Mercedes-Benz 190 1990 e 2.3

Modern Classic Review: 1990 Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.5-16 Evo II (W201)

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Our man Mike Duff gets the chance to find out what makes this homologation special so special. And yes, we are all jealous!
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Modern Classic Review – the CarAdvice team takes time away from Australia’s new car landscape to look at machines we consider true modern classics.

What’s more, we’ll try to turn our focus to cars that haven’t quite fallen out of reach in terms of scarcity and affordability (we've made an exception in this case... ) Is there something on your radar? Let us know what modern classics you would like to see the team review.

Think of a famous Mercedes race car and the odds are that it was packing a substantial engine. Highlights on the list of all-time stars include the monstrous supercharged 5.6-litre straight-eight of the pre-war W125 and the V12 that powered the CLK-GTR that took the brand back into sports car racing in the 1990s. More recently Merc’s long association with AMG, which turned into a full merger, has created a series of brawny, charismatic V8-powered GT racers.

Yet, one of the most famous racing Mercs was built around both a four-door bodyshell and a lowly four-banger engine with just two-and-a-half litres of capacity. And for all the veneration now heaped upon it, the 190E had to struggle long and hard to becomes successful in period.

Despite which, the Evo II homologation special has become one of the most prized of all modern Mercs. Values haven’t quite got to SL Gullwing levels yet, but they are heading that way. In January 2020, a 7000km car originally registered in Japan made US$434,000 (AUD$557,000) at an auction in Arizona.

The 190E’s motorsport career contained much more failure than victory. Mercedes-Benz had originally contracted Cosworth to make a 16-valve head for the cooking baby Benz with the idea of going rallying, something nixed by the arrival of WRC’s all-wheel driven era. So the 190E went racing instead, initially with a field of 20 identical 2.3-16 cars at a special race to celebrate the opening of the Nurburgring GP circuit in 1984.

Mercedes was guaranteed a win in this one-make special – a young Ayrton Senna emerged victorious in a field that contained 11 former and future Formula 1 world champions. But beyond the rest of the 16-valve’s early racing career was much less fruitful, the car struggling to make any mark in the hard-fought DTM Championship.

But corporate pride demanded Mercedes keep writing the cheques to compete against BMW and Audi. The 190E was progressively upgraded, firstly to the brawnier 2.5-litre engine launched in 1988. Further revisions came through DTM’s allowance of ‘Evolution’ versions for subsequent years. The first of these came in 1989 with bigger wheels, a fatter rear wing and upgraded brakes. Then in 1990 the Evo II followed with 17-inch rims, an even bigger spoiler and a chunky bodykit to cover a substantial increase in track.

1990 Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.5-16 Evolution II
Engine configurationFour-cylinder Cosworth petrol
Displacement2.5L (2463cc)
Power173kW @ 7200rpm
Torque245Nm @ 5000rpm
Power to weight ratio129.1kW/t
DriveRear-wheel drive
Transmission5-speed manual
0-100km/h7.1 seconds
Tare Mass1340kg
Price when new (MSRP)~$300,000+

In 1992, when the road-going 190E was about to retire, the racer finally came good. The double-evolved 190E won 16 out of 24 DTM rounds and took 1-2-3 in the championship (plus fifth and sixth for good measure), with Klaus Ludwig leading the pack home. There were other successes, and both Group A and former DTM 190Es raced in Australia in period, but Ludwig’s championship was the pinnacle.

And so the 500 road-going Evo IIs built to justify the mods, and all finished in identical blue-black paint, acquired a halo status. When new they had cost nearly twice as much as the regular 2.5-16, and although that premium fell in the late '90s, it has been accelerating hard in recent years. The Arizona auction result was an outlier, for now – but even well-used Evo IIs regularly go for over AUD$300,000 in Europe and the 'States.

Something that has created a problem common to investment-grade classics: that of actually experiencing them. These days Evo IIs are more likely to be found in hermetically controlled car humidors than on the racetracks they were designed for. Which is where we need to give thanks to the peerless Mercedes Classic division. This in-house archive has been collecting cars throughout most of the company’s long history and now has more than 1300 in the collection – considerably more than any other manufacturer. It also has a brief to make sure that even its rarest and most valuable cars are kept in usable condition.

