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Video | The Mercedes 190E 2.3-16 Was the Fast Mercedes Before AMG

I recently had the chance to drive a Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16, which is a sporty Mercedes-Benz sedan. These days, the idea of a sporty Mercedes-Benz sedan isn’t especially unusual — but back in the 1980s, it was: This was the era before AMG, before there was a high-performance, sport suspension version of everything in existence.

And yet, Mercedes-Benz decided to create the 2.3-16. It was a high-performance version of the Mercedes-Benz 190E, which was the entry-level model at the time, in the days before the C-Class or A-Class. The reason for the 2.3-16 model was to get some sales out of Mercedes-Benz’s performance in touring car racing, where a modified version of the 190E was campaigned for several years.

Before I get into the driving experience of the 2.3-16, a little overview on it. It used a 2.3-liter 4-cylinder engine, developed by British engineering company Cosworth, and it touted 167 horsepower and 162 lb-ft of torque — not bad figures for a car the size of the 2.3-16 back in the day. It did 0-to-60 mph in around eight seconds, and it was offered in the late 1980s — the one I drove was a 1987 model.

The interesting thing about the 2.3-16, to me, is that it really is a very early attempt by Mercedes-Benz to create a sporty version of a normal car, in the days long before they became the reigning champion of that with all the crazy AMG models. And you can see some guesses at what may be popular, from the manual transmission to the bolstered seats to the odd body kit with a spoiler. Everyone was doing a spoiler, including the E30 M3, Mercedes-Benz figured — so why not us, too?

Interestingly, the 190E drives pretty well for what it is. It’s definitely not fast — there’s absolutely no doubt it could use a few extra hp, and by modern standards it’s almost laughable to see this as a "fast Mercedes-Benz," when we know now what came later with AMG, and BMW M, and that sort of thing. But it’s quick enough.

The real enjoyment, however, comes in the driving experience beyond acceleration: Due to its small size, it’s surprisingly enjoyable to throw around, and the steering and handling still feels pretty connected 30 years after this car was originally sold. The biggest drawback to modern cars, in my opinion, is steering feel — and when you drive an older car like this one, you can clearly see why.

With that said, the 190E 2.3-16 is certainly no E30 M3. This is a good car, and a fun car, but it’s nowhere near as much of a focused car as its chief BMW rival from the period. BMW clearly saw a more obvious niche and went for it more whole-heartedly, whereas Mercedes-Benz merely tuned up the 190E a bit and put it on sale. There are more powerful versions of the 190E, admittedly, but we never got them in North America.

Still, the 2.3-16 is a cool car — and it’s quite a bargain, given the current value of these things, as you can pick up nice ones for $10,000 or thereabouts. It also has the cool "touring car"-style look, with the wing and the body kit — and mostly, it’s just a fun piece of Mercedes-Benz history. I’m thrilled I got to spend the day with a 2.3-16, as I had always wondered about them — and even though it could use a bit more power and a bit more performance focus, it’s still a neat relic from an era long before the Mercedes-Benz we know today. Find a Mercedes-Benz 190E for sale

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