Few affordable cars from the 1980s boast such a fantastic racing pedigree as the Mercedes-Benz 190E Cosworth. And we’re not talking about its career in DTM; there’s another race for which this saloon is remembered.
Mercedes hosted a support race during the opening ceremony of the 1984 German Grand Prix at the new, safer Nürburgring GP circuit. The grid of F1 drivers included James Hunt, Niki Lauda, Stirling Moss, John Surtees and many more, all racing in identical 190E Cosworths. It was won – spectacularly – by an up-and-coming Brazilian driver called Ayrton Senna, which has gone down as one of his defining career moments.
But why enter this understated saloon in such a race? Weeks before its launch at the 1983 Frankfurt motor show, Mercedes had set distance records with the 190E 2.3-16 at Nardo – for 25,000km, 25,000 miles, and 50,000km. This was a car engineered for motor sport from the outset, even if it didn’t go quite as Mercedes had intended.
Taking Merc’s workaday 2.3-litre eight-valve four as a starting point, Cosworth engineered a new 16-valve cylinder head and manufactured it in the UK. While a career in rallying was the original goal, the rampant Audi Quattro pushed the 190 into Touring Cars instead.
The 190E raced in DTM from 1986 with independent teams, but from 1988 no fewer than five were competing with works backing, representing one of Mercedes-Benz’s first official flirtations with motor racing in more than 30 years.
Which Mercedes 190E Cosworth to buy?
As the years passed and the competition became fiercer, Mercedes had to make a few changes to keep pace. First was the introduction of the 2.5-16 in 1988, with a significantly developed engine. As a road car, little changed but the capacity increase provided the 2.5 with punchier bottom-end performance, as well as helping to push power output to 204bhp in un-catalysed form – up from the previous 2.3’s 185bhp figure.
In an attempt to breathe even more life into the DTM racer, the company released an Evo I and a more extreme Evo II version – homologating aerodynamic, suspension and mechanical improvements.
Although the 190E Cosworth (officially never called that) made a fantastic racer, it was no less capable of regular road car duties. Granted, it might not be as focused as an E30 M3, but that was never the Mercedes way. Engineered and built like nothing else, the 190E was one of the most usable performance cars of its era. Its subtle looks might have left the 190E in the shadows of some rivals, but today it’s still a cracking performance saloon with some motor sport heritage. What more could you ask for?
Performance and specs
Engine 2299cc, 16 valve in-line four cylinder
Power 182bhp @ 6200rpm
Torque 173lb ft @ 4500rpm
Top speed 144mph
Fuel consumption 28.5mpg
Gearbox Five-speed manual
Dimensions and weight
Kerb weight 1230kg
• The W201-series 190 was massively over-engineered, so high-mileage examples wear extremely well if looked after.
• The 190E is fairly resistant to corrosion; sills and jacking points suffer first but rot may be hidden by the Cosworth’s bodykit.
• Rear-self-levelling suspension can cause problems: if it sits low at the rear then hydraulic fluid may have leaked out. A bouncy ride means the hydraulic spheres need replacing. Standard passive dampers are an acceptable replacement if done correctly.
• Engines were designed to withstand track use. Idling issues can be difficult to diagnose, so make sure the unit starts up from cold without issue and restarts easily when warm. A small amount of valvetrain noise is normal, but any excessive tapping or clattering could mean the timing chain needs replacement, or the valve shims need adjusting.
• The five-speed dogleg Getrag transmission was notoriously notchy even when new, but new bushes and linkages can improve a sloppy-feeling shift.
Owners clubs, forums and websites
• mercedes-190.co.uk – UK-based 190E owners’ forum
• www.mercedes190oc.com – UK-based 190E owners’ forum
• www.mbclub.co.uk – Mercedes forum
• www.mercedes-benz-club.co.uk – The official Mercedes-Benz club
Summary and prices
Expect to pay from £10,000 for a car in good condition with decent history, and more than £15k for a low-mileage example. Evolution models are the rarest: just over 500 of each were built to satisfy regulations. Much like the E30 M3, Evo values have always been higher than standard cars’. Evo 1s have been known to fetch up to £50,000. The more extreme Evo 2s sell for £100,000-200,000 depending on condition.