Mercedes Classic organised a driving event at Merc’s vast Immingdingen test track in Germany in September, with some stars of the collection brought out around the theme of ‘Dream Drives’. It was an automotive history lesson ranging from a replica of the first Patent-Motorwagen to an AMG GT R Pro, and including cars as diverse as an SL Gullwing, 600 Pullman and a 300E ‘Hammer’ version of the W124 saloon. But the one that really leapt off the list for me was an Evo II, with the chance to experience it on Immingdingen’s twisty handling track.

I’m an unashamed fanboi for Mercs from this period, but I’ve also got a closer connection, being the owner of a common-or-garden example of the 190E 2.5-16 the Evo II is based on. So I’m keen to see why the homologation special is worth 10 times more than my car.

The assembled expertise of the Classic mechanics who are here to look after the cars means I get a demonstration of everything that distinguishes the Evo II from the base 16-Valve. This doesn’t take long as there really isn’t very much. Although capacity is identical the Evo has a shorter stroke, bigger bore engine that revs higher and was meant to be easier to tune in racing form. With racier cams and a freer-flowing throttle body this raised output to 173kW – an improvement over the regular 2.5’s 150kW, but hardly off the dial even back then. Given there’s 1340kg sitting on the other side of the scales that makes a power-to-weight ratio that pretty much every modern hot hatch easily beats. Beyond that, the only significant mechanical change is hydraulic height-adjustable suspension.

From the driver’s seat, the Evo II feels near identical to the regular 16-Valver, and indeed a well-equipped version of the vanilla 180E/190E. Instruments are the same, as is the check cloth trim (although my car was upgraded to leather) and with what now seems the incongruous choice of wood for the gear selector surround. The only notable differences are the subtle incorporation of the car’s limited edition number into the top of the dog-leg gear lever – this one being number 222 out of 500 – and the fact the rev counter doesn’t turn red until 7600rpm, 600rpm higher than in the standard car.

Today’s experience is limited to the 4.7km handling track, being chaperoned by a mechanic instructed to ensure I don’t take liberties with one of Classic’s most valuable assets. But it’s still a chance to drive it much harder than I would be allowed to on road.

The Evo II fires up with the same rattly-sounding top end as the regular 2.5-16, even with the engine warmed through. Almost all of this era’s Mercs were designed for effortless, torquey progress, but the 16-Valve engine was always a revver. Under gentle use it does a good impression of its lowly eight-valve sister, but pressing harder wakes it up properly and introduces a zinging edge to the exhaust note that is reminiscent of a Ford BDA – fittingly, as Cosworth developed both cylinder heads.

The Evo II sounds fast but the longitudinal g-loadings are never high. My in-car companion has no problem with me extending the car to the redline, but even fully fanged it never feels quick by modern standards. Mercedes claimed a 7.1-second 0-100km/h time when new – which was enough to make the Evo one of the fastest sedans in the world at that point, but which is now identical to the figure for the entry-level C200. Extracting the performance is made harder by the notchy shift of the dogleg five-speed gearbox – left and back for first; even though I’m familiar with the same shift in my car it takes a while to get used to doing it in a left-hooker.

But the Evo II definitely has enough performance to be interesting. Recirculating ball steering lacks the precision and crisp feedback of cars like the E30 BMW M3 and the Ford Sierra RS, but you quickly dial into its less precise messages and the levels of adhesion generated by both ends of the car are nicely balanced.

The combination of fatter, fresher tyres and a wider track means the Evo feels grippier and keener than my car, but all-out adhesion is still lacking compared to a contemporary performance car. There’s enough power to play with the cornering line in an easy, instinctive fashion – the light that shows activation of the ASD limited-slip differential coming on in tighter bends – but it lacks the urge to be turned into a tyre-smoking monster. That was never the point.

There are a couple of issues. The first is brakes, with the middle pedal softening after a couple of hard stops. (My chaperone's main role turns out to be policing braking points to try and save the pads and discs.) The second is the absence of lateral support from the gently bolstered seats and lack of steering wheel adjustment; even braced as well as I can, a surprising amount of physical effort is required to hold on under circuit loadings.

The driving experience is only a part of the appeal when it comes to most investment-grade cars, and the Evo II certainly handles and goes better than many of the even more lauded cars that come from previous decades; the driving experience never feels old-fashioned. In terms of design and competition backstory, it scores as highly as any of the more classical classics.

And although the generations of hot Mercs that came after it grew faster and more exciting, the 2.5-16 is arguably relevant to the brand’s near-term performance future than the monstrous V8s it has been making for the last 20 years – we already know AMG’s next full-strength powerplant is going to be a hybridised four-cylinder.

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