Mercedes-Benz is on a quest to fill every conceivable market niche with cars like the CLS-Class and the upcoming Audi A5-fighting CLA-Class. At first glance, it looks like the the automaker started its expansion when it launched the w168 A-Class, its first mass-produced front-wheel drive model, in 1997, but Mercedes really began drawing in new customers when it presented the w201 190 in 1982.
Work on what became known as the Baby Benz started in the middle of the 1970s. Likely influenced by the effects of the oil embargo, engineers wanted to pack the same level of comfort and safety found in mid-range models like the w114/w115 and later the w123 in a smaller car.
Early design sketches indicate that Mercedes toyed around with giving the w201 a big hatch similar to the one found on the Auto 2000 concept that bowed in 1981 but the idea was quickly abandoned in favor of a more conventional four-door configuration. Boxy yet aerodynamic, the 190’s final design was penned by Bruno Sacco, Mercedes’ head of design from 1975 to 1999. The car borrowed several styling cues from other members of the Mercedes lineup but it undeniably wore a more modern design, something which Sacco and his team had actively seeked.
“The 190 was specifically designed to be provocative. We wanted to attract new customers, so we had to get their attention – for example, with a rear-end design that was highly unusual at that time, and with very distinctive contours,” reminisced Sacco in an interview in 2000.
At its launch, the w201 lineup consisted of the 190 and the 190E. Both cars had a 2.0-liter gasoline-burning four-cylinder engine that was borrowed from the w123 lineup and fitted with a specific camshaft and smaller valves. The carbureted 190 was rated at 90 horsepower while the more expensive 190E made 122 horsepower thanks to a Bosch KE-Jetronic fuel-injection system.
The 190 was Mercedes’ first venture into fixed nameplates. If it had followed the naming system used in the early 1980s, the Baby Benz would have been called the 200, a moniker which was taken by the w123 lineup.
Mercedes presented the 190 and the 190E to the European press in November of 1982. Journalists were unanimously impressed with the car: It was quiet, comfortable, spacious inside and surprisingly fuel efficient thanks to its relatively low weight of roughly 2,600 pounds (1,180 kilos). Its innovative multi-link rear suspension gave it a smooth ride which was typically only found in much larger cars.
In early 1983, the 190 cost 85,500 francs and the 190 E retailed for 111,200 francs. That same year, a base-model Golf set a buyer back 46,600 francs and w126 S-Class carried a base price of 190,000 francs.
Mercedes traveled to the 1983 Frankfurt Motor Show to debut the first diesel-burning w201. Called 190D, it was powered by a new 72-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder that was considerably more modern and quiet than Mercedes’ existing diesels. At the time, the European press speculated than the mill would find its way in the engine bay of a w123 but such a conversion never happened.
1983 also marked the introduction of the 190E 2.3-16, a track-focused variant of the sedan which was powered by a 2.3-liter four-cylinder borrowed from the w123 parts bin and fitted with a specific 16-valve cylinder head developed by Cosworth. The mill propelled the 190 from zero to 62 mph (100 km/h) in 7.5 seconds and sent it to a top speed of 142 mph (230 km/h).
Before the 2.3-16 was presented to the general public, three prototypes set several long-distance world records on the famed Nardo track in southern Italy. The hot-rodded w201 was an impressive machine but its window sticker was similarly eye-opening: With a price of 250,000 francs in 1985, the car was more expensive than a w126 280SE.
The last innovation for 1983 was the appearance of a 190D with a 2.2-liter engine. Designed specifically for the United States, the engine’s stroke was lengthened in order to compensate for the lack of power brought on by the addition of an EGR (exhaust gas recirculation) valve, a mandatory modification in the state of California. The engine was rated at 73 horsepower but it was never particularly popular in the U.S. and most 190s sold there burned unleaded.
In January of 1985, Mercedes replaced the venerable w123 with the all-new w124 which borrowed a large amount of design cues from the w201. This was a sign that the 190 was not merely a cheap entry-level offering: It had enough of an influence to set the firm’s design direction for years to come.
That same year, the 190 got its first update. The overall shape did not change but it gained extra equipment such as heated windshield washer nozzles, a new windshield wiper and 15-inch wheels. From that point on power steering became standard across the entire lineup.
Throughout the second half of the 1980s Mercedes expanded the 190 lineup by shoehorning w124 powerplants into its engine bay. This led to the creation of the five-cylinder 190D 2.5 (later offered with a turbocharger) and the six-cylinder 190E 2.6 which became quite popular in the United States.
Mercedes launched an upgraded version of the 2.3-16 in 1988. Dubbed 190E 2.5-16, it had a 2.5-liter four-cylinder with a double-row timing chain that made 195 horsepower. The car made its first steps in Germany’s Touring Car Championship (DTM) shortly after its introduction and went on to have a successful career on the track.
The one millionth w201 rolled off the assembly line in March of 1988. That same year, a slightly facelifted model bowed at the Paris Motor Show. Again, the modifications were minor and consisted mostly of larger bumpers and new cladding on the doors. The interior was slightly rearranged in order to free up more space for the passengers.
To fend off younger competitors, Mercedes introduced the Sportline trim level in 1989. The car’s suspension was lowered by a little less than inch (21 millimeters), it was fitted with stiffer springs to obtain a more responsive ride and sat on wide 15-inch alloys. On the inside, the occupants were treated to more supportive seats borrowed from the 2.5-16.
By the time the early 1990s rolled around, Sacco’s boxy lines were looking outdated compared to some of the overly rounded creations that were crawling out of design studios all around the world. To give sales one last nudge, Mercedes offered the Avantgarde trim level on 4,600 190E 1.8s, 190E 2.3-16s and 190D 2.5s. The Avantgarde cars gained more vibrant colors inside and out, including a Harlequin-like upholstery which many argued was better suited to a Twingo than a Mercedes-Benz.
Mercedes started producing the w202 C-Class in June of 1993 and the last w201 rolled off of the Bremmen, Germany, assembly line in August of that same year. Of the 1,879,629 190s built, 463,366 were powered by a diesel engine.
Happy 30th, 190!
Unless otherwise noted, the images above were kindly provided by Mercedes’ archives department.