It looks a little silly at first glance, a compact mid-Eighties Mercedes sedan with fender flares and wings bolted to it. The Cosworth-modified Mercedes 190E 2.3-16v set the template for an entire generation of The Fast and The Furious-inspired cars.

This hot rod sedan may seem a bit out of character for Mercedes, especially in its wildly aggressive final form, but it’s got a very important place in the flow of automotive history: many people agree that this is the car that officially kicked off the German horsepower wars. It’s definitely responsible for the BMW M3, because BMW put that car on the road as a direct response to the 190E 2.3-16v.

As with many car stories, it all begins with racing. Mercedes started out looking for a sensible replacement for the 450SLC that was its entry in international rally racing. Teaming up with Cosworth was a sensible way to go about it, and the W201-chassis 190E underwent a comprehensive makeover in 1984. And then the Audi Quattro happened. The all-wheel drive car took the rally world by storm, so Mercedes changed its focus to the German Touring Car Championship. The 190E was modified and did a successful turn in the series, racking up 42 victories over its life span. As regulations required, the car was also homologated for road use, resulting in the 190E 2.3-16v Cosworth.

And with that, a long-standing competition was born. As BMW developed the M3, the 190E 2.3-16v became more extreme as well. In its final form in 1990 as the 190E 2.5-16v Evo II, it looked and sounded like a DTM car for the street. Though the 190E 2.3-16v was only officially sold in the United States in 1986 and 1987, the hot-rodded 190E models helped to spawn a generation of legendary super-sedans.

Continue reading to learn more about the Mercedes Benz 190E 2.3-16V.

Exterior

1985 Mercedes Benz 190E 2.3-16V
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Based as it was on Mercedes’ compact sedan, the 190E was a mild-mannered sedan in looks, with very conservative three-box styling led by a traditional chrome Mercedes grille. A body kit with extended spoilers on the front and rear fascias and rocker panels helped to manage airflow, while a small decklid spoiler was installed out back. Unique wheels provided slipperier aerodynamics and better brake cooling. Details like a full-size spare tire and a larger gas tank than the stock 190E came from the modifications made to the car for endurance racing.

As the 190E got more powerful, the look got more aggressive too, with the addition of larger and larger flared fenders, a deeper front splitter and a tall wing. In its final form, the roadgoing 190E 2.3-16v Evo II looked very much like the DTM racers that it was related to. In 1984, the 190E 2.3-16v could be had in just two colors: blue-black metallic and silver.

Interior

1985 Mercedes Benz 190E 2.3-16V
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Interior upgrades were minimal. The 190E started out as a relatively pedestrian (compared to Mercedes’ more luxurious cars) vehicle, and the cabin reflected this. Leather Recaro seats and a narrower-diameter steering wheel were pragmatic upgrades, providing cornering support for the driver and more direct steering response, respectively. Mercedes added oil temp, voltmeter and stopwatch gauges to the instrument panel. The rear bench seat was also improved with additional bolstering.

Drivetrain

1985 Mercedes Benz 190E 2.3-16V
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Cosworth’s engine expertise was at the heart of the 190E 2.3-16v. Starting with Mercedes’ 136-horsepower 16-valve 2.3 liter four-cylinder, Cosworth increased the size of the valves and added a Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection system. The upgrades resulted in a power bump to 185 horsepower (167 in North America due to lower compression). The engine revved to 7100 rpm, and sounded fierce while doing so. A five-speed manual transmission was sourced from Getrag, and featured a dog-leg first gear. The W201 was a surprisingly small car, and its light weight responded well to performance enhancements.

The free-revving engine yanked the 190E 2.3-16v to 60 in seven and a half seconds. By the numbers, it was actually faster than Mercedes’ most iconic performance car to date, the Gullwing 300SL. In 1988 the engine got an upgrade to 195 horses and the car received a name change, to the 190E 2.5-16. Upgrades continued throughout the car’s life, the result of competition-driven evolution, and by 1990 the 190E 2.5-16v Evo II produced 232 horsepower from its 2.5 liter four.

Handling was improved with a suspension lowered 16mm at the front and 12mm at the rear. The suspension also featured a self-leveling feature. The 190E 2.3-16v suffered somewhat from Mercedes’ edict that it ride as smoothly as an S-Class; as a result, the race tuners had a lot of softness and plushness to overcome. Critics complained that the road car, while an able performer, was not as communicative, easy to drive, or precise as its arch-enemy the BMW M3. When the numbers were crunched, the 190E 2.3-16v was a match for the BMW; it just wasn’t as elegant when doing it.

Prices

1985 Mercedes Benz 190E 2.3-16V
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As with many homologation specials, production numbers are relatively low. The 190E 2.3-16v saw worldwide production of less than 20,000 units over its run. The later 190E 2.5-16v Evolution and Evo II were limited-production cars with 502 units each. As the performance flagship of the lineup, this car has a very strong value. The 190E was a high-production vehicle worldwide, but the 2.3-16v was only a fraction of that total. As a result, Hagerty lists average values for a 1987 190E 2.3-16v at $14,490, compared to just $2,910 for the standard 190E.

Competition

BMW M3

1986 BMW E30 M3 review
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Subtle yet powerful, the original BMW M3 was an absolute delight both on and off of the track. Starting with the already-entertaining E30 3-series, a comprehensive, wheels-to-rooftop upgrade (literally; the roof panel was re-angled for better aerodynamics) turned it into a race-ready machine and cemented the performance capability of BMW’s budding M division. The M3 helped to make the blue and white BMW logo synonymous with performance.

Read our full review here.

Conclusion

As a part of Mercedes’ sometimes tumultuous relationship with racing, the 190E 2.3-16v would be a significant vehicle regardless of its success. Though it didn’t catch on in the long run, it’s this car’s legacy that’s important. By kicking BMW’s M3 into high gear, this wild little Mercedes sedan triggered a competition that’s still yielding awesome cars today.

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    • * Lower horsepower on U.S. versions
    • * Not as precise as BMW
    • *

Source: Champion Motors

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