The 190 was admired for its durability but should you invest in this compact exec today?
It’s over thirty years since Mercedes-Benz launched its compact saloon, the 190 (or W201 in Mercedes speak), a car that was designed to go into battle against the hugely popular BMW 3-Series. In E30 form, the Beemer was the small saloon to have if you wanted to flaunt a premium badge, and Mercedes wanted a slice of the action. Made at a time when the Stuttgart manufacturers build quality made a nuclear shelter appear flimsy, the 190 took a much more staid approach to the business of transporting mid-ranking executives and while the 3-Series was considered a sporting option, the Benz set out to impress buyers with a blend of comfort and solidity. And the more conservative approach was to pay dividends with almost two million shifted before it bowed out in the early 1990s, and it still makes a strong impression today. Inside, things can certainly appear on the austere side with sombre colours and a thoroughly sensible dashboard and control layout that lacks much in the way of design flair. But what it does do though is work impeccably well, imparting a feeling of longevity that you simply don’t find in other cars of the era and while not a cabin to get the pulse racing there’s pleasure to be had from enjoying such well-executed engineering. Indeed, much the same can be said for the driving experience although if you’re looking lower down the range performance is best considered as modest. Still, the fuel-injected 2.0-litre model made reasonable use of its 122bhp with a 0-60mph time of 10.5 seconds, and if you wanted real pace there was always the racy Cosworth variants that boasted upwards of 185bhp. Either way, many buyers opted to equip their 190 with an automatic transmission and it remains the better choice today, the manual not being blessed with the quickest of shifts. At least there was no foot-operated parking brake to wrestle with but the rest of the controls work with the well-oiled precision you’d expect, and there’s the usual huge steering wheel to make classic Benz owners feel at home.
Torque 131lb ft@3500rpm
Top speed 121mph
Gearbox 4-speed manual/4-speed automatic
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
The bodywork is very good at resisting the ravages of time and it’s usually damage or poor accident repairs that allow rot to set in. That said it’s worth checking the extremities of the front wings and the rear wheel arches for any signs of bubbling while surface corrosion can sometimes spring up around the screens, sunroof opening, and battery tray. The floor pan, jacking points, and sills should also be given the once-over. Later models featured plastic cladding on the lower half of the doors so check for rust around the edges that could signify worse problems beneath.
The body kit on Cosworth models can hide rot or damage, so check as thoroughly as you can and ensure the spoilers and side-skirts themselves are undamaged. Replacement panels are available for the 190 – though some are pricey - and while some new exterior trim parts are scarce there’s a thriving secondhand parts supply. Lastly, it’s worth checking the quality of the paintwork as fading is common on some colours – reds especially – although the depth and quality of the original paint means it usually responds well to cutting back and polishing.
Regular maintenance should see engines cover galactic mileages without too much trouble. Timing chain renewal is one of the main jobs that’ll need doing at around 70,000 miles – listen out for the tell-tale rattle – but it’s not too involved and the single-row, simplex chain was swapped for a stronger duplex item at the 1989 facelift. Otherwise, make sure you check for any signs of a failing head gasket, oil leaks from the cam cover gaskets on 2.6-litre six-cylinder units, and smoky diesels in need of a re-build. The Bosch K-Jetronic injection system – denoted by ‘E’ for Einspritzung, or injection, hence 190E – rarely gives trouble. Cosworth models on the other hand may have seen hard use, so a specialist inspection is worthwhile. Overhaul costs can be huge with some parts boasting four-figure price tags (or worse) so be very wary of tired examples.
Manual gearboxes – including the Cosworth’s dog-leg Getrag unit - are very robust so you just need to check for excessive noise or an obstructive shift. Automatics last well too although a rebuild could be on the cards by 120,000 miles or so, so check that gears engage quickly and smoothly. Clutches last very well on all models but make sure the limited-slip differential on the Cosworth is quiet in operation as a reconditioned replacement costs in excess of £1000.
Suspension-wise, front ball joints and rear suspension link arm bushes are common wear points, and you’ll need to check for broken coil springs. But more important is checking the hydraulic self-levelling system that was standard on the Cosworth and optional on some other variants. It can leak and replacing rotten pipework is very labour-intensive as the pipes will need to be made and the rear axle needs to be dropped to fit them. Replacing the levelling struts or pump will be costly too. It’s also worth checking for leaks from the power steering system but the good news is that brake issues are rare if they’ve been maintained properly. Just ensure that models with ABS aren’t displaying any warning lights.
Overall cabin quality is hugely impressive, but there are a few issues to watch for including failed instruments and cracks in the dashboard’s surface. Door cards can warp too, and make sure you try all the electrics as problems can occur with the electric windows, sunroof, and blower and wiper motors. And you also need to ensure that the ‘jumping’ single wiper is working okay as repairs can get pricey. Cosworth models were fitted with an LCD stopwatch, the display of which ‘bleeds’ and new ones aren’t available. Otherwise, there’s a good supply of second-hand trim parts and although most items are still available from Mercedes-Benz - at a cost - it’s obviously worth avoiding anything too shabby.
Durable and reliable, the baby Benz is almost criminally undervalued and that makes it nothing short of a bargain. A cared for example will outlast its owner, and if you want the perfect example of over-engineering then look no further. The sporty BMW 3-Series may get all the plaudits but for long-lasting, everyday usability the 190 is nigh-on unbeatable.
It’s staggering to think that such a terrific car is available so cheaply, and while prices might be creeping upwards they are likely to remain affordable for some time yet. More highly valued Cosworth models aside, it tends to be the diesel, 2.6-litre 6-cylinder, and last-of-the-line LE models that command the highest prices. But any model should be bought on condition not mileage as they’ll last forever with proper care.