Mercedes-Benz made its reputation building big, solid cars favored by the affluent and the famous. But by the late 1970s the company faced mounting competition in the emerging “compact executive car” segment from the likes of Audi, BMW, and Saab, and knew it had to respond. It did so brilliantly with the 190E, a Baby Benz that offered the fit-and-finish of its bigger, more expensive models in a surprisingly sporty package.
Although the car proved popular in Europe, the 190E didn’t enjoy the same success in the United States, where you couldn’t swing a spanner without hitting a 3 Series. Now that the the auction market is shifting toward so-called “youngtimer” cars, particularly European models with high-performance options, the humble Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16 is finally getting its due.
“The E30 M3s are hitting six-figure prices, so these comparatively discounted 190E Cosworths are starting to make a lot more sense to buyers,” says Hagerty valuation editor Andrew Newton. “But prices are on the rise. The ‘80s styling cues are in vogue, and it helps in general that the Benz has vintage feel with modern reliability and drivability, something that buyers increasingly prioritize.”
Mercedes started developing the W201 in 1974 and finalized the glorious body styling five years later. The “E” in 190E stands for einspritzung, or injected, and followed the automaker’s shift away from carburetors to fuel injection (although some 190 models left the factory with a carb.) The car made its debut on December 8, 1982 with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder, a four- or five-speed manual or four-speed slushbox, and all the amenities you’d expect of a Benz.
The car got a bump in displacement to 2.3-liters in 1984, which increased output from 113 horsepower to 130. Mercedes offered a diesel and a few special edition models over the years, but the one to have is the 2.3-16 or 2.5-16 model with a sweet, sweet Cosworth inline-four.
Mercedes tapped Cosworth to develop the engine so it could take the 190E rallying, but by the time Cosworth delivered the 320-horsepower engine, Audi was crushing all challengers with its turbocharged Quattro. Mercedes pivoted to the DTM German Touring Car Championship, which required that race cars be based on production road cars. So Mercedes started stuffing Cosworths into the 190E and selling them to the public.
The U.S.-spec Cosworth engine made 167 horsepower, which may seem meager until you get behind the wheel of a 190E powered by one. Hagerty media site director Jack Baruth restored a 190E Cosworth for the One Lap of America event, and had nothing but good things to say about taking the more-door on the track.
“The dog-leg gearbox was fantastic for the high-revving four-cylinder. When you needed second gear, it was easy to get to.” Baruth said. “It was easy on consumable parts on the track and the driver during the long trips between tracks.”
Later AMG and “Evolution” models, created to counter BMW’s mighty M3, offer even more smiles per mile. Mercedes spent an ungodly sum developing the 190E and readily admits the car is massively over-engineered, so even now the cars hold up remarkably well.
Their prices do, too. Both the 190E 2.3-16 and Cosworth variants hold a No. 1-condition value of $40,100. No. 2-condition values rose 12.8 percent in May and another 6.3 percent in September to settle at $27,200. That marked the biggest change since May, 2015. Cosworth models haven’t seen their value slide since January, 2011.
Fourteen cars crossed the block in the last 12 months, which isn’t abnormal, but the average sale price increased 27 percent compared to the prior 12 months. Compare that to the 8.3 percent increase in average sales price for the market as a whole and you see the value of a Cosworth.
Generally speaking, when younger buyers are interested in a collector cars, it’s a good sign of that vehicle’s future desirability and potential value growth. For the Mercedes-Benz 190E Cosworth, Millennials comprise 42 percent of Hagerty insurance quotes for the 190E, out of 109 quotes in the last year.
Overall, this tuned sedan is gaining appreciation as younger generations enter the market. This means the 190E 2.3-16 likely still has room to grow. If looking for a fun to drive car that won’t beat you up, or an entry into Euro tuner cars, this might be just your ticket.