From the March 1986 issue of Car and Driver.
Mercedes-Benz is back in the hot-rod business. After a few years of abstention due to the energy crisis, the emissions onslaught, and the belief that the United States suffered from an irreversible ennui that had drained its interest in fast cars, the Benz boys are hot. They are bowling into 1986 with five models capable of well over 130 mph, including this tough little 190.
How times change. Mercedes-Benz of North America has spent lots of everything trying to castigate publicly and castrate bureaucratically the gray marketeers that made a killing by importing and, after a fashion, federalizing the parent company's high-performance European models. Finally, though, the strategy has shifted in the beat-'em-and-join-'em direction. Now that hot cars are inarguably on the comeback, MBNA has decided to bring its light out from under a bushel.
The smallest luminance beamed over by Stuttgart is one of its brightest, the 190E 2.3-16. Only 1880 of these mini-marauders are aimed at us. Based on the pleasant but vapid 190E, the 2.3-16 wears the same four doors, but grows a dozen body pieces of fiberglass-reinforced polyurethane, many new suspension pieces, four sport seats, four bigger disc brakes, four squat 55-series tires, five more tightly spaced gears (four in the automatic), and cylinders fed and purged by the free-breathing efficiency of sixteen valves.
This wee hot rod is equally appropriate for outrage in the outback or popping up at the opera. We took a pass on culture and belted into the tufted hills of backwater Ohio. Zooted up in an air dam, fender and rocker extensions, a rear winglet, and fifteen millimeters of lowered ride height, we added insult to outrage by styling and profiling every burg we hit. But the burghers loved it. Despite the subtlety of its cosmetics, this four-door catches appraising eyes in the act. Nobody mistakes it for a gussied-up K-car.
Naughty as the baby Benz looks in its Friday-night-fights trunks, the power play is in the engine bay. The 2.3-liter, twin-cam, sixteen-valve four-cylinder is rated at 167 horsepower, up 46 hp from the single-cam eight-valve. Bosch KE-Jetronic fuel injection feeds the fires, and the sophisticated valvetrain improves breathing efficiency by 25 percent, according to Mercedes. The factory also claims that the greater rigidity required in the more complex cylinder head increases its manufacturing time by a factor of ten. As is usually the case, this design positions the spark plugs in the center of pent-roof combustion chambers for optimum combustion and a naturally high resistance to detonation. Mercedes has made the most of this advantage with a high compression ratio of 9.7:1, although premium fuel is recommended.
Except for the 18-mpg thirst for super unleaded rated by the EPA and confirmed in our own hard driving, the engine's high-rise revs come free. Judged by either the fifth wheel or the seat of your pants, the 2.3-16 is very quick. It springs from zero to 60 in only 7.3 seconds. The quarter-mile burns into history in 15.8 seconds with a trap speed of 88 mph. The aero aids cut front lift by 45 percent, rear by 40 percent. Swept along by the 0.34 drag coefficient, one point better than the regular 190's, top speed rises to a stable 134 mph.
Cruising down a deserted road at a loping 80 mph, the engine sets up an easy howl. This is a great come-on for your foot, but doesn't help your ear gauge the gap from shift to shift. As in other sixteen-valvers, the rev rush is free of stress, so shifting by ear is difficult. Once you're used to the feeling of freewheeling around the tach, it's not bad, but the first few trips to peak performance may fall prey to a harsh, 6500-rpm ignition cutout that strangles the cry at the redline with little warning.
At Mercedes, more engine begets better chassis. At 0.80 g on the skidpad, the 2.3-16 is the hardest-cornering stock Benz we have tested, ranking well up among today's finest sedans. Firmer spring and shock rates, larger anti-roll bars, and automatic rear hydropneumatic load leveling give the 190's all-independent suspension new resolve. Upsized 7.0-by-15-inch wheels wear 205/55VR-15 Pirelli P6s. (Today's basic 190E wears 6.0-by-15s and 185/65s, which are bigger than the gear worn by the original 190E for our November 1983 test. That little mincer managed only 0.70 g on the skidpad. It also turned in a woeful 241 feet on the 70-to-0 brake test, which the 2.3-16's standard ABS system has cut by almost a third—but we're ahead of the story.)
