Second-Hand Thrills: 1988 BMW M3 vs 1987 Mercedes-Benz 190 E 2.3-16

Sam Smith
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Randy G
Second-Hand Thrills: 1988 BMW M3 vs 1987 Mercedes-Benz 190 E 2.3-16

Believe it or not, working at a car magazine doesn't involve jumping from the driver's seat of one exotic car to another. Yes, we get paid to drive cars and then write about them, but it's really not the endless, 200-mph party full of hot journalism groupies that you'd think. Most of us live modest lives, have modest incomes, and don't get to drive a Ferrari or a Lambo but once every twelfth blue moon. (If that.)

As a result, we have pretty modest tastes. More than anything else, we dig practical, fun, and affordable wheels--or anything that simultaneously hauls kids, groceries, and ass. So on that note, we bring you two examples of Real Cars. This is the reality check; these are the cars we own. But they are two very special cars. The 1988 BMW M3 and the 1987 Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16 shown here not only kicked off the German horsepower war, they helped revitalize their respective makers--and in doing so, established themselves as icons.

It's 1991, and I'm a sixteen-year-old kid sitting in the back seat of my parents' station wagon. We're on the A5 autobahn, and out of nowhere, I hear the demonic wail of a racing engine pass us at tremendous speed. I'm confused, because it seems to have come from a sinister-looking, black Mercedes-Benz 190E, and I am under the impression that Mercedes makes only boring cars for half-dead old men.

When I got home, I dug out some car magazines looking for information on the baby Benz with the big spoiler. Mercedes had planned to race the 190E from day one, and in order to participate, it needed to produce at least 5000 street-legal versions of the race car for sale to the public. This homologation special, the 190E 2.3-16, was introduced in 1983 following a spectacular endurance trial during which it broke nine international and three world speed records, including covering more than 31,000 miles in eight days at an average speed of 154 mph. It was as if Stuttgart had put on a set of brass knuckles embossed with the numbers "2.3-16" and backhanded everyone in the room. I knew that I had to have one.

The 2.3-16 was sold here only in 1986 and '87. Fabulously expensive, it had the usual arsenal of Mercedes luxury and safety equipment. Its aggressive body kit cut aerodynamic lift by almost half. The contemporary journalists who criticized the car for looking too boy-racerish missed the point--nothing about the 2.3-16 was done for looks or subtlety.

It was all about performance. Compared with the standard 190E, practically every part of the driveline was upgraded. The twin-cam cylinder head was designed by Cosworth; bigger brakes, wider wheels, a firmer suspension, and a limited-slip differential were also fitted.

Driven gingerly, the 2.3-16 shares the regular 190E's indifferent confidence, relaying filtered messages through its taut suspension and solid chassis. It's difficult to drive it gently for long, though, once you've heard the Cosworth's ferocious bark. Gearing is short and close, so you constantly work the shifter to keep the 167-hp four in the meat of its power band--which, thanks to a ridiculously short stroke, is crammed into the top half of the tach.

Braking is superb even by modern standards, and the chassis is perfectly balanced--mild understeer on corner entry is easily nixed with a gentle application of throttle. A little more gas, and you get a neutral, four-wheel drift; a lot more, and you're on your way to a lurid, giggle-inducing power slide.

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