1987 Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.6 Archive Road Test

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From the April 1987 issue of Car and Driver.

Mercedes-Benz manufactures more than just cars: it builds the rolling aristoc­racy of the roads. From New York to Nai­robi, from Brussels to Budapest, the nou­veau riche, the riche, and the almost riche all agree on one thing: arriving in a Mercedes-Benz is about the best way to say you’ve arrived.

The new 190E 2.6 embodies every last iota of Mercedes tradition. Daimler-Benz is a technological tortoise inching indefat­igably forward, often managing to stay a half step ahead of the car industry’s hares. Each new M-B model evolves logically from its predecessors; no great leaps are encouraged or sought. Thus everything that makes Mercedes-Benzes the objects of both reverence and puzzlement is present in the 190E 2.6.

You’ll recall that the four-door 190, Mercedes’ smallest model, was conceived during the darkest moments of OPEC’s last fuel shut-off. In the three years since its arrival on these shores, the 190 has benefited from the slow but steady flow of improvements enjoyed by all M-B prod­ucts. Its handling balance was improved with fresh suspension calibrations. Larger wheels and tires strengthened its once-­feeble grip on the road. Its engines were fortified. Mercedes even made a model for hard-charging enthusiasts: the 190E 2.3-16, a winged autobahn screamer with a Cosworth-designed 16-valve cylin­der head.

This year’s twist on performance en­hancement is the introduction of six-cylin­der refinement. Even as the 190 was going from computer console to reality, M-B’s studious engineers foresaw an end to the fuel-crisis hysteria and looked forward to the day when their car would require an engine larger and smoother than its four­-cylinder. They left just enough room un­der the 190’s hood to shoehorn in a com­pact six-cylinder powerplant.

The new engine, which also powers the just-introduced 260E mid-size sedan, is the smaller relative of the creamy 3.0-liter inline-six that whirs contentedly under the hood of the impressive 300E. Reduc­ing the six’s displacement by 363 cc was merely a matter of decreasing its cylinder bore by 5.6 millimeters. The size of its valves was also reduced slightly, but that’s about it for major changes.

Like its 3.0-liter big brother, the 2.6-liter is a deep breather. Although the smaller engine’s 158-hp maximum output is 19 hp lower than the 3.0-liter’s, it still compares well with the most potent two-­valve-per-cylinder motors in its size range from anywhere in the world.

The 2.6-liter sounds as if it were made out of money when you call for all the horses.

The marriage of little prince and big en­gine couldn’t be happier. Our 190E test car was fitted with M-B’s four-speed auto­matic, the right transmission for the job. The Daimler-Benz automatic, with its su­perlative gated shifter, is a model of re­finement, preferable to M-B’s wide-ratio five-speed in almost all conditions.

The new drivetrain works almost as well as the 300E’s. The 2.6-liter six is only nine horsepower shy of the output of the hot­rod 2.3-16’s sixteen-valve four, and it de­livers equal torque. You expect brisk per­formance and you get it, with 60 mph arriving 8.1 seconds after liftoff and the quarter-mile going by in 16.4 seconds at a racy 84 mph.

Around town there is always plenty of torque on call when you need to squirt ahead of traffic. Hold your foot down and the transmission lets the engine fly right to the redline—and beyond. We’re fairly sure our car’s gearbox calibrations were off, because they let the engine rev well past the 6200-rpm red zone in both second and third gears. Very un-Mercedes-like.

Not that the silky six protests such treat­ment. The 2.6-liter sounds as if it were made out of money when you call for all the horses, and it settles back to a well­-oiled hum when you’re just cruising. An enthusiast could live on the sound alone.

Thanks to a reasonable 0.35 drag coef­ficient and just-right gearing, the 2.6’s ac­celeration doesn’t plateau until 128 mph. It’s only when you get well up in the triple­-digit range that you can appreciate the full measure of the 190E’s breeding. The air­stream rushes by in a hushed whoosh, the suspension keeps a firm grasp on the ride motions, and the tracking is straight and true. A hundred twenty mph is inspirational.

The other changes made over the years do their part, too. The steering is now di­rect and accurate, and the improved chas­sis serves up enough agility and grip to keep a serious driver involved when the asphalt ribbon tries to tie itself in a knot.

If only the 190E were as accomplished at pampering its passengers. Daimler­-Benz’s stubborn insistence on clinging to a rear-drive layout puts a serious dent in this car’s practicality. The 190E is about the size of a Honda Accord, but it offers no­where near the spread-out room. Six-foot­ers won’t be comfortable in back for long. The rear seat itself is outstanding, but what good is a comfortable perch if your head hits the roof and your legs are locked in by the front seatbacks?

The driver, too, could be made more comfortable. Legroom is limited by the bulky knee bolster that is part of the stan­dard Supplemental Restraint System (which includes a driver’s-side air bag), and the steering wheel is too low, too far away, and too big in diameter.

The cabin may be tight, but it is tidy. True to tradition, the quality of the 190E, inside and out, is past great and headed for awesome. How can vinyl upholstery look so luxurious? How is it that Benzes fit together better than anything else in the world? How does Mercedes get the doors to thunk with that bank-vault authority? And how can it keep a straight face while charging so much for such a small car?

It’s all part of the Mercedes-Benz mystique—the irresistible force that mes­merizes people into parting with huge sums of money for cars wearing the three-­pointed star. Even considering the 2.6’s wealth of standard features—including ABS brakes—its $32,200 base price strikes us as going, going, gone.

A host of larger, more comfortable se­dans with equal or better performance are available for the same money or less, and for not much more, you could even have a 260E. We know that royalty has its price, but even for a little prince with a big heart, $32,000 is a king’s ransom.



1987 Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.6
Vehicle Type: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan

As Tested: $32,200

SOHC 12-valve inline-6, iron block and aluminum head, port fuel injection
Displacement: 159 in3, 2599 cm3
Power: 158 hp @ 5800 rpm
Torque: 162 lb-ft @ 4600 rpm 

4-speed automatic


Suspension, F/R: control arms/multilink
Brakes, F/R: 10.3-in vented disc/10.2-in disc
Tires: Michelin MXV


Wheelbase: 104.9 in
Length: 175.1 in
Width: 66.1 in
Height: 54.7 in
Passenger Volume, F/R: 48/34 ft3
Trunk Volume: 12 ft3
Curb Weight: 2922 lb


60 mph: 8.1 sec
1/4-Mile: 16.4 sec @ 84 mph
100 mph: 27.3 sec
Top Gear, 30–50 mph: 4.4 sec
Top Gear, 50–70 mph: 6.7 sec
Top Speed: 128 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 176 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft Skidpad: 0.78 g 


Observed: 17 mpg

City/Highway: 19/22 mpg 


Rich Ceppos has evaluated automobiles and automotive technology during a career that has encompassed 10 years at General Motors, two stints at Car and Driver totaling 20 years, and thousands of miles logged in racing cars. He was in music school when he realized what he really wanted to do in life and, somehow, it’s worked out. In between his two C/D postings he served as executive editor of Automobile Magazine; was an executive vice president at Campbell Marketing & Communications; worked in GM’s product-development area; and became publisher of Autoweek. He has raced continuously since college, held SCCA and IMSA pro racing licenses, and has competed in the 24 Hours of Daytona. He currently ministers to a 1999 Miata, and he appreciates that none of his younger colleagues have yet uttered “Okay, Boomer” when he tells one of his stories about the crazy old days at C/D.

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