed by minicab drivers the world over. It was a new car for Mercedes-Benz, in that it was positioned as being a small executive car. A common misconception is that the W201 190 took over duties from the W123, however, that’s not the case. The W124 did that. The W201 was an all-new concept geared to bring the fight to cars like the Audi 80 and the BMW 3 Series. And the Ford Sierra?
The 190, to give it its proper name (W201 is internal Mercedes coding, or what nerds at car shows use to identify these cars) was styled by Peter Pfeiffer, though history would tell us there were no pinches of pickled pepper involved. He worked under the watchful eye of Mercedes’ head of styling, Bruno Sacco. Peter evidently did good work, as Bruno regards the 190 as one of his favourite designs. Which is odd given how dull the 190 is to look at. Bruno must be the kind of man who was all a fluster at the notion of colours brighter than grey.
And don’t be hatin’ as the kids say. The 190 was a very formulaic design. It was a three-box saloon in the purest form. And that’s all it ever was. There was no coupe, no convertible, no estate. It was a saloon. And that was that. It wasn’t ugly, but it wasn’t a revelation in terms of vehicular aesthetics. However, that reserved styling made it exceptionally easy to like, because there was very little about its look to dislike. Clever move, Pfeiffer.
What the 190 lacked in visual flair, it more then made up for being built like a tank. Get in a 190 today, and even it’s a baggy old wreck that’s been to the moon and back. Twice. It will still feel solid, together and sturdy. There are not a lot of cars from this era that can boast that, apart from other Mercedes. The door shut with a pleasing thunk, the fit and finish has been engineered to perfection, the lines are simple but ergonomic, it’s a masterclass in how a solid car should be made.
The 190 also had the tech to match the build. For example, it featured five-link rear suspension, it was offered with airbags and ABS, it was built from light-weight, high-strength steel (which would go on to be the norm in car design). The 190 was the result of some £600 million in development costs, which saw Mercedes execs admit that it was indeed massively over-engineered, but hey, that’s just fine. It does make the brands fall from grace into the shocking cars of the ’90s and ’00s seem more baffling. That’s for another post though.
When it came to engines, the 190 did indeed have some. Which is handy, what with it being a car and all. The launch cars were fitted with the four-cylinder M102 series engine, which was and still is a formidable bit of engine design. It was basic in that is was a simple overhead cam, eight valve affair. However, it was engineered by Mercedes, meaning it could do a millionty miles without batting an eyelid.
The first available engines were the M102.921, which was a carb-fed petrol as seen in the 190. In the 190E (E for einspritzung, or fuel injection) the M102.962 was used. This had Bosch KE Jetronic multi-point fuel injection, and as such delivered 122hp – a significant improvement over the carb-fed engine’s 90hp.
Later engines included a smaller 1.8 four-cylinder, a 2.3 four-cylinder, a 2.6 M103 straight-six with 160hp and also some clattery 2.0 diesels. The diesels are reliable, but man alive are they ponderous, noisy and dull. The 190 weighs about as much as a twiglet, so you don’t need to push for a diesel. The petrol engines are best.
And yes, there was the 2.3 and 2.5 16-valve Cosworth, but this is Not £2 Grand, not Pistonheads. So we need not talk about them here. Sorry.
As for transmissions, you could have a five-speed manual (some early models had a four-speed though) or a four-speed auto. The automatic is the one you need to go for. Mercedes is good at a lot of things, but making a manual transmission isn’t one of them. Weak, not very nice to use and somewhat misplaced in a Benz, you’re better off with an auto.
We like the 190 because it’s the kind of modern classic that you really can use every single day. If you buy a good one – and there are plenty around under two grand – it will never let you down. The mechanicals are bomb-proof if looked after, the interiors as we mentioned are made well and handle the miles and years with aplomb and the drive offered by the 190 won’t leave you lagging in traffic or feeling like you’re driving something from the stone age.
The other selling point in regards to modern driving is that the 190 is a wonderfully safe car. It might not be a EuroNCAP five-star machine, but for a car of this vintage the only thing that can better it is another old Mercedes. As part of that £600 million development spend, a lot of money was put into ensuring the 190 was strong and safe. There was no EuroNCAP back in ’82, but even so, Mercedes made sure you could still open the doors after the car walloped a wall at 35mph. Impressive.
In terms of buying one, if it were our money we’d go for the 2.0 with fuel injection, or the 2.3. The 1.8 isn’t quite enough engine for the 190. The 2.6 will have people acting all giddy, but in our opinion it’s a bit too much engine. The 2.0 and 2.3 engines have timing chains, so no belts to worry about. Get an auto, and as longs as the ‘box is serviced and not thrashed, it will give you smooth shifts and keen power delivery.
Being an old Merc, you do need to be aware of some things. Don’t, for example, buy a modified car. The chances are someone will have ruined it in the process. We might be getting old, but a standard 190 is the best 190. If the ride is a bit tall for you, there are plenty of reputable companies offering OEM-quality lowering kits. These are better than the chopped springs most modified 190s are lumbered with.
Rust can be an issue, too. Yes, the 190 was an engineering triumph, but it’s still an old car. Battery tray, sills, floors, rear subframes, front wings, doors, rear screen surround. They can and do all rust, so be thorough when checking.
If you show some restraint, look at a few and settle on the one that ticks all your boxes, you’ll be laughing. The Mercedes-Benz 190 is a wonderful modern classic, it’s a car from a time when the Germans really took excessive pride in screwing a car together, there is a huge aftermarket in place for parts (many of which you can still get from main dealers) and of course, there is nothing finer than looking down the bonnet at a three-pointed star. And all for less than two grand. Noice.