Most always, little brothers or sisters look up to their siblings and seek from them guidance and advice. Still, every now and then the littlest member of the family will meaningfully influence the rest of the immediate family tree. The Mercedes 190E was one of those siblings who exerted considerable sway over its older relatives within the Mercedes family, despite its diminutive entry level status. The unassuming four-door may not look like much, but its introduction propelled Mercedes from the 1970s into the next decade and helped to establish the brand as a leader of the foreign luxury car market.
Traditionally, Mercedes had been known for adhering to tradition. Their design language was easily identifiable, due to it being changed at a pace that could be described as glacial. This was a far cry from American luxury carmakers, who would significantly alter designs as often as the wind changed direction. Cadillac during its glory years maintained such an impressive market share in part because its designs were always fresh, unique and well received. Another Mercedes trait was the austere interiors and overall lack of glamour – rather than slather their cars with chrome and other ornamentation, it steadfastly offered the traditional ‘function over form’ design it always had. This was another sharp contrast from brands like Cadillac and Lincoln, who offered ornate interiors and enough chrome to dazzle a blind man. In the 1950s and 1960s, when American car makers were at the top of their game, there was no way for the somber and expensive Mercedes to compete here on American soil. The exuberance and confidence that was embodied in American cars was noticeably absent from Mercedes, and as such the brand found few takers.
The tide began to change in the 1970s. The quality of American cars dropped and Cadillac and Lincoln began chasing volume, driving away their wealthiest buyers who demanded excellence and exclusivity when it came to their automobiles. Mercedes, with its high price and unique look, soon became a top choice for those who wanted to show off discerning taste. They then discovered the secret sauce of the Mercedes recipe – the level of over-engineering and detail that the engineers sweated over. Soon these attributes became the brand’s calling card, and propelled them to success through the 1970s.
During this time, Mercedes began readying itself for the next decade and hatched plans for an entry level car. This cheaper, smaller sedan would be a first for the brand, who normally focused on the top end of the market. To make sure this low-tier car would be done to the Mercedes standard, the brand put in six years of engineering and design work. The result was revealed in 1982 as the 190E, named so because of the engine displacement (1.9 L) and for fact that it was fuel injected (Einspritzung is German for Fuel Injection). The car sported all-new design language, with tauter lines, a windswept look, and subtle creases and folds that gave the car an excellent drag coefficient for the era. The new design brought the brand into the 1980s, and this design ethos would go on to guide the brand until the end of the century, influencing both the all-new 1985 W124 E class and the W126 S-class facelift.
The newness of the car was more than just skin deep. Underneath, it sported a unique suspension designed to emulate the feel of the larger Mercedes cars. It managed this by a multi-link rear setup, an advance design for the time. This, as well as other engineering tricks, allowed for Mercedes to provide the W201 (the chassis code) with the classic Mercedes ride – firm, comfortable, secure. Small displacement motors meant it wouldn’t be as competent an autobahn cruiser compared to its big brothers, but in the ride department it was clearly of Mercedes lineage.
The car proved successful in Europe, where the Mercedes brand was highly revered. However, success across the pond did not translate to success on American shores. The entry level luxury field was crowded with a variety of contenders, all vying for a slice of a market that had limited appeal in the land of Delta 88s and LTDs. Here, unlike Europe, it was the enthusiast that was buying small foreign cars. As such, they wanted a car with sporting pretensions, something the 190E lacked. The lethargy (0-60 with a diesel was around 18 seconds) and high price point compared poorly to the Audi 5000, BMW E30, Saab 900, and other competitors. Through the years, Mercedes played a sort of musical chairs with engines in the hope of lowering prices, increasing performance and spurring sales. But the baby Benz simply could not find a strong footing in the American market, and for almost its entire ten year run, annual sales hovered around the 14K mark. After a truncated 1993 model year, the W201 sang its swan song and bowed out.
Don’t let the weak sales numbers and plain-Jane styling mislead you into undervaluing the significance of the 190E to the Mercedes brand. Upon its 1982 introduction, its small and practical size and lower price point than its brethren introduced the brand to a new class of buyers. The suspension design was considered very advanced for the time, and allowed it to retain the traditional Mercedes ride. It was one of the last Mercedes to adhere to the brand’s reputation at the time of highly being overbuilt and over-engineered (The later W202 C-class was vastly inferior in regards to build quality and reliability), and the styling ushered in a new design language for the brand. This little brother helped keep alive the Mercedes mystique throughout the 1980s, and it set the stage for the dominance in the market the automaker has since achieved.