Mercedes 190E Evolution II review

By: Nik Bruce, Photography by: motophoto.com.au

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Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II
Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II
Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II
Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II
Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II
Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II
Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II
Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II
Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II
Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II
Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II
Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II
Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II
Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II
Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II
Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II
Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II
Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II
Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II
Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II
Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II
Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II Mercedes 190E Evolution II

If the Eighties were the golden era of the mad, bad homologation special, then the outrageous Mercedes-Benz 190E Evolution II had to be the daddy of them all.

Mercedes 190E Evolution II review
Mercedes 190E Evolution II

 

Mercedes-Benz 190E Evolution II

WINGED WARRIOR

Walking into the ground floor of the Fox Collection in Melbourne, it’s not the blood red Ferrari F50 that grabs your attention. Nor is it the stunning 288GTO beside it. And it’s not the Teutonic Porsche 959 either. No, impressive as they are, none of them are quite as spectacular as the utterly bonkers Mercedes Evo II.

Black and menacing, it has all the brutal presence of Darth Vader in a crèche. From of the bottom of that plunging front spoiler to the towering heights of that colossal wing, the Merc is absolutely epic. Little wonder really that it has polarised opinion like few other cars over the years. Subtle, it ain’t…

"It looks like it’s got antlers on its arse," sneered Audi boss, Ferdinand Piech, at the Evo’s Geneva launch. Unsurprisingly, BMW’s chief engineer, Wolfgang Reitzle, wasn’t much impressed either. "It's totally stupid, the laws of aerodynamics must be different between Munich and Stuttgart. If that rear wing works, we’ll have to redesign our windtunnel," he allegedly sniffed, having previously denied requests from his own engineers to develop a similar wing for the M3. 

But the wing did work. As did the rest of the car, and rather well too – much to Reitzler’s later annoyance. It may have looked like some kind of whacky concept car, but the Evo II was no show pony. Quite the opposite, in fact, for it had been ruthlessly developed for one thing, and one thing only: to beat the M3 and win the German Touring Car Championship (DTM).

Although the 190 had been kicking around since 1982, Mercedes had shown little interest in racing the car. With the DTM still in its fledgling years, and dominated by the Rover Vitesse Turbo, there probably didn’t seem to be much point. After all, none of the other major players were getting involved, so why bother?

In 1986, everything changed. A privateer team had shown what the ‘Baby-Benz’ could do by taking a fairly standard car to second overall in the DTM – ahead of the newly launched M3. Inevitably, with the likes of Ford and BMW entering factory-backed teams for the following season, Mercedes’ interest was officially piqued. But despite the factory throwing its support behind several outfits during the 1988 season, Roland Asch’s 190E was still only good enough to take second behind the Sierra RS500 of Klaus Ludwig. Clearly, more had to be done.

To counter its increasingly well-prepared rivals, Mercedes introduced the Evolution to homologate its entry for the 1989 season. Although it didn’t look substantially different than its predecessor, the Evo was a vastly improved car.

At its heart sat a completely re-worked version of the 190E’s in-line four. To improve its willingness to rev, Mercedes actually reduced the engine’s capacity, taking it down from 2498cc to 2463 by shortening the stroke from 87.25 to 82.8mm and increasing the bore from 95.5 to 97.3mm, to produce an over-square configuration. To quicken its throttle response, a lighter crankshaft was installed, along with a chain-driven oil pump to improve the flow within its Cosworth-built heads.

Although power remained virtually unchanged at 145kW, it was now producing it at 6750rpm, with torque peaking at 240Nm at 5000rpm. Not exactly ideal on a road car, perhaps, but it certainly gave the racer some much needed tuning potential – indeed it was said that the factory cars produced as much as 250kW.

To help improve the 190’s composure, the Evo was treated to a set of uprated springs and dampers, along with much stiffer anti-roll bars, while a hydro-pneumatic system allowed the road car’s ride height to be adjusted over three settings via a small rockers switched situated to the left of the steering wheel. Externally, the 190 had been transformed too, with the addition of a larger tail and front spoiler, along with flared wheel arches, designed to accommodate larger racing rubber.

In accordance with the DTM’s homologation rules, Mercedes released 502 Evos in 1989, all of which were sold immediately after its debut at the Geneva auto show. But as popular as it was with the punters, the car failed to live up to Mercedes’ expectations on track. Despite winning eight races in the ferociously fought series, Mercedes could do nothing to contain the on-form Roberto Ravaglia and his Schnitzer M3. Unsurprisingly, Gerhard Lepler and his Group A motorsports division were gutted after having come so close to finally securing the championship. But, much to their credit, they came back even more determined to get it right the following year.

Relentlessly chasing more speed, Lepler started developing the Evo II just three months after the original debuted. This time there would be no compromises. They were going to build whatever it would take to win – regardless of what consequences it may have on the road car.

