Why A Journalist Who’s Driven ‘Em All Still Prefers The Mercedes 190E 2.3-16 Cosworth
Photography by Patrick Stevenson
The Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16 Cosworth is both a mouthful of a name and an iconic homologation special in a decade chock-full of them. It also happens to be the cultural underdog when compared to the BMW M3 of the same era. Although it may be a bit more conservative in styling, the performance is actually better than the BMW—or so say many who’ve been in both. It makes sense that these 16-valve Cosworths were the benchmark for performance when BMW was developing their E30 into the first M3. There is no cloning this car though.
It’s strange then that the M3 is regarded as the king of the series. After all, Audi also won two championships, and Ford and Mercedes both got one apiece around the same time, so it’s not like anyone really dominated for more than a season or two. Can it really just be the lack of box flares that leaves this car in the shadows of its BMW counterpart then? Is it the fact that BMW won a DTM championship a few years earlier? Most of its fans are just glad it has stayed a (relative) secret, as you can still find examples for half the price of M3s.
Automotive Journalist, YouTube star, and all-around German car nut Jason Cammisa may own one of the nicest 190E 2.3-16s I have ever seen. His 1985 Smoke Silver European model has the unrestricted 185 horsepower engine, manual windows, and plaid Recaro buckets front and rear. It was plucked from Germany with only one previous owner. It is showroom stock, and in pristine condition. It’s a thoroughly nice car to say the least, and Cammisa was happy to sit down with me to give his expert journalist opinion on why his car is better than pretty much everything.
Patrick Stevenson: Jason, you’ve driven everything under the sun, why did you seek out this particular Mercedes?
Jason Cammisa: I daily-drove a “regular” W201 for years and always wanted a 16-valve. I looked for about 15 years for the “right car” — Euro, high-compression motor; lightweight spec; in Smoke Silver with plaid cloth as Sacco designed and God intended. I amused myself in the interim with a 38k-mile U.S. car in Blauschwarz, which I sold in 2007 in preparation for a cross-country move. In September of 2011, I was on the phone with my Mercedes-obsessed best friend, telling him I was about to buy a shitbox U.S. 2.3-16 to satisfy my W201 craving, and he talked me out of it, knowing that I’m too neurotic to own a beater Benz. I said “Well, I guess one day the right one will find me.” And he said “Oh, it just did, check your email.” He had just sent me the link to the ad for this car on the German site mobile.de.
The following week, I stopped in Germany en route to the press launch of the F10 BMW M5. I drove the 2.3-16 (the odometer turned 78,000km on my test drive — 48,469 miles), put it on a lift, pored through the records, and ultimately bought it. While it was there, I did a some journalistic work with it, enjoyed some Autobahn time (about an hour of it at its 143-mph top speed), and then shipped it home. Then I spent a hundred or two hours cleaning it, and have been enjoying it since.
PS: Sounds like a great way to get paid to pick up your new car in Germany and run it on the Autobahn to boot. A sub-50k mile car of that age is a rare find these days, so what’s the history on the car?
JC: Bought new by a woman named Klara in a little town called Floethütte, about an hour and 15 minutes outside of Cologne. She took delivery on her 36th birthday (and I bought it on my 36th birthday!). I bought it from a broker who was selling it, but the car was still titled in her name, so I tracked down her phone number and spoke with her, asked why she spent so much money (DM 58,866.40) on a small car with no A/C or power windows when she could have had an S-Class for less money (a base S-class was DM 40,650!). She responded with no hesitation, “Weil der so süß aussah!” Because it was so cute! [Laughs]
When I asked why it had all the original documentation, including the dealer price list, receipt for transport from the factory to her dealership, receipt for the original license plates, break-in-instructions, etc., but no dealer receipts for service, she said “Because it never went to the dealer.” She owned a service station, and they did oil changes for her, but it never had any other work done to it. No repairs done equals no repair receipts, I guess!
PS: So, the story of buying it from the little old lady who only drove it to church on Sundays is a real thing sometimes—as long as she’s German and thinks it’s cute. It sounds like you got a great car, although the purchase was a bit more work than a domestic Craigslist find. Why is the 190E 2.3-16 so special to you?
