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When premium meant quality

BMW 316 vs Mercedes-Benz 190

30/11/2013 09:42 | Comments: 

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Former car restorer, damper designer, rotary-engine guru and also an automotive engineer, but generally doesn’t talk much about his former activities. András is our mag’s Leatherman tool: when there’s a project no-one would poke with a stick, he’s the one usually assigned to carry it through. When he’s in Hungary, he works 16 hours daily, then every once in a while he disappears from the horizon. Last time he’s been seen in Auckland… Has a huge garage, lives with a girlfriend.

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Self-appointed race-driver (whenever he gets a chance), avid car sports- and sports car-lover, manager of the mother site’s blog, Belsőség, he can always be found in the middle of the noisiest gathering. Steve has had a long-running habit of remodelling his facial hair bi-weekly. A Slovakian citizen but of Hungarian nationality, he lives in Budapest now. Has a wife, two small children and a dog.

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Back in 1983, Volkswagen was not a serious player, and Audi just a VW, but those two went to fight it out. Cars from an era when some things were designed for eternity.

Even the Baby-Benz is one step ahead of the BMWAndrás Stump

The Mercedes 190 is a strange one. I never liked, but always respected it. At the beginning, Mercedes fans were reluctant to accept it, since it was too small to be a proper Benz. The factory claimed it was a compact car, which was as big as the good old W123 from the inside, but provided the same comfort as the W126, the contemporary S class. Its design was revolutionary when it was new, but today we take it as a classic. Likewise, the machinery seemed extremely futuristic, but today we know it's indestructible. A car of contradictions!

Ivan, who's taking care of this first-owner car - imported in a similar manner like the 316 in this test and having even less on the clock - shows us the imperfect details. The material of the door panels is shrinking with time so it tears itself from the cardboard – which is derogatory for a Mercedes, anyway. The vents are prone to break, as well, and the handbrake lever - unusual in a Benz - is known to shoot off its knob. For the hardcore fans, the 190 already shows weak spots, it's a small Mercedes made of recycled materials. But if this should be an inferior Benz, please, take a look at the newer ones. In spite of those minor problems, the 190 has an incredibly high quality feel.

The fact that in 1982 Mercedes extended its product range downwards with the 190, might help you to understand this car. They were known to produce pretty good bigger cars, so they had to prove with the W201 - which was immediately labelled Baby Benz by the German journalists – that they can do well in this category, too. And you know, if the Germans want to prove something...

It's hard to understand today the magnitude of effort they put into developing the 190. The universally known five-link rear suspension was tried in 77 versions before choosing the ultimate one. The bonded windscreen, the one-arm wiper, the bumpers continuing the edges of the quarter-panels are just normal today, but in the ‘80s this was pure Sci-fi. It's incredible how the result of that gigantic development orgy could prove to be so everlasting.

The proof of this is our white test car, which is like new with 123k on the clock. The engine runs so smoothly as if it was just run in. The gear lever slides into the gears with a precision that doesn't seem to know the word ‘wear'. The seats don't show any sign of weakening, there's just a slightly rubbed-off spot where you slide behind the wheel. The steering wheel itself is as rough as sandpaper, the brakes are impeccable and the suspension would take it as an insult if you'd suspect the slightest problem. I reckon, there's about 95 per cent left of what you'd call expectation of life and the used-up 5 per cent would seem even less if you'd thoroughly clean the interior of this carefully kept, but often used car.

There's no match for the ride comfort of the 190 but the S class. That's no exaggeration, really - the small Benz majestically glides over potholes. Just grab the huge steering wheel, quickly shift up to fifth with the gear lever that seems to be moving in vacuum before finally clicking into gear, and enjoy the torque of the fuel-injected engine on your journey. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's floating, because it's too small, but the Mercedes-experience is perfect: a phlegmatic steering, a lazy engine, a comfortable, seemingly clumsy, but in reality fantastic suspension. Close the windows and the world outside ceases to exist. Yeah, let's isolate ourselves, aristocrats like to avoid meeting plebeians. If only I could free myself from the thought that this car wants to be superior in every way and also show that it's superior, maybe I could like it. Because it's really close to a perfect car for its size.

The 190 is only a few inches longer than the 3-series, but weighs 200 kilos more. Its doors are like those of a medieval castle, its dashboard resembles the Grossglockner. In spite of its bigger, stronger engine, it's hardly faster than the weak BMW, but everything it does happens with an incredible ease. To be fair, it has to be said that this 190 is by far not a bog standard Mercedes. The factory bill reveals an uncommon generosity of the proprietor.

Power steering was already standard on this model year, but central locking wasn't. Nor was the five-speed gearbox or the tinted windows - the illumination of the backseat cost a hefty 100 DM. I can understand that someone wanted to have ABS, because it was a funky safety feature at that time, probably worth 1255 DM, but the true sign of generosity is the AC system for 3910 DM along with the Becker Mexico radio for 2250 DM. The former one was an ultra-rare option, the latter just madness. Okay, they may charge you today 6000 Euros for a Bang & Olufsen system in an E63 AMG, which is quite rude, but that amount of money for an autoreverse cassette player is just crazy.

In spite of the Merc's superiority I'm still a fan of the BMW. If we take a look at those two exceptionally kept, almost thirty year old cars, it's clear that you can't treat them as simple second-hand cars. It doesn't matter any more how practical they are, no-one cares how much legroom you have on the backseat or how big the boot is. I suppose it's equally unimportant which one of those would last twice as many kilometres, because they are not driven so much any more. They are being taken good care of, they are protected, because they are pet cars. And considering their status, it's their special flavour that matters, which is so different that no-one will hesitate between buying the Merc or the BMW. That's something you should know, just as you knew thirty years ago.

The owners of those two cars are sentimentally attached to them – that's obvious – so they certainly wouldn't swap with the other. The BMW might be a bit simpler, smaller and even of lesser quality, but its character makes up for these shortcomings. You sit lower, the seat is already a bit slack, but you instinctively push the basic 1.8 litre carburetted engine more whole-heartedly. The gear-lever is at the perfect place and the unassisted steering moves the body extremely lively – the sounds, the vibrations, even the typical smell of burn oil gives the little BMW an atmosphere that can never be given by a Mercedes 190.

Of course, the same goes the other way round. The quality feel, the fantastic suspension and the noiseless cabin of the 190 can't be matched by any 3-series, but I'm sure that wasn't the target of BMW, anyway.

Result: who cares? – Steve Vályi

I liked the small Bavarian, because it's charming, moves gracefully and it's by light years more sporty than the Merc. But the fact that to like the 190 you don't need an affection for older cars or that ‘what-a-nice-classic' approach, is unbelievable. Even for today's standards it's a very silent, very comfortable, extremely civilised car, much better than many new models. Compared with the 190 the 3-series is just a noisy, rough bastard that was out of question for the Mercedes-buyers.

A bonded windscreen, an incredible noise-insulation, fancy AC: the 190 might be the smallest Benz, but in reality it's big - in 1983 there was no other brand that could offer anything like that in the segment.

The BMW is also unique: the clients appreciated the features that Mercedes didn't offer: agile handling and strong, high-revving six-cylinder engines. BMW was the quality hooligan car and Mercedes just Mercedes – another world altogether.

Now, in 2013 we've reached a point where the competitors are so close to each other that you could swap the badges. Maybe in the luxury class, Mercedes is one step ahead: the S-class is unbeatable at the moment. But in 1983 they had a huge advantage, that's for sure, which was nice: sporty was sporty and comfortable just comfortable. An easy choice for everyone.

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