This article originally appeared on MotiveMag.com on November 12, 2007.
When it comes to compact German performance machines, one name — M3 — stands above them all in terms of street cred. Even my Toyota-driving grandmother knows of the Bimmer’s legend and might even forfeit her death grip on the left lane to let one by. Four generations strong, each more astonishing than the last, the BMW M3 was the original wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing Autobahn assaulter. Wasn’t it?
Benz faithful will balk at that claim, and anyone familiar with the past few decades of Germany’s ever-evolving horsepower war will know why and agree. Another homologation special actually beat everyone’s favorite BMW to the U.S. in 1986 — the Cosworth-engined Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16. The fact that this rare ’80s racer (less than 2000 were officially imported) is so commonly overlooked is evidenced by our initial attempts to find one in the Chicago area, when a mass e-mail to the Mercedes-Benz club returned one reply that began, “Hello, I own a 1991 190E 2.3 that I bought at about 75,000 miles…” Even some inside the Merc fold don’t understand the importance of the 16-valve version of the 190E, a car that graced the States for only two years: 1986 and 1987.
Though nothing in the name implies it, the 190E range of sedans, launched in 1983, spawned today’s C-class. Investment in the first “baby Benz” totaled over two billion German Marks, a huge sum of money intended to ensure that a smaller Mercedes wouldn’t equate to a cheaper one. As part of that spending, Benz turned to the British engineering firm Cosworth to stuff some bragging rights into the engine bay of a special racing version of the 190E. Mercedes invested heavily in rallying in the late ’70s with a factory-backed team of SLC coupes, but left competition in 1980. Perhaps due in part to the dominance of Audi’s Quattro all-wheel drive racer, Mercedes opted to send the 2.3-16 not to the rally piste but to the smooth asphalt of Germany’s DTM series, where rules stipulated that 5000 roadgoing examples must be sold for a car to be eligible to compete.
In 1983, Mercedes dropped Cosworth’s custom-built twin-cam cylinder head onto a 190E’s modest 2.3-liter four-cylinder, bolted in a limited-slip differential, fitted larger brakes inside wider wheels and 205/55VR15 tires, gave it a wing and body kit whose aerodynamic changes helped achieve a drag coefficient of .32 and a top speed of 141 mph, and released the car for public consumption in Europe. A slightly modified, higher-geared version of the car broke twelve speed records by covering 31,000 miles at the Nardo oval in Italy in just eight days, moving at an average of 154 mph. Yes, that includes all driver changes and refueling stops. Late in the following year, Mercedes-Benz would host a special all-star race at the modern Nurburgring as part of the festivities celebrating the track’s first Formula 1 race. A cast of F1 veterans that included Phil Hill, Niki Lauda, and Stirling Moss went out to battle each other in identical 2.3-16s. A young upstart, Ayrton Senna, took the black-and-white checkers.
My own experience with the 190E 2.3-16 doesn’t begin as auspiciously as Senna’s. I’m merely confused. Is this really a racing car for the street? Then why does it have a power-operated headrest and pillowy leather seats that go every way but sideways? And is that wood trim? It’s easy to see why people might pass this off their granddaddy’s Benz. The cabin feels more cave-like than that of an E30 BMW, with a rear window that’s small and partially blocked by the rear-seat headrests.
I’m also confused as to why I can’t get the damned shift lever into first. I tap the gear selector to the left, but then it’ll only let me go down. I go straight up but, no, that can’t be right at all. What the hell?
All the luxurious camouflage around me seems to disappear as I remember the car’s racing roots and the concept of a dogleg transmission. Reverse is where first should be, while first is where second usually sits. Such a set-up arranges second through fifth in a simple H pattern, since first is typically used for the first two seconds in a race, then abandoned until the pits come a-calling.
Shifting the 2.3-16′s transmission is like playing a game of Operation with my right fist. The gears are close and the action is notchy, so the most minute error could result in a loud “BURRRT!” With how often I need to shuffle gears to stay in the short powerband, this is a challenging game. I spend a while getting used to the car and, being cautious, short shift around 3500 rpm. “Yeah,” I think, “it’s an old Mercedes with no power. What’s the big deal?” Then I honk on it, and the engine lets out its maniacal German guffaw that grows louder as the tach needle sprints past 5000.
The 2.3-16′s engine can best be described as a less breathy version of the Honda Civic Si’s. With a 7000-rpm redline, it doesn’t scream as high as the most famous Honda, but the power comes on in the same manner, only a bit sooner. In normal driving, the car is as docile as I’d expect from a Mercedes-Benz sedan, just as, in traffic, the Civic acts like any other Japanese econocar. Catch the meat of the powerband, though, and this German businessman ditches the suit, tie, and trendy glasses for a Mohawk, a see-through mesh T-shirt, and a soundtrack of angry, mechanical techno music. The cushy bucket seats — all four of them — are more supportive than I’d expect, perhaps because the leather bolsters wrap around me. I lift off the throttle and the thumping beat gives way to a remix of exhaust snorts, yaps, and burbles. Looking down, I’m shocked to find that I’m only doing sixty.
The U.S. version of this car, detuned to deal with our emissions regulations and lower-octane fuel, is rated at 167 hp at 5800 rpm and 162 lb-ft of torque at 5800, and 0-60 acceleration is in the mid-seven second range. Those numbers would be disappointing in a minivan today. But the engine is a thrill to push hard, making stats and seconds seem insignificant. I’m instead thinking about minutes, as in “How many extra minutes can I extend this drive?” Despite the insanely large horsepower deficit, this car is more enjoyable, more involving than most machines coming out of the AMG garage today. The 1987 model weighs a full 120 pounds more than a normal 190E 2.3, but its 2900 pounds is dandelion-seed light on today’s road.
As one might expect, the car is balanced and tossable through corners, even if it feels a bit bigger than the BMWs with which it competed. The Benz feels heavier than an BMW M3, too, though the weight differential is only about 150 pounds. That heft is a characteristic that connects it with every other Mercedes, including the current, new-for-2008 C-class. These cars feel substantial. With this in my mind, I’m surprised by how well the 2.3-16 stops. The brake pedal is firm and the travel is short, and in this aspect the Merc is the M3′s equal. Otherwise, this car isn’t quite an M3-beater. The steering is heavier and not as sharp, the chassis not as lively. Yes, it begs to be abused in much the same way as an E30 M3, but it just isn’t as easy to get in and sprout an instant smile — it takes more time for the love affair to develop.
Back in 1986, the 190E 2.3-16′s price was a faithful reflection of the engineering work that went into it. At a base of $34,800, the 2.3-16 cost nearly $11,000 more than a 190E and about $3000 more than a C300 today, ignoring inflation. The 2.3-16 would fetch more than $66,000 in present-day money, which is just a bit more than the C63 AMG. Today, decent examples can be found for under ten grand, making them one of the cheapest ways to own a truly notable tick on the Mercedes-Benz timeline. So what if no one knows what it is — that only adds to this homologation special’s considerable allure.
Special thanks to Nick Knauz at Axel’s Automotive in Lake Bluff, Illinois for letting us spend a day in fine example of Mercedes-Benz’s 190E 2.3-16.