Importing A Lesser-Known Member Of The Cosworth Mercedes Family, The 190E 2.5-16
Photography by Alex Sobran
If you’re an American that’s interested in older European performance cars, the grass is generally going to be greener abroad—especially if you want to own something without a catalytic converter. Given similar asking prices, there’s a valid argument to be made in favor of a rust-free Arizona car with a little less horsepower as opposed to its rustier relative that spent winters plowing the slush in Berlin, but that’s a cherry-picked hypothetical to satisfy the devil’s advocates.
No matter the dryness of climate or amount of garaged protection, there’s no American-made substitute for the main reason why Stateside car enthusiasts like to look elsewhere. We want to taste the fruit forbidden by the US government: Audi RS2s, Nissan Skyline GT-Rs, Holden sports sedans, Honda Beats, Cosworth-powered Fords, and all the rest of the good stuff we never got the first time around.
Of course some of these cars weren’t exported to the US for the less dramatic reasons of marketing and sales projections, but whether it be that, crash-testing requirements, emissions controls, or a combination of all factors, the result was Americans missing out on a lot of great sporting imports. Poor us. As regulations have converged the differences between today’s domestic market and export versions of enthusiast vehicles have become much harder to spot (but we are still missing out on cool stuff, no doubt). Regardless, it seems like the heat map of import interest tends to be around 1990s vehicles lately.
The Radwood-defined appreciation for that era is a contributor for sure, but the ‘90s focus is largely due to the fact that the “25-year import law” is currently providing these cars with their first unhindered (read: un-federalized) route to their fans in the States (Californians, it’s time to register that LLC in Montana). Every year we are treated to a new-to-us selection of machines we’ve admired from afar for the last quarter century, and the more recent arrivals have naturally received the loudest fanfare.
We are only talking about things that enthusiasts are interested in importing, though—there’s a lot more chatter about the Ford Escort RS Cosworth than the Ford Ka—but that doesn’t always mean it has to be a once upon a time sports car at the center of attention. Kei trucks, SUVs, Honda Accords with JDM noses, there is a lot to be found in the “I’ve never seen one of these before” section of Cars & Coffee that isn’t—and never was—“fast.”
But if we do limit the scope to the higher performance sector of the “25-year cars,” the conversation tends toward the most extreme examples of a given model. In other words, if you type “Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.5-16” into your favorite search engine, you’re not going to find cars that look like this one on the first page of results.
Which is amusing, considering that’s what this car is. Instead you’ll be given links and photos pertaining to the 190E 2.5-16 Evolution II version of the baby Benz. And why wouldn’t you? It’s the car with the outrageous bodywork that won the 1992 DTM championship against the BMW M3, and the road-going version was the capstone to a successful lineage of 190Es that Mercedes-Benz, Cosworth, and AMG evolved in pursuit of higher performance.
They are also routinely selling for over $200,000. This isn’t a comment on whether or not the prices are worthwhile—we love the Evo II, and all of its predecessors, completely—but it is useful for illustrating the appeal of the 2.5-16 pictured above.
The collection of cars known as the “Cosworth Mercedes-Benzes” needs no reintroduction to our readers, but in the many retellings of the journey from would-be rally car to championship-winning touring car, the story generally skips over the 2.5-16 road car, going from the first 2.3-16 to the Evolution models homologated for DTM contention in the later years of the 190E’s racing career. Genuine fans of the sporting 190Es know and appreciate the 2.5-16, but thankfully for those of us who don’t have a couple hundred grand to spend on a M-B that shares a good deal of parts with a taxi cab version, they don’t bid them up to the 200k mark.
The happy owner of this car isn’t suggesting a similar value, he just likes to share the car with people who enjoy niche European-spec offerings that never came to America. There are far more obscure things than this out there, but within the context of Cosworth Mercs, it’s a pretty unique find.
For starters, while the 2.3L cars were exported to the US (with emissions controls that stole a small but noticeable amount of power), the 2.5L cars never were. And while all the 2.3s were available in either Smoke Silver or Blue-Black Metallic, when Mercedes released the 2.5 version in 1988, they added a true silver option (Astral Silver, later replaced by Brilliant Silver), and a single choice of color not couched in greyscale, Almandine Red.
If the discussion of paint options is putting you to sleep, another interesting bit of 190E history in this car is the inclusion of the rare adjustable suspension, which is operated via a three-setting rocker switch next to the steering wheel. For a 1992 model year car with four doors, it was a novel option. In practice, the change in height from the standard to lowest setting is hard to notice and can be measured in millimeters, but the fact that it’s there is what matters to those of us that like to geek about these details.
This car has an interesting place in Mercedes-Benz history (even just the fact of the dogleg manual transmission makes it unique among Mercs made for spirited driving) but more importantly, the owner says it’s addicting to drive. It’s not fast by any modern definition, but it’s a compact car that’s light on its feet and has just about 200hp to make good use of its competent chassis. The suspension on base 190s get’s a lot of love for its multi-link rear especially, but in the Cosworth cars the whole package is lowered and stiffened and generally beefed up to cope with a more rigorous idea of taking a corner. That said, it’s not a rigid car that can carve a turn but can’t handle a few divots in the asphalt along the way. The 2.5-16 is a bit more detached than the E30 M3 it’s so often compared to, but like its Bimmer rival, the Mercedes rewards limit-chasing like few others.
Even better than the meaner demeanor of the engine and suspension when you test their limits, is the bald fact that you can approach these limits without being way out of your element by the time you’re only halfway there. The car changes its attitude completely when spanked, and if it weren’t a somewhat tricky car to find its 2.5L-specific replacement parts for, there’d be no lack of reasons to cane it every day.