The 16's suspension reacts softly in tight corners. It wants you to baby it, giving the weight a chance to settle each time you shift from straight-ahead travel. Bigger anti-roll bars would probably hurt the ride over one-wheel bumps, but they'd probably also help plant the tires better.
Driven in unfamiliar territory on tumultuous roads, the 2.3-16 shows two ranges of response. Understeer is modest at low speeds. At high speeds, the nose feels more reluctant to turn, and at first it can trick you into dialing in only about 80 percent of the steering you need. You run wide, then fix it with a bigger sweep of the wheel. A few mutters later, you discover that a squeeze of the throttle quickly coerces tighter cornering and reduces steering angle. Second-gear corners can be taken slightly tail-out with a purposeful poke of the quicksilver throttle. In the wet, there's enough poke to spin the car, but it's just as easy to squirt the proper amount of juice to the back wheels. As with many German rear-drivers, lift-throttle oversteer is also noticeable. It's handy at times, annoying at others. All in all, this is not a film-at-eleven car. It expects you to get in there and do your share.
Dispatched to America's version of the autobahns, the Merc settles down nicely over 75 mph. When the landscape unfolds, the 2.3-16 becomes a low-flying Bunsen burner to be used for turning time into distance by holding speed's feet to the fire.
You can tell this is the small Mercedes-Benz just by sitting in it. Six-footers aren't outraged by its infringements on personal freedoms, but they are not thrilled by its snug rear seat, either. Picky about your driving position? You may have trouble fitting in quickly because of the wide range of choices you can power yourself through. Luckily, the seat-shaped buttons are a snap to use. Touch each part the way you want your seat to go—another button buzzes the headrests up and down—then punch the final combination into the memory. If you're bundled up in a Nanook-of-the-North parka instead of cooling off in Buford-of-Bermuda shorts, a second setting is easily saved.
Deeply sculptured leather sport seats promise support for active users. Even the back seat provides deep bolsters. Unfortunately, M-B offers no cloth in its class-conscious performers; in the hard-driving mode, some of our svelte staff members found themselves sliding from bolster to bolster and wishing for suede or cloth inserts for better adhesion.
An upholstered knee bar under the dash forms part of the 190's Supplemental Restraint System (see Technical Highlights). You may not notice the bar until you heel and toe, whereupon you brush your shin. The pedals themselves are fine, making downshifting a second-nature breeze. Upshifting is less smooth, because the clutch action is lumpy and there's a dunk at the end of the engagement very much reminiscent of the little jolt that BMWs have emitted for years. Although M-B says this five-speed is its own, European 2.3-16s originally bore Getrag units, and this one has the same vague feel. It is also saddled with the old "GT" shift pattern, with first gear to the left of the main H. Though we prefer the more conventional pattern, this transmission is certainly light to the touch, thanks to the shifter’s spring loading. Still, we wonder whether the automatic might be a better intermediary between the power and the pavement.
The rest of the interior is sophisticated and tightly packed with good ergonomics. If the console's wood is an anachronism, at least it wears a rich shine. An electronic AM/FM-stereo/cassette system puts out decent sound but bakes tapes to medium well. The head unit ties into an all-knowing anti-theft system: if the system is armed when somebody gives your stereo a covetous tug, the unit realizes something is fishy and scrambles its chip, going to lunch forever. The array of occasionally confusing climate-control symbols takes a little learning, but the end result is set-and-forget comfort. Low on the console, a digital stopwatch ticks off journeys, and the faces of small volt and oil-temp gauges attempt to echo the wonderful legibility of the big, stark white-on-black analog gauges housed in the dashboard. lt's all tight, and it shows few faults.
Comes the rain, though, and another sort of fault opens up with the sky: the P6s have trouble coping with copious moisture. Standing water aquaplanes them right into a thrill ride you wouldn't give a nickel for.
