The iconic 190 series paved the way for the C-Class and introduced incredible features to the segment.
The Mercedes-Benz 190 series, a legend of German engineering, celebrates its 40th birthday this year.
A predecessor to the now-ubiquitous C-Class lineup, the 190 (known internally as W201) arrived in 1982 as a smaller, oil crisis-friendly alternative to the larger W123 and the Burgermeister's S-Class. Despite the compact dimensions, this was still designed and engineered to be a genuine Mercedes-Benz. It was the 1980s, after all, and engineers still ruled the roost over in Stuttgart. The bean counters were locked away in the basement.
Between 1974 and 1982, the automaker reportedly spent more than $700 million to develop the "Kleine Mercedes." Even the automaker admitted the vehicle was over-engineered, but for Benz, this was business as usual. Part of that obscene budget was used to develop the multi-link rear suspension, a setup that proved so successful it was used on later E-Class and C-Class vehicles.
As you'd expect, the 190 was also built to fend off the nastiest crashes. One of the requirements Mercedes had was that the new sedan had to withstand an offset crash at 35 mph without causing cabin deformation or serious occupant injuries.
"This must be a typical Mercedes-Benz. So we can't compromise too much in terms of driving culture, safety, and the corresponding Mercedes-Benz characteristics," said Professor Hans Scherenberg, Board Member for Development.
Two fairly pedestrian engines were introduced, with the North American market receiving a 2.3-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder motor in 1983. Despite the larger displacement, emissions regulations throttled the motor, and it debuted with 113 horsepower.
Customers seeking more power didn't have to wait long, as the inimitable Cosworth arrived in 1984. Again, emissions legislation meant that America only got 167 hp, but the Cosworth-fettled 190E is a truly special motor car.
The 16-valve engine was made out of light alloy, boasted dual overhead cams, and had a redline of 7,100 rpm. Overseas models were far more powerful and fell just short of the 190 hp mark - not bad for the mid-1980s.
To demonstrate the 2.3-16 Cosworth's incredible durability, three examples, driven at full speed for ten days, covered 50,000 km at an average speed of 154.06 mph. The automaker racked up several endurance records in the process and further cemented its reputation for reliability.
1988 saw the introduction of the 2.5-16, the most famous of which is the big-winged Evolution II. By now, the Cosworth motor was packing a mighty 232 hp and a top speed of 155 mph. These homologation specials are, perhaps, best known for their extraordinary victories in Germany's DTM series.
Pitted against the BMW M3 E30 and Ford Sierra RS Cosworth, the Baby Benz racked up plenty of success on Europe's racetracks.
Throughout its 11-year run, various engines were offered, including a smooth straight-six and an array of diesel and turbodiesel motors.
Penned by Petter Pfeiffer and the legendary Bruno Sacco (the man behind all-time greats like the R129 SL-Class), the talented designers had to overcome several obstacles. Firstly, the W201 had to be instantly recognizable as a Mercedes, but it was not to be a baby S-Class. The 190 had to have its own identity and, importantly, be aerodynamic.
The stringent Clean Air Act stipulated that, from 1985, a manufacturer's fleet consumption could not be lower than 28 mpg - a tall order if you're making thirsty V8-powered SLs and S-Classes. The sophisticated design has a drag coefficient of just 0.34 - an extraordinary figure for a car designed in the 70s.
As mentioned, safety was of the utmost importance. For the first time in the brand's history, the little Mercedes was equipped with a fork carrier fashioned out of high-strength sheet metal. The rigidity of this structure allowed for predictable crash deformation and even reduced overall vehicle weight.
Over the years, the 190 series received safety features such as standard ABS brakes, a driver-side airbag, and seat belt pre-tensioners. Having spent a lot of time behind the wheel of his mother's 190E (and, later, AMG-fettled 2.3-litre), the author recalls just how wonderful the 190 series was to drive.
As you'd expect, body roll was abundant, but the W201's superb rear suspension afforded plenty of grip and a joyous driving experience. Give it too much throttle in a corner, and the rear end would slowly come around and make for easily rectifiable slides.
But, true to the company's ethos, the 190 series was chock full of Mercedes characteristics. The high-quality interior was screwed together with the same care reserved for a 560 SEL, and the multi-link suspension blessed the Baby Benz with a ride so smooth you'd think you were in a larger vehicle.
Over its long production run, the automaker built more than 1.8 million examples and set the tone for a comfort-biased compact executive car. Its legacy has spawned several iterations of the C-Class, starting with the W202. While all were fine vehicles in their own right, many would argue that none quite lived up to the impactful 190.
Now an icon in its own right, the Kleine Mercedes continues to be used as a daily driver by many; from million-mile taxis in Africa to cherished collector's items, the W201 is a bona fide classic.
Happy 40th birthday, 190 series.