10th March 2021

190E 2.3-16, the understated DTM

The world loves a fast German saloon car, especially one that visually flies beneath the radar and boasts a motorsport heritage. Videos of it being piloted – heroically, naturally – by Ayrton Senna helps, too. However, the development of the Mercedes 190E 2.3-16 was far from straightforward.

Following previous forays into the sport with big V8s, the German manufacturer identified its new, technically advanced saloon as being the perfect base with which to attack the world’s rally stages. Cosworth was contacted with the remit to transform Mercedes’ bulletproof 2.3-litre 8-valve engine and into a twin-cam world-beater. Unfortunately, during the development period the world of rallying was turned on its head by the revolutionary Audi Quattro. DTM – Germany’s touring car championship – became the new target. The good news? Homologated road cars.

The 190E 2.3-16 (colloquially known as the ‘190E Cosworth’) appeared at the 1983 Frankfurt Motor Show. Visually, it looked like a lightly titivated 190E: lower, with wider wheels and a modest bodykit. However, much was different under the skin. It retained the Cosworth-developed motorsport-derived engine, albeit detuned to an initial 183bhp for production cars. The original iron-blocked 2.3 was fitted with lightweight pistons and rings designed to withstand sustained high revs, while the UK-built twin-cam Cosworth head was of alloy construction, featured Bosch K-Jetronic injection, massive inlet and exhaust valves – with four valves per cylinder – and would help the oversquare motor rev to 7000 all day. A fact that was proved by prototypes setting a world record at the Nardo oval: 50,000km at an average speed of 154mph.

Performance of the production cars was strong – 0-60 in under 8 seconds and a 143mph top speed – but the car shot to fame in a certain race for Formula1 stars. In a publicity race to reopen the new Nürburgring, matching 190s were driven by names such as Hunt, Prost, Moss, Rosberg and Lauda. The winner was a young up-and-comer called Ayrton.

The standard 190E’s advanced five-link suspension was ideal for a go-faster version. For the Cosworth-powered models, Mercedes fine-tuned it with stiffer springs and uprated damping, thicker anti-roll bars and self-levelling rear suspension. It also fitted a quicker steering rack and larger fuel tank, enabling owners to drive faster for longer. Models were fitted with a limited-slip differential as standard, although Mercedes also offered a new-fangled hydraulically-actuated, electronically controlled diff that could provide anything from zero to 100% lockup depending on road conditions and driving style. Plus, of course, the infamous ‘dogleg’ five-speed gearbox.

A 2.5-litre model followed in 1988, which featured twin timing chains to address a perceived weakness of the earlier engine, and increased power to 201bhp for road cars. It also added a red and lighter silver to the original car’s colour choice of black or light grey. For less conservative types with deeper pockets, there was also the Evolution I and II models for the ultimate road-going DTM experience.

What are your experiences of the 190E 2.3-16? Are you an M3 fan, or is the allure of the beautifully sculpted, bolstered rear seats of the Mercedes too much to resist?