ABS can't save you from aquaplaning, but what it does for braking is sensational. In effect, it creates perfect front-to-rear brake balance. In the dry, the pedal pulses with the usual ABS thumps when it's hammered down at 70 mph, and the car stops ruthlessly short in 171 feet.
In the tumbled hills of Ohio, the ABS saved our hides twice. A warning sign had been washed out by days of downpours; we popped over a rain-swept crest, expecting a straight, only to find a sharply plunging hook. With no more than a quick pounce into the ABS and a couple of quick swipes with the wheel, the 190 squeegeed onto the right side of the road like a giant plumber's helper. Later, we came winging around a blind, fallaway corner on damp, patchy pavement, and found a big buck standing squarely across the center line. He scrambled on the slippery asphalt and vaulted the guardrail. By then, we'd stopped a good 40 feet short of where he'd stood, coming to a complete halt only because curiosity demanded to know the margin of safety.
This is some little $35,000 hot rod. Even so, faced with ever more astute challengers, Mercedes has covered its performance bets by building its own competition for the 2.3-16. The slick new mid-sized 300E sedan is a tempting alternative. It costs a thousand dollars less than this wee scrapper, and it could well be the better car for most buyers. With relatively few 2.3-16s being imported by the factory, the natural selection process to follow will be fascinating indeed.
The car industry, the federal government, and the consumer crybabies have been kicking the air bag around for the better part or a decade now, and the controversy may still be years away from its final resolution. One carmaker, however, does not intend to wait for the outcome. Starting with the 1986 model year, every Mercedes-Benz sold in North America will be fitted with an air bag on the driver’s side.
Mercedes already has extensive experience with air-bag technology. Inflatable restraints have been optional on various European Mercedes since 1980, and on certain American models since 1984. In total, more than 90,000 Mercedes cars have been equipped with air bags.
The 190's air bag is mounted unobtrusively in the steering-wheel hub, and there is nothing particularly new or unusual about its operation. A sensor mounted in the front of the transmission tunnel is triggered by a forward deceleration roughly equivalent to a 12-mph collision into a rigid barrier. When so activated, the sensor signals a detonator that ignites a charge of sodium azide. The rapid chemical reaction that follows produces the large volume of nearly pure nitrogen gas needed to inflate the neoprene-coated nylon bag.
The entire process takes a mere 0.03 second, thus restraining the driver before his momentum moves him very far forward. As the driver hits the air bag, he forces its gaseous contents through lots around its sides, dissipating the kinetic energy of his forward motion. Within 0.10 second after inflation, the air bag is fully deflated. For about $1200, the air bag can be recharged and reinstalled for further use—provided, of course, that there is something left of the car.
Although air bags offer excellent protection in frontal collisions, they do little or nothing to restrain passengers in rollovers, side impacts, and multiple collisions. In such accidents, conventional seatbelts are far more effective, and Mercedes-Benz has taken a major step to make them even more beneficial: the same sensor that triggers the air bag also activates a small powder charge that removes the slack from both front belt by turning their takeup reels. This tightening lessens both the chance that injuries will be suffered and the severity of those that do occur.
Mercedes quite properly regards air bags as only supplementary restraints and advises drivers not to neglect their seatbelts. Still, the company recognizes that many drivers will undoubtedly depend solely on their air bags. To provide extra protection for such drivers, Mercedes designers have installed a cushioned knee bolster under the left half of the 190's dash. In an accident, the bolster helps to restrain the driver's lower body and keeps him from submarining under the air bag.
According to Mercedes, there have been no malfunctions in any of its airbag systems thus far—an enviable reliability record. However, if its air bags encourage drivers to neglect their seatbelts, then the overall worth of the system becomes dubious. It will therefore take a few years and a few hundred thousand air-bag-equipped cars in the hands of the public before we can say with any confidence whether Mercedes' bold answer to the air-bag debate is truly the right one. —Csaba Csere