The Best of the Best: The U.S. Market W201 Baby Benz • 1984-1993

Richard Simonds, Daniel Stahl

BG W201 01.jpgThe first range of compact cars with the star was designed to be modern, light and economical,
without compromising hallmark Mercedes-Benz handling, performance, safety and reliability.



The Best of the Best: The U.S. Market W201 Baby Benz • 1984-1993


Article Richard Simonds

Data Daniel Stahl • Richard Simonds

Images Daimler Archives  


The first range of compact cars with the star was designed to be modern, light and economical,

without compromising hallmark Mercedes-Benz handling, performance, safety and reliability


When the proposal was made in 1975 to extend the portfolio of the mid-size W123 models and full-size W116 already in the worldwide market by adding a compact series, the board of management in Stuttgart was very cautious. However, thoughts of the success of the 170 series (W136) in the 1930s to 1950s and the Ponton series (W120 and W121) in the 1950s-1960s, and a desire to have deeper market penetration, led the board to approve development of the W201 series of compact sedans.


Having smaller sedans that provided the luxury and amenities of its stablemates did not dilute the brand’s image. In fact, they were a raging success! The addition of the 16-valve models enhanced the range, adding performance to the luxury. Over a 10-year production run, nearly two million of the W201 series were produced, meaning that an enthusiast has the opportunity to find one in good to excellent condition. Today, a W201 can be an exciting or economical choice as a practical sedan. As when looking for any vehicle of this age, just follow Daimler’s motto, “The Best or Nothing,” when making your decision.




When the automotive press first saw the W201 in Spain in December 1982, journalists recalled seeing models running on the company’s test tracks in 1979. The long development and testing time was not surprising; the W201 body design and the five-link rear suspension were entirely new. The M102 engine and transmission, however, were adapted from the W123 chassis.


Head of styling Bruno Sacco described the W201 body style as “diamond cut” because of the angular lines contrasted with the more rounded style of the sedans from the 1960s and 1970s. Based on the C111 prototype vehicles, the forward-sloped profile and the short rear deck were breaks from tradition, but would influence Mercedes-Benz styling for another decade.


The initial 2-liter carbureted 4-cylinder engine could not meet stringent U.S. emissions regulations, but the M102 fuel-injected (Einspritz) engine in the 190E 2.3 did; in 1984, U.S. car buyers eagerly began purchasing the W201 “Baby Benz.” A diesel version with the 2.2-liter M601 engine was also available. These two engines were considered under-powered for the U.S. market, even though the W201 weighed only 2,500 pounds and had a remarkably low coefficient of drag for the time of 0.33.


Faced with increasing competition from BMW, product planners in 1983 introduced the 190E 2.3-16, with a 4-valve per cylinder head developed by Cosworth, for enthusiasts with a passion for track-day events, bringing the sport sedan to the Mercedes-Benz portfolio. (A full review of this model appeared in The Star’s March-April 2010 issue, pages 55-57.) The Cosworth models remain the most desirable of the W201 series, although finding one that has not been badly beaten or severely modified can be a challenge. In 1988, the 2.3-16 was replaced with the 2.5-16 , but that model is rarely seen in the United States.


In 1984, the gas engine was re-engineered to produce 121 horsepower, replacing the 113-horsepower original. The 2.2-liter diesel engine was replaced in 1985 with a 2.5-liter version with 93 horsepower compared with the original 72-horsepower engine. Both versions offered the choice of a 4-speed automatic or a 5-speed manual with overdrive transmission. This was in response to the perception of the original 190E 2.3 models being underpowered.


In 1987, the company introduced the 6-cylinder 190E 2.6 with 158 horsepower and the smoothness of an inline-six, though the United States didn’t see this model until 1988. Today, it is a desirable example of the gas-powered range. Also, 1987 was the only year of the 2.5-liter turbodiesel – the 190D 2.5 Turbo – a 5-cylinder engine producing 123 horsepower, now a highly desirable model for diesel enthusiasts.


In 1991 the 4-cylinder engine returned with a new cylinder head and improved fuel-injection as the 190E 2.3 with 130 horsepower. It was marketed along with the 6-cylinder 190E 2.6 at 158 horsepower. A Sportline version was introduced in 1992 for enthusiasts looking for better handling. This option had stiffer springs and shocks and it rode lower; It had more supportive seats and a smaller-diameter steering wheel. With performance tires, the 6-cylinder Sportline can match the lap times of the 190E 2.3-16.


Toward the end of production in 1992, Road & Track magazine surveyed 339 190E owners, who reported only two problems: longevity of the brake pads and rotors, and efficiency of the air-conditioning system. The brake pads and rotors may have a lot to do with how the cars were driven. The a/c system is typical of Mercedes-Benz models of that time. It took the company nearly three decades to create air-conditioning that worked well for all passengers.


