Road Tests Sales Legends

Sales Legend: Mercedes 190

Time 13 years ago

It was the car that brought Mercedes to the masses and looks as fresh today as it did back in 1983 – it’s our latest Sales Legend, the Mercedes 190.

mercedes190THE Mercedes 190 was launched as the most affordable Mercedes ever. Which, you must note, is a relative term. It’s like saying Richard Branson is going on an economy drive.

He may start to drink own-label tea, but he’s still a gazillionaire who could buy the Moon if he wanted to.

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So, 1983’s BMW 3 Series rival from Mercedes may have cost less than its other models, but it was no cheapie. Nor was it ever designed to be. Even the engineers at the time said it was ‘massively over-engineered’, meaning it truly is a Mercedes like few others.

We say this because, like no Merc before or since, it successfully merges modernity with all the bullet-proof feel you expect of a Benz. It wowed an early 1980s market with its crisp styling and clean lines – it was a real design trend-setter for the Stuttgart brand, setting a template for all future variants and finally laying to rest the staid style of its past.

Experts reckon it’s one of the firm’s best-conceived models ever, a real Bruno Sacco success. He drew it, and clothed a feel-good interior with pretty lines that were only enhanced on later 190E 2.3-16 models – the Mercedes Cosworths.

Yes, while standard 190s had fairly conventional engines (although the 190E 2.6 six-pot was delectable), a need to go DTM touring car racing saw the brand really go to town with its high performance homologation special.

Cosworth breathed on the engine, giving it a 16-valve head and boosting the power to 185bhp. Sounds middling now, but was pretty fearsome back then, especially as it didn’t dent the car’s total reliability one bit.

Mercedes proved this by running a fleet of 190E 2.3-16s flat out at a test track. For 50,000km. At an average speed of 154mph. Faults? Not one.


Just like all the road cars, in fact. Mercedes dealers loved ‘em from the off, not least because they could now sell a Ford Sierra ‘rival’. Okay, the base cars were hardly fast or well equipped, but for the price of a posh Ford, buyers could now get the luxury of the three pointed star, for the first time ever. This was unique and really quite compelling.

So much so, sales quickly grew – but it wasn’t the poverty spec cars that sold best, much to dealers’ delight. Rather, the extra affordability of the model meant many indulged, choosing decent-spec 2.0-litre variants or, in even more encouraging numbers, the 2.5-litre variant. Mind you, this car really was lovely.

Famed motoring writer LJK Setright said it was one of his favourite cars of all. This did the car’s kudos no harm at all…

In short, the 190 was a hit. It helped turn the brand from a low-volume maker into the UK powerhouse it is today – without this, the step to A-Class and B-Class would have been impossible.

More than that, there would have been no C-Class, its direct descendent… and every dealer in the land knows just how crucial that one car is to Mercedes-Benz UK’s fortunes.

It was replaced in 1993, after a successful 10-year run that saw more than 1.8 million examples built. In that time, Mercedes was virtually transformed, with its success being built on the fine 190.

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Had it not been as good as it was, the company would be very different today. That it was so able, therefore, means the 190 really does deserve its true sales legend status.


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James Baggott's avatar

James is the founder and editor-in-chief of Car Dealer Magazine, and CEO of parent company Baize Group. James has been a motoring journalist for more than 20 years writing about cars and the car industry.

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