'Baby Benz' shows off Mercedes muscle, speed, and handling

In a scant 71/2 seconds, the newest ''baby Benz'' whips from zero to 100 kilometers per hour (62 m.p.h.) in a stunning display of motor muscle as produced by this prestigious world-class automaker, Daimler-Benz.

The car, designated the 190E 2.3-16, is a 16-valve, twin-overhead-cam, high-sport example of what the West German carmaker is up to these days. The torque is impressive even at moderate engine speeds, while the chassis has been beefed up to handle the strain.

A compression ratio of 10.5 to 1 compares with 8 to 1 in the standard car. What this means is peppy performance with a whoosh. Despite its zippy pickup, however, the car can be driven in fifth gear at a slowpoke 35 m.p.h.

With Daimler-Benz engineer Armin Durber beside me, I took the car out on the company's all-purpose test track at its management headquarters in nearby Unterturkheim, only a few kilometers from downtown Stuttgart.

The Mercedes test track is extremely tight, and there is no place to expand. The city, in fact, reserves the right to use part of the field for outdoor activities - and this day was no exception to the rule. Thus, the high-speed oval was shut down because of a horse-jumping competition that was due to end the next day.

As a result, any high-speed driving in the new 16-valve sports 190 had to wait for a nearby urban autobahn, not as fast as the interurban autobahns, but fast enough, nonetheless.

The 190 speedster navigated all kinds of road surfaces, twists, turns, and skid possibilities at the track, but we had to stay off the oval. The car didn't let us down for a minute.

The concept of four valves per cyclinder, which more and more car manufacturers are adopting these days, is no recent development in an engineering lab. As long ago as 1910 a 4-valve-per-cylinder car was entered by Benz & Cie (Daimler and Benz didn't merge till 1926) in the Prinz Heinrich rally. It was found in a 1912 Peugeot racer, and then in 1914 a 16-valve Mercedes won the French Automobile Club Grand Prix in Lyon with an engine based on the same principle.

The idea for using a 16-valve engine in the 190, designed by Cosworth Engineering in England instead of by Daimler-Benz's in-house crew, was to heighten the sporty performance of the 4-door 190 to its peak, without the necessity of adding more fuel-robbing cylinders to the engine.

In addition to the start-up thrust, stopping the car has been made more certain as well. All 16-valve 190s will include the West German carmaker's self-leveling rear suspension, plus antilock braking provided by Bosch - a safety system that has been available for several years on some high-priced European cars but is not yet available in the United States. This will change in the 1985-model year.

Drag coefficient of the high-power 190 is reduced from 0.35 to 0.32. And Mr. Durber says lift forces have been decreased 47 percent on the front and 40 percent on the rear.

Top speed of the superhot, 185-horsepower 190 is 143 m.p.h. Newly developed wide, high-speed tires ride on forged, light-alloy rims.

Standard for the first time for both driver and front-seat passenger are safety-belt tensioners, which up to now have been available only in combination with an air bag. The driver can still opt for an air bag.

Development of the ''hot Benz'' was based more on nailing down an image for the 190 than for the sales potential of such a car. The West German carmaker plans to build no more than 5,000 to 7,000 a year, some of which will come to the US.

Tests are now under way to see if the car can meet US emissions standards with super-unleaded fuel. If so, the compression ratio of the engine can be higher, and thus deliver more performance, than it would be with lower-octane fuel.

It's the difference between very fast and super fast.

While the US price has not yet been set, the car will very likely go out the door on the top side of $30,000.

It's very hard to find fault with a car that will give its two West German neighbors, Audi of Ingolstadt and Porsche of Zuffenhausen, a chase for the money. The 190-E 2.3-16 is a special car for a special audience.

It should be able to sell every ''super 190'' it can get when the car joins the fray in the US in 1986.

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