JC: The W201 changed the automotive landscape. The first ultra-premium subcompact car, it’d be the smallest sedan on sale in America if it were in dealerships today. It’s tiny, but it has a huge presence and drives like a 4500-lb full-size luxury car. And the 2.3-16 model’s history is the kind of shit you can’t make up: originally intended to win the World Rally Championship, it was cancelled when Audi ruined M-B’s chances with that pesky Quattro. Then, engineers snuck it past the board as a “sport model,” secretly developing it specially for the then-new DTM series. Its success caused BMW to create the M3 (three years later), which ignited the horsepower war that we’re still fighting today. Like your M3? C63 AMG? ATS-V? Giulia Quadrifoglio? IS-F? RS4? Then you can thank the 190E 2.3-16.
PS: Performance or racing is easy to get excited about, but what about the styling and design of the 2.3-16? I know you own an E30 Touring as well, so how does the Mercedes stand up for you from the looks and functionality perspective?
JC: I consider the W201 to be the best-proportioned and -designed small sedan of all time. (Automobile Magazine’s hard-to-please Robert Cumberford agreed with me on this, adding only the word “post-war.”) My affection isn’t skin-deep, though: I love everything about it, from the four Recaro buckets to the dogleg five-speed, to the five-link rear hydropneumatic self-leveling suspension, to the ridiculous build quality. Speaking of that, it has floor mats, then inch-thick removable carpeting fastened with snaps. Below that is a Swiss-cheesed plastic false floor, under which all of the wires and hoses (fuel, brakes, etc) are contained using gorgeous little conduits. It’s only below that, where you’ll find the asphalt-coated steel floor pan. There’s a reason it’s as quiet as an S-class. Don’t think it’s heavy though—mine weighs 17lbs less than my E30: 2,845 with 18.6 gallons of fuel on board in the massive homologation tank.
PS: You make it sound so amazing, but the engineering and development Mercedes put into the chassis really is wondrous. If you had to nail down one feature of the car as you favorite though, what would that be?
JC: That delicious engine. The BMW S14B23 gets all the glory, but let me tell you, it doesn’t hold a candle to the M102.983 in sound, smoothness, or the way it delivers power. It’s a big-bore short-stroke (95.5×80.25 mm!), 10.5:1 screamer that throws out its peak 185 horsepower in a dyno-operator-stunning plateau that’s as flat as Kansas all the way from 5500 rpm to its 7100-rpm fuel cut. Horsepower plateau, kids—not torque. I ain’t never seen nuthin’ like this car’s dyno plot, and neither have you.
Today’s tiny four-cylinders need balance shafts and active engine mounts to shut them up; thanks to its architecture, this big ol’ four needs neither, and is nearly as smooth as a six. The exhaust is almost completely muffled (who wants to hear a four-banger?) but there’s seemingly nothing standing in the way of the haunting Cosworth induction noise. In race trim, these engines spun to 10,000—my only complaint about the street version is that it kills the fun at 7,100.
PS: When you’re pushing the motor at the limit, how does the chassis respond?
JC: I called my last W201 “Irene.” Her personality was that of a gray-haired librarian named Irene, who read lots of books through her small, wire-framed reading glasses. She went to church. She wore frumpy clothing. But nobody realized was that she was banging the entire college football team. Looking at Irene, or Klara (this car), or any 190E 2.3-16, you’d never believe what it was capable of doing.
There are a few Mercedes-isms you have to work around with the 2.3-16 though. The shifter won’t be rushed, especially when the car is under high lateral loads. The Recaros don’t hold you nearly as tightly as their big bolsters would have you believe. And she’s got more body roll than a Jenny Craig conference, so you’ll need to slow your hands way down on turn-in.
Cornering grip is, in a word, modern. But, and here’s the thing: handling isn’t. The 2.3-16 is so incredibly neutral at its limit that you’d think there was computer trickery happening. The tiniest level of mid-corner understeer gives way to power oversteer that’s doled out by the accelerator pedal in increments of a tenth of a degree of slip. Whatever drift-angle you want? It’s yours, and it all happens in slow motion; the body roll and sidewall flex filing the sharp edges off of all its motions. An E30 M3 has nothing on the Mercedes when it comes to cornering balance and stability. Then again, Mercedes spent about as much developing the W201’s rear suspension as BMW did developing the entire E30.
PS: It is crazy how Mercedes used to design and build cars even in the that late an era. Their chassis were built to last 10 years plus, before a replacement would be developed. So, the 190E 2.3-16 is the unsung hero that pushed the limits in racing and it gave us the E30 M3; does it live up to the DTM legend?
JC: No, it f@#king crucifies it.
PS: Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful 190E 2.3-16 with us.
JC: Thank you for letting me nerd out about all things Mercedes 190E.