The W201 was replaced with the W202 sedans – the C220 (4-cylinder) and C280 (6-cylinder) – in 1993, an auspicious beginning for the modern compact Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedans. AMG also began working its magic with the W202 series as the company continues to do on many Mercedes-Benz models to the present day.


Reasons to buy


The W201s were among the last Mercedes-Benz models built before cost accounting started to compromise engineering-driven, no-compromise quality. As the least expensive series from this period, they can be excellent bargains for collectors, enthusiasts or the owner wanting a practical daily driver.


The bodies are noted for their generally rust-free nature, the result of good design and more effective rust-proofing practices. All engines are considered to be durable and reliable, with the strongest ratings in the last several years of production. All are comfortable cruisers at highway speeds and are acceptable in urban and suburban driving.

The suspension (gas-filled struts in front, multilink in rear and coil springs all around) contributes to excellent handling and smooth riding. The antilock braking system (ABS) acting on four-wheel disc brakes is more than adequate for all models. Finally, highway fuel economy is excellent with more than 25 mpg for the 2.3-liter 4-cylinder gas engines and 38 mpg for the 2.2-liter diesel engines –  reasonably comparable with models today.


Reasons not to buy


The earlier models were considered to be under-powered with 0-60 mph times of 11.2 seconds (gasoline) and 18.6 seconds (diesel). The 2.6 models were in the 8-9 second range for 0-60 mph, with the 190E 2.3-16 taking 7.1 seconds.


Legroom in the back seats is quite limited, especially if the front-seat passengers have their seats moved back. However, this may not be a serious problem; the W201s had front-seat legroom comparable to the S-Class sedans at the time. Finally, the standard recommendation is to “buy the best one you can afford.” Be diligent in scanning the market, have a professional inspection by a mechanic experienced with these cars, and look for the improved later models in the series.




Get all the service records that you can, preferably from when the car was new. This will identify any deferred or ignored maintenance and repairs. Also, the records show where the car was during its life – a good clue about risks of rust from salt on roads.


The climate-control systems proved to be troublesome, particularly due to the plastic valves that control air distribution. Replacement parts (made of aluminum) are available, but labor is the big expense because most of the dash must be removed to get to the a/c components.


Power-operated windows, sunroof, radio antenna and seats should all be checked for proper operation. Automatic transmissions should shift smoothly and without noticeable bearing noises. Manual transmissions should have working synchromesh on all forward gears and have no noticeable bearing noises; the clutch should engage and disengage smoothly with no chatter and in-spec pedal travel.


Check for leaks from the cooling system, engine, transmission and differential. An inspection by a mechanic knowledgeable about cars of this period can distinguish between leaks that can be fixed simply and inexpensively and those that indicate a major systems problem.


Engines should be checked for smooth operation from startup, through warm-up, and on to road performance. There are known issues with these early fuel-injection systems controlled by vacuum and temperature sensors, requiring repairs from simple adjustments to major rebuilds.


Diesel engines relied on vacuum pumps to operate many systems (because  the diesel system does not create manifold vacuum) and the vacuum pumps are prone to bearing failure, leading to more serious problems with the engine. The M102 and M103 (especially the early ones) engines had problems with valve guides and seals; watch for excessive oil consumption and blue smoke while decelerating.


Leaking head gaskets may show up as a coolant leak outside the engine, oil in the coolant overflow tank or white foam on the dipstick, indicating coolant in the crankcase causing oil frothing that may lead to engine failure from diluted oil. Regular coolant changes – at least every two years from the time these models were made – should be recorded on the Service Records. Without coolant changes, the alloy heads and cast-iron blocks are subject to electrolysis and damage to the heads, an expensive replacement and repair.


The ABS antilock braking system on later models can be tested for proper operation on a street or large parking lot with no traffic by driving at 30-35 mph and stomping the brake pedal until the car comes to a complete stop. The pedal should pulsate; there will probably be some knocking sounds as the brakes pulse. The car should come to a straight stop without swerving and there should be no lockup or skid marks on the pavement. Brakes on earlier models that do not have ABS can be tested by pressing firmly on the brake pedal to come to a stop as quickly and smoothly as possible. The car should stop smoothly without pulling to either side.


Look for an interior that is in good condition. The MB-Tex (bonded vinyl) is nearly indestructible but can crack from sun damage. Aftermarket seat covers may hide a multitude of problems. Check that leather and MB-Tex show evidence of regular conditioning, with wear limited to nothing more than some rippling – especially on the seat bottoms. Fabric upholstery is highly unlikely to be present in U.S.-spec cars but should be checked for condition nonetheless. Seats should be well sprung, should not sag and should provide good support. Mercedes-Benz has had orthopedically designed seats since the 1960s, but they will wear with heavy use. Carpets may be worn on the driver’s side; full carpeting kits are available for under $1,000.


