Buyers Guide 1983-1993 W201 Baby Benz Gasoline and Diesel 190 Sedans

Gary Anderson with Pierre Hedary, and Richard Simonds

Baby201.jpgThe introduction in 1983 of the W201 190 (now known as the Baby Benz) - a small sedan that looked very similar to the top-of-the-line Mercedes sedans - was a major step for the company.


A Buyers Guide to the W201 Baby Benz
Still a great affordable entry-level Mercedes-Benz
1983-1993 Gasoline and Diesel 190 Sedans

Small may be beautiful, but for Mercedes-Benz, there were no small sedans in the lineup following the end of production of the 200s in 1967. Even then the small cars’ styling was distinctly different from the longer luxury sedans of the day. Consequently, the introduction in 1983 of the W201 190 – a small sedan that looked very similar to the top-of-the-line Mercedes sedans – was a major step for the company.

Despite the company’s trepidation, the “Baby Benzes” – as they would soon be called almost universally – proved to be very successful. Production would continue for more than 10 years and 1 million units, encompassing 4-cylinder and 6-cylinder gasoline engines as well as 4-cylinder and 5-cylinder diesels. The compact sedans found ready buyers among everyone from taxi drivers to young executives in global corporations; a high-performance variation even found its way onto European race tracks.

In today’s market, these cars are no less popular or practical. Though they do have some potential issues, if carefully bought they offer the younger buyer an affordable classic hobby car or an alternative to a more modern but less well-appointed used car.


Introduced to the press in Spain in December 1982, the 190 had actually been under development for at least five years. Correspondents at that event recalled seeing running versons on the company’s test tracks as early as 1979.

The long gestation time was not surprising, since the W201 chassis had little in common with other models in the line-up. Though the M102 engine and transmission were carried over from the W123, the five-link rear suspension and body design were completely new.

hief of design Bruno Sacco described the W201 body style as “diamond cut” because of the angular lines compared to the more rounded features of the chassis that preceded it. The forward-sloped profile and short rear deck were breaks from tradition. It was a design inspired by the lines of the C111 prototype vehicles that subsequently re-defined Mercedes products for a decade or more. The design had much in common with its more expensive siblings and retained the familiar styling cues from history. Sacco said the W201 was his favorite design, impressive considering he was also responsible for the W126 S-Class, the 1990s R129 SL, the CLK, the SLK and the W220 S-Class.

The first W201 models, with a 2-liter gasoline engine, were marketed only in Europe in 1983, because they couldn’t meet the more stringent emission standards being adopted in the United States.

A year later, in 1984, Mercedes-Benz North America introduced the 190E 2.3 (E for einspritz or fuel injection) with a larger volume but lower compression 4-cylinder gasoline engine that could meet U.S. emission standards, and the 190D 2.2 with a totally new 2.2 liter, 4-cylinder OM601 diesel engine.

Mercedes-Benz soon realized that both of these U.S. market engines were underpowered, even considering the lightweight 2,500-pound car with its impressive 0.33 coefficient of drag. In 1985, design engineers increased horsepower on the gasoline engine from 113 to 121 horsepower, and the 73-horsepower diesel was replaced in 1986 by a 2.5-liter engine producing 93 (SAE) horsepower. Both versions offered a choice of 4-speed automatic or 5-speed (including overdrive) manual transmission.

Faced with increasing competition from BMW, and seeking its own place in the global marketplace, in 1983 Mercedes-Benz used the 190E as the basis for a track-focused automobile with a 16-valve Cosworth engine (discussed in The Star in March-April and November-December 2010). The 190E2.3-16V was produced only in sufficient numbers to meet homologation requirements, and would be available in the United States for only two years, 1986–1987. Today, matching-numbers 16Vs are very desirable among collectors, but are equally interesting as prototypes for what can be done to improve the handling performance of a standard 190E.

Even after the 16V was withdrawn from the U.S. market, the company produced and sold a 2.5-liter version, and eventually the high-winged Evolution II, to compete in the German Touring Car series, but these versions are almost never seen in the United States.

A 2.6-liter 6-cylinder gasoline engine with 158 horsepower was introduced in 1987 and made available in the United States in 1988, and Mercedes gradually phased out the 2.3-liter engine. During 1987 only, a now-collectible turbocharged 2.5-liter diesel was produced on the W201 chassis.

In 1988 the W201s surpassed a million total units sold, and by the time production concluded, nearly 1.9 million units had left the assembly lines in Sindelfingen and Bremen.

In 1991, the 4-cylinder engine returned with a new head and improved fuel injection. Anticipating the end of production of the W201, Mercedes introduced a “Sportline” version for the 1992 model year, targeting owners interested in improved handling. The option package included stiffer springs and shock absorbers that lowered the car slightly, wider 8-hole alloy wheels, more supportive seats, and a smaller-diameter steering wheel. With these modifications and good tires, the six-cylinder 190E can match lap times of the 16V.

