Julia's 1993 Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.6

After her Toyota Camry started falling apart, my friend Julia knew she wanted either a Jaguar or Mercedes-Benz to replace it. “Jaguars are the most beautiful,” she says, noting that she'd see a lot of them for sale on the side of the road. But they have a reputation for poor quality and reliability. So when it came time to find a replacement car, she set her sights on an older Mercedes-Benz. For Julia, an artist and bartender, they look just as good as a Jaguar but were built much better.

Sure enough, she spotted a 1993 Mercedes 190E 2.6 for sale at a nearby gas station. The odometer reads over 137k miles, so while not low, it's actually below average for a 19 year-old car, given that Americans drive around 13,000 miles per year. She test drove the car and had a trusted mechanic look at it. He gave the car the OK, but his only words of caution were about the possible future costs of fixing it: “He told me I would not be happy when I see the first repair bill,” Julia recalls. But she was undeterred. “All cars require maintenance,” she reasoned. Since she had been without a car for about a year, and the Mercedes checked out in every other way, she bought the car.

Part of why this particular Mercedes stuck out to Julia is the color, a newer coat of paint in what Julia describes as “ultramarine blue”. It has this high sparkle gradient that, while we agreed was not something the Germans would have originally painted it in, happily reminded us of the flamboyant colors of Hot Wheels cars when we played with as children and befitted the car’s charming aura. Mercedes-Benz look good in blue anyways, and Julia loves the color, so much so that she wore a pair of blue floral-patterned pants the day I saw her and also grew a blue crystal specifically to hang from the rear-view mirror as a good luck charm. 

Examining the doors we noticed the jams were black, likely the original color.

The 190E (internal code W201) was nicknamed the “Baby Benz” and was Mercedes-Benz’s entry-level model. Over 1.8 million were produced between 1982 until 1993, making Julia’s model a final-year example. The "E" stands for Einspritzung, or Fuel Injection. Most had four-cylinder engines under the hood, but in 1987 an inline 6-cylinder was introduced. While “190” denoted the original 1.9-liter engine size that wasn’t even offered in the U.S, the numerical designation was kept and different displacement sizes added after for clarification. Therefore, Julia’s 190E “2.6” denotes a 2.6-litre inline 6 engine under the hood. Since the 190 were small and relatively light cars they moved fine with just four cylinders, but the 2.6 producing a healthy 160 horsepower made them even faster and highway travel and passing cars even more enjoyable.

Design is courtesy of Bruno Sacco, Mercedes Benz’s brilliant chief stylist from 1975-1999. It is claimed to be his favorite work ever, likening the chiseled lines and tapered rear-end to the precise cuts of a fine diamond. To think that it came out in 1982 is unbelievable, especially considering other cars being produced around that time. It must have looked amazing then and it still looks amazing today. “Another thing about this is the size,” Julia says, noting the dimensions that make the exterior feel tight and compact, yet extremely spacious inside. Parking, especially in an urban area where Julia resides, is easy.

On the inside, Julia’s 190E features rare black seats, as most you see are tan. The material doesn’t seem to be leather but rather Mercedes’ indestructible "MB-Tex", essentially a durable yet comfortable vinyl surface. There are basically no rips, tears or stains. It’s incredible. The dashboard is also black and is small, clean, and simple. Everything is within easy reach of the driver. The gauges are in white and yellow and are clear and easy to read. The instrument cluster also has a tiny analog clock nestled underneath the tachometer that is a nice touch. The center console is covered in a wood surface. Only the climate controls are confusing. “What do all these symbols mean?” Julia wonders aloud, pointing to a row of small square buttons. Indeed, they don’t seem to follow universal air conditioning signage and instead veer into the mechano-wunder world of German engineering, where only the designers really know what their symbols mean.

Then there’s the tape deck, or decks I should say. Julia tells me to look down at this nondescript stack of rectangular buttons and suddenly it pops out, waiting to accept a cassette tape. But not just one. There are six of these holders. Julia is only disappointed that the aftermarket CD-player installed below it doesn’t allow her to actually play cassettes, but the idea of being able to hold them neatly in your dashboard is enough to impress both of us.

In back, Julia discovered a first-aid kit behind the rear seats. We opened it up and there was a perfectly organized array of bandages, medical tape, sterile pads, and antiseptic gel, all courtesy of "Mercedes-Benz of North America." Why thank you! Of course, it would be irrelevant in the worst of car crashes, but it's the thought that counts. I'd rather have it in my car than not.

On the road, the car drives great. Because it's rear-wheel drive, the housing that powers the rear wheels is situated between them and balances the car immensely, improving overall ride quality and handling that front-wheel drive cars just can't duplicate. It's also got that amazing heavy steering that has now become a trademark feel. Julia thinks it's just common sense, which it is if you think about it. "You're turning the weight of the car", remarks Julia, "so it should feel heavy." This is precisely in line with the reigning form-over-function design philosophy of the late 20th century, perhaps no better embodied than by Mercedes-Benz. Objects were made to look like the function they perform, and by extension, should perform like the function they perform. So many manufacturers miss this simple but crucial concept. Turn the wheel of the 190E, and you feel the bank-vault body navigate with you. 

The car is not without some flaws. The windshield is cracked, and there is some surface rust on the body. But those are small cosmetic issues on an otherwise solid car that's running fine and should be good for many more miles. You can't expect perfection when buying a used car. But the beauty in owning a second-hand Mercedes-Benz is that it comes about as close as possible.

Julia and I think the car has mega potential classic status Whereas the Baby Boomers are nostalgic for cars of the 50s, 60s and 70s, my generation will appreciate the ultra-utilitarian German and Japanese cars of the 80s and 90s. And for good reason: they've given us solid, reliable and attractive transportation. Even Mercedes-Benz seems to think so too, despite the many changes the manufacturer has gone through since the 190E. They've launched a "Young Classics" store in Stuttgart that finally officially recognizes their masterpieces from the 70s and 80s.

What's next for Julia's 1993 190E 2.6? A good waxing and buffing before the New England winter sets in. "I imagine it will be very satisfying," she says excitedly. Just one of the joys of maintenance. And it will feel extra good knowing she's beautifying such a nifty little car.

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