There was a recall on the 1983 models for defective 14-inch alloy wheels (date codes 3583-4983, weeks 35 to 49, 1983) that had cracking problems. These should have been replaced under warranty at the time, but check the date codes on the alloy wheels to be sure that the wheels on the car you are considering do not have these date codes.




As with any purchase of a classic car, be sure to budget 20-30 percent more than the purchase price to cover maintenance and repairs to correct problems that went undiscovered during your initial inspection. Finally, two maxims to consider when buying Mercedes-Benz cars: First, we would rather buy a car with high mileage that has been driven regularly and been well maintained than to be seduced by a car with very low mileage that has sat unused and not maintained. Second, a car being sold by the first or second owner – with a known service history – is always likely to be more reliable than one from a dealer with unknown provenance. Caveat emptor.


Cutaway drawing of compact W201, designed by Bruno Sacco to bring Mercedes-Benz quality and safety to a new segment of the automotive market.



Export models for the United States: a red 1983 190D 2.2 and a dark blue 1991 190E 2.3.






The original Mercedes-Benz sport sedan: From any angle, the 190E 2.3-16 with manual transmission, hound’s-tooth upholstery, and a 4-valve per cylinder Cosworth head remains the most desirable W201 model.









MODEL      YEARS             CHASSIS          ENGINE           POWER SAE Net hp   TORQUE SAE Net lb-ft        

190E 2.3          1983-84           201.024           M102.961(2,299cc)     113@5,500     136@3,500    

190E 2.3          1984-85           201.024           M102.985 (2,299cc)    121@5,000     136@3,500    

190E 2.3          1985-86           201.024           M102.985 (2,299cc)    122@5,000     136@3,500    

190E 2.3          1986-89           201.028           M102.985 (2,299cc)    130@5,100     146@3,500

190E 2.6          1986-93           201.029           M103.942 (2,599cc)    158@5,800     162@4,600    

190D 2.2         1983-84           201.122           OM601.921 (2,197cc)   72@4,200       96@2,800      

190D 2.5         1985-89           201.126           OM602.911 (2,497cc)   93@4,600      122@2,800    

190D 2.5          1986-87          201.128           OM602.961 (2,497cc)    Fed:123@4,600 Fed:168@2,400

                                                                                                             Cal:119@4,600 Cal:   163@2,400


190E 2.3-16     1985-87           201.034           M102.983 (2,299cc)    167@5,800     162@4,750      


Rare European Market Models

190E 2.5-16           1988-93   201.035       M102.990 (2,498cc)    204@6,750 (DIN)       177@5,000-5,500 (DIN)          

190E 2.5-16 EVO   1989    201.036           M102.991 (2,463cc)    204@6,800 (DIN)       177@5,000-5,500 (DIN)           

190E 2.5-16 Evo II 1990    201.036           M102.992 (2,463cc)     235@7,200 (DIN        181@5,000-6,000 (DIN)  


Global Production

190E 2.3-16         1983-1993      186,610

190E 2.6              1986-1993       104,907

190D 2.2              1983-1984        10,560

190D 2.5              1986-1987      147,502

190D 2.5 Turbo    1986-1987        20,915

190E 2.3-16         1985-1987        19,487

190E 2.5-16         1988-1993          5,743

190E 2.5-16          1989-1990           502



Chronology: Mercedes-Benz W201 • 1984-1993

1982    190 & 190E presented to automotive press, Spain

             Production starts in Sindelfingen, October

1983    190D & 190E 2.3 16 launched at Frankfurt Auto Show, September 

             Production begins, with deliveries by December

             Parallel production starts in Bremen, November

1984    190E 2.3 engine upgraded from 113 to 121 horsepower for 1985 model

1985    190D 2.5 & 190E 2.6 launched Frankfurt Auto Show, September

             Power steering, heated door mirrors standard, November 

1986    190E 2.3-16 on sale U.S.(2 years only)

1986    190E 2.6  production begins April; sales begin September 

            U.S. model 2.3 & 2.6 equipped with three-way catalytic converter

1987    190D 2.5 Turbo launched Frankfurt Auto Show, September 

            190E 2.3 horsepower increased from 122 to 130 for 1987

1988    One millionth W201 manufactured, Bremen, June 

            W201 facelift shown at Paris Auto Show, September 

            190E 2.5-16 introduced

1989    Diesel engines upgraded for lower emissions, February 

            Sportline model introduced, June 

            190E 2.5-16 Evolution launched, March (racing version with 315-320 hp)

1990    190E 2.5-16 Evolution II launched, March

1991    Anti-lock Braking System (ABS) standard on most W201s

1993    Production ends at Sindelfingen in February and at Bremen in August