Toward the end of production, in 1992 Road & Track magazine surveyed 339 190E owners. The only two areas where as much as a third of the owners reported problems were with longevity of brake pads and rotors, and with the air conditioning system.

The diesel engine was withdrawn from the U.S. market in 1990, but both the 4-cylinder and 6-cylinder gasoline engines and the diesel engine continued to be produced until the W201 was replaced in 1993 with first C-Class models, the C220 and C280.

Reasons to Buy

  • The W201s were among the last Mercedes-Benz models built in the era before cost accounting started to challenge no-compromise quality, and as the least expensive model from this period these can be excellent bargains either for the collector or the practical older-car owner.
  • The bodies are particularly noted for their generally rust-free nature, a combination of good chassis design and good rust-proofing practices. All three of the 190 engines, especially in the later years of production, are noted for their longevity and they are comfortable and competent at highway speeds.
  • The new suspension design, with gas-filled shocks in front, coil springs all around, and five-link rear suspension provides confident handling. The anti-lock brake system, acting on four-wheel disc brakes, is more than equal to the car’s performance.
  • Fuel economy in these cars was excellent, with more than 25 mpg achievable at highway speeds in the 2.3-liter gasoline models and 38 mpg in the 2.2-liter diesels.


Reasons Not to Buy

  • These cars are all somewhat underpowered, with zero-60 times in the low double-digits, especially in the early years of the series.
  • Though the front seat space is nearly as large as the S-Class of its years, legroom is very limited in the rear seats.
  • As with any completely new car model, early-year examples had some quality glitches, so look for as new an example as possible.

Above: Constantly improved, the expensive multi-link independent rear suspension of the W201 series, with anti-swaybar and chassis sub-frame, was a ground-breaking design that has stood the test of time and found many imitators. In this construction, each of the rear wheels is controlled by five independent links for optimum wheel control, with lateral and longitudinal forces effectively balanced in all driving situations. This prevents undesired steering movements of the wheel and therefore facilitates well-behaved handling characteristics. The new rear-axle design was also lighter and more compact than that of its predecessors.


Whenever buying a younger car, service records are critical. Even with high mileage, a car with complete records can still be a good value, but be careful if these aren’t available.

The most likely issue will be in the climate-control system. Though it is similar in appearance to previous models, it was a new design, so check operation at all settings. Problems can be corrected by an experienced Mercedes mechanic, so this isn’t a deal killer, but a replacement system, typically using a rebuilt unit, will be pricey. Similarly, check power windows, sunroof, antenna, and power seats. Manual transmissions are preferable to automatic for driving satisfaction, but any bearing noise can indicate problems. Check automatic transmissions for smooth operation and lack of leaks.

Engine issues center around the fuel-injection system, with its reliance on vacuum and temperature sensors to maintain idle. On the diesels, the vacuum pumps were prone to failure with bearings catching in the timing chain. Even though these cars are cheap, paying for a full inspection by a knowledgeable mechanic is worth the cost.

The ABS system on later cars is critical for safety; make sure this is operational by asking the owner to illustrate in a safe place an abrupt stop from reasonable street speed.

Some early models had problems with valve guides and seals, leading to excessive oil use, but these should have been replaced under warranty. Similarly, given the alloy head, it is imperative that the car has a history of coolant changes every two to three years and that the new owner be careful to continue that routine. Popped head gaskets are a known killer of these cars.

The only recall was for the alloy 14-inch wheels with date codes 3583-4983 (weeks 35-49, 1983) which were recalled because of possible cracking. These wheels were a new design with the model and, if still original, should be checked carefully.

Look for an interior in good condition. Because these have always been cars for budget-conscious owners, interiors probably haven’t been replaced and the car’s market value isn’t going to justify extensive and costly rework.
Regardless of the apparent condition of the car, budget a reasonable amount (perhaps 20 percent of the purchase price) for repairs in the first year.

1982190 and 190E W201s presented to the press in Spain December 8. Production begins at Sindelfingen
1983190D production begins in autumn
1983U.S. sales of 190D 2.2 and 190E 2.3 begin in September
1983Parallel production at Bremen begins in November
1984190E 2.3 engine upgraded to 122 horsepower
1985From September, power steering and heated door mirrors became standard on all models
1985190D 2.5 and 190E 2.6 introduced at Frankfurt Motor Show in September

Series production of 190E 2.6 begins in April; sales begin in September.

U.S. 2.3 and 2.6 gasoline models equipped with three-way catalytic converters


190D 2.5 Turbo launched at Frankfurt Motor Show in September.

190E 2.3 16V introduced in U.S.

1988In June, 1-millionth W201 produced at Bremen

W201s are shown at Paris Auto Show in September with styling facelift.

190E 2.5 16V Evolution also introduced.


From February all diesel engines upgraded to reduce emissions.

Sportline model introduced in June.

1991Anti-lock Braking Systems (ABS) standard on all 190s.

