Sporty 'baby Benz' by Mercedes makes its debut in the US

By , Charles E. Dole is the Monitor's automotive editor.

Whenever Mercedes-Benz of North America shows off a new car, it usually selects a superb area where the wealth seems to ooze out of the shrubbery and the weather is in sympathy with the carefully laid-out plans.

So it was not long ago, when the North American subsidiary of the prestigious West German carmaker launched the second half of its 1984-model auto fleet.

The star of the show was the so-called ''baby Benz,'' or Mercedes 190, successor car to the 240.

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Already a success in Europe, the new mini-Mercedes is a real Mercedes in every sense of the word. Smaller, yes, but no less a Mercedes. And, like the larger, higher-priced models behind the three-pointed star, the 190 has the feel of a sports car with taut, crisp handling and the exhilaration that comes with the wide-open road.

That's what keeps the company's West German production facilities humming, come good times or bad.

In a recent newsletter by J.D. Powers & Associates, a California-based research firm, Mercedes-Benz took first spot in owner satisfaction among buyers. In second place was a Japanese make, Toyota.

That's the kind of instant acceptance that Detroit carmakers are still after even as the sales rebound continues to thrive.

I first drove the aerodynamic ''baby Benz'' last December when the European version of the car was introduced to the world's news media in southern Spain. Writing of its performance at the time, I said: ''The 190 is fast, with a top speed of about 125 m.p.h. with the European 2-liter gasoline engine. The fuel-injected 190-E, of course, performs with more zest and is quicker off the mark.''

The US-adapted 190 comes with either a fuel-injected 2.3-liter, 4-cylinder gasoline engine (190-E) or a 2.2-liter diesel (190-D). Selling price is what sets the US car apart from the European 190. In Europe the base 190 sells for about $12,000; in the United States the sticker price is $22,850, plus a few dollars more for the diesel.

In explaining its pricing decision, the company points out that the US version of the Mercedes 190 is an ''upscale car,'' with far more luxurious appointments than are found on the bare-bones 190 in Europe. Also, the company aims to recover the cost of conforming the car to US safety and emissions requirements, plus the extra cost of the equipment itself.

In fact, the United States is a high-profit market for the West German carmaker, and maintaining its image there is important to the company.

The German-engineered ride is firm and, if properly driven, the car is under control at all times. Steering is superbly precise.

Labeled a 5-seater by the manufacturer, it might better be called a 4-seater if comfort is an issue to the rear-seat occupants. But with two people up front and two in the back, the only proper description is: eureka.

Designing the new 190 was a particularly tough exercise for Daimler-Benz. While the car has essentially the same dimensions in front as other cars by the maker, except width, it nonetheless had to be built as tough as any other Mercedes.

The suspension system was a particular challenge to the company, especially in the rear. To get the safety and ride the company sought, the 190 includes a new damper-strut independent front suspension and sophisticated 5-point system in the rear.

The idea was to maintain the same control standard as on the larger-model cars - no mean feat. Development cost of the European 190 is put at $800 million , plus additional costs to make it conform to US requirements.

Daimler-Benz, the manufacturer, is sticking to the front-engine/rear-drive configuration, snubbing the worldwide trend to front engine/front drive by some European manufacturers as well as US and Japanese automakers.

''Front drive is not the way to go with all cars,'' Dr. Werner Breitschwerdt, head of research and development at Daimler-Benz, said at the worldwide launching of the 190 last winter, adding: ''We stayed with rear drive for car balance as well as handling.''

Safe handling under adverse conditions is important. While already available in Europe, an antiskid braking system will also be introduced in the United States within the next year or two, according to a company spokesman.

The company already offers an optional driver-only air bag system, which deploys in 1/30th of a second, plus a self-tensioning shoulder harness for the right-front passenger.

''We're aiming for at least 5,000 air bag sales in 1983,'' predicts Walter Bodack, president of Mercedes-Benz of North America, ''and even more in 1984 and beyond.''

In driving the 190, the diesel obviously performs with less vigor than the gasoline-engine car, but it nonetheless gives a surprising response. The secret with a diesel is to use a heavy foot on the accelerator pedal.

What will give new impetus to the diesel-run 190 is a turbocharged version, due in the next year or so.

The Environmental Protection Agency figures gas mileage on the 190, both diesel- and gas-fueled, as well as with both transmissions, 5-speed manual and 4 -speed automatic, at 35 m.p.g.

The Mercedes 190 is in good company as it fights for sales among its West German neighbors, Audi and BMW, plus Sweden's Volvo and some of the high-priced American and Japanese cars. The company looks for younger buyers - 38 to 40 - for the 190. The average age for other Mercedes is in the mid-40s.

Its new 500-series autos - the top-level 500-SEC goes for $56,800 - is a response to the demand for more performance in cars and less thought for economy.

Despite the price line, the company expects to sell 70,000 cars in the US in 1983 and 75,000 in '84. Its long-range outlook is 90,000 by 1988.

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