Production of 190s ends at Sindelfingen in February.

Production in Bremen ends in August.

Total production of W201s had reached 1,879,629 units.


W201 Baby Benz Small Sedans

Specifications190E 2.3 (Gas)190E 2.3 (Gas)190E 2.6 (Gas)190D 2.2190D 2.5190D 2.5 Turbo
Years Produced1983–19881991–19931986–19931984–19861984–19931987
Total Produced65,153included in '83-'8870,98710,56061,27916,147
Weight2,745 lbs2,745 lbs2,880 lbs2,645-2,700 lbs2,845 lbs3,010 lbs
EngineM102 (2,299cc)M102 (2,299cc)M103 (2,599cc)OM601 (2,197cc)OM602 (2,497cc)OM602 (2,497cc
HP (SAE) @ rpm113@5,000132@5,000158@5,80072@4,20093@4,600123@4,600
Torque @ rpm133 lb-ft@3,500146 lb-ft@3,500162 lb-ft@4,60096 lb-ft@2,800122 lb-ft@2,800168 lb-ft@2,400

5-spd Man

4-spd Auto opt

5-spd Man

4-spd Auto opt

5-spd Man

4-spd Auto opt

5-spd Man

4-spd Auto opt

5-spd Man

4-spd Auto opt

4-spd Auto

4-spd Man opt

Rear axle ratios3.27:1 / 3.23:13.92:1 / 3.27:13.27:1 / 2.87:13.42:13.42:1 / 3.07:12.65:1
Max Speed (mph)114122129 / 12697107 / 104120
Accel (0-60 mph)11 sec10 sec9.1 sec / 9.5 sec18.6 sec14.8 / 15.2 sec10 sec
Fuel Economy22 / 2523 / 3127 / 2536 / 3834 / 3122 / 30


How Much to Pay?

Unlike more expensive models, values for W201 190Es and 190Ds are very straightforward. Standard published appraisal guides list all years and all variations at the same range. Any running car with all the pieces in place should be worth about $4,000 and a good example – one that starts easily and runs smoothly, with a nice interior and paint job might be worth twice that.

The implications of this situation are twofold. For the buyer, our advice is to buy the best example you can find – there is very little upside room if the car requires any extensive work at all. For the seller, our advice is to invest the money it takes to get the car to start and run well, and spend some more for a good detailing job; otherwise the buyer is just going to walk away and you’ll be donating the carcass to your local charity.
We Bought One
by Christopher Yee

My parents purchased this 190E 2.6 brand-new from Mercedes-Benz of Oakland in 1989 and I took over its stewardship five years ago, when I turned 18.

I chose to keep the car for several reasons. First of all, I have so many memories associated with this particular 190E, including numerous family trips to Los Angeles, memories of riding in the front seat as a small child, memories of the car bringing me to important events such as my graduation, parties, family weddings, and so forth. My mother is also very fond of this car as it was her first real luxury car.

Secondly, this 190E was what first introduced me to the world of Mercedes-Benz. I can recall that even at age three I always wanted to buy the latest Hot Wheels/Matchbox Mercedes-Benz cars. For as far back as I can remember, I knew I had to drive a Mercedes-Benz.

Finally, nothing can beat the handling, ride, and workmanship of these fine automobiles. Despite the W201’s size, it feels very solid, even when driving through high winds and at long-distance freeway speeds. And the engineering is simply incredible. I do a lot of the maintenance and repairs by myself and find that everything is so logically put back together. For example, when I was installing a stereo system, all the interior pieces came out and re-installed perfectly without breaking.

When I started driving the 190 as my own, it had about 70,000 miles on the odometer, and I’ve since added about 25,000 miles. I live within bicycle distance of my work, so don’t have to drive it on a daily basis, though I usually have it out three or four days a week for errands and trips to other parts of the Bay Area, and I’ve made several trips down to Los Angeles, a day’s drive each way. When I get a chance, I enjoy doing a little spirited driving up into the Grizzly Peak Hills above Berkeley, and around Crystal Springs Reservoir above San Mateo, two very twisty roads that allow me to enjoy the 190’s confident handling.

As is obvious from the pictures, I’ve made a few modifications to suit my tastes. On the exterior, I’ve installed European headlights with smoked corners and an S600-style grille insert, and Hella smoked taillights. To improve the handling and lower the car just a bit, I’ve swapped in Bilstein heavy-duty shocks, Brabus springs, and ATE Premium One slotted rotors all around. Borbet LS 16-inch wheels with Michelin Pilot Exalto PE2 205/50/16 tires complete the look and performance feel.

On the interior, I replaced the very old audio system with an Alpine CDA-9883 that has an iPod hook-up, and for a little bling, installed a Zebrano wooden shift knob with a chrome shift gate, and a period-correct Minimax 1.5kg Euro fire extinguisher below the driver’s seat.

I think that even if there had been no family connection, I’d still enjoy owning and driving this Baby Benz.