Although it retained the same basic architecture, the Evo II’s engine was thoroughly re-worked in order to wring every last ounce of performance from it. As before, all the rotating masses were swapped for yet lighter parts. The inlet and exhausts systems were reprofiled and the oil supply improved further, while the engine mapping was optimised and the compression raised from 9.7- to 10.5:1. The result was an impressive 173kW at 7200rpm with 245Nm of twist at 5000rpm, channelled to the back wheels through the same dog-leg five-speed ‘box as before.

While the majority of the Evo’s running gear was carried over to the new car, Lepler’s team opted to install a set of 300 and 278mm vented discs front and rear, mated to four-pot alloy calipers to improve the car’s stopping power. A set of stunning new 17-inch Speedline alloys rounded off the modifications made to the rolling chassis.

But if Lepler’s changes to the Evo’s chassis and oily bits were subtle, the same really couldn’t be said for the car’s aerokit.

To optimise the aerodynamics, Mercedes handed the Evo II over to Professor Richard Eppler – the famed ‘Wing Pope’ of the Stuttgart University. Through extensive wind tunnel testing, Eppler developed an aerokit that not only reduced drag by 20%; it also generated positive downforce at both axles, which was no mean feat.

At the front of the new Evo sat a plunging chin spoiler, complete with an adjustable diffuser. Sculpted arches and side skirts were designed to help improve airflow down the car’s flanks; while a strip of contoured plastic blanked off 40% of the rear window, subsequently forcing the air down the window and onto that massive wing.

Look closely at the Evo’s tail and you’ll discover that there are not one, but two wings – the second fitted onto the bootlid itself. As you’d expect, both were made to be adjustable so the car could be trimmed to suit individual circuits. Incredibly, the Evo II even benefited from some ground-effects, with the floor pan being blanked off and the exhaust incorporated into streamlined floor. 

Inside, things were rather more conventional – and a lot more like what you’d expect from a Mercedes. In the road car, customers were treated to swathes of sumptuous black leather and deeply sculpted bucket seats front and rear. Indeed, the only thing that suggested that you weren’t sitting in just a well-specced 190E was the car’s individual build number printed on top of the gear stick.

As before, the Evo II was left hand-drive only with every car finished in Blau/Schwartz metallic, except chassis 501 and 502, which were painted in Astral Silver. Such was the hype surrounding the Evo II that all 502 cars were sold just days after it took the stand at Geneva in 1990, with many of them up for sale again soon after delivery with hefty premiums added to their DM115,260 (approx AU$80,000 at the time) basic list price – air con was DM4457 extra.

Happily enough for us, our own Linsday Fox just so happened to be one of the few lucky enough to bag themselves an Evo II at its launch – his being chassis #244. Sadly, there’s no chance of driving the big man’s car today, which is a pity because I’ve always wanted to see how it stacks up against its arch-nemesis: the E30 M3 Sport Evolution. But it isn’t to be. The car hasn’t been prepped for action, so for now I’ll just have to content myself with recounting all those road tests I read as a teenager while I have a good poke around.

Despite producing almost identical power and torque, the M3 managed to beat the Evo II in the 0-100km/h sprint by 0.6 seconds, thanks to its 100kg weight advantage. In terms of top speed though, the there was nothing in it. Flat out, the M3 could hit 248km/h compared to the Mercedes’ electronically limited to 250km/h. But then, sheer speed wasn’t what earned either car its iconic status.

Like the M3, the Evo was all about balance and usability. Writing for Wheels magazine, Peter Robinson was one of the few Aussie journos to get invited along to the Evo II’s press launch. He came away mightily impressed.

"I expected the Evolution II to be harsh, rough riding and raucous… but under that ruthless exterior is a well mannered road car that's far easier to drive very, very quickly than the production model," he enthused at the time. "The roadholding and handling are nothing less than peerless [and] I can't ever remember driving a road car that could be stopped in such short distances. Australia will never see the Evo II, so you'll just have to accept it from me that this is one of the most exciting and competent road cars ever made."

While journalists often found it difficult to separate the M3 and Evo II on the road, on track it was much the same story. Because of its extensive development and unexpected delays getting bespoke components made, the racing Evo II didn’t actually turn a wheel in anger until 13 races into the 1990 series. Hans Stuck won that year in his Audi V8, with Johnny Cecotto’s M3 second and Kurt Thiim’s Mercedes in third.

After an awesome year-long scrap, the title fight went right down to the wire in 1991. Unfortunately for Mercedes though, the all-wheel-drive Quattros had an unbeatable advantage over the Evo on the saturated Hockenheim track and Klaus Ludwig had to settle for second overall.

Despite all the setbacks, ’92 proved to be Mercedes’ year with Ludwig taking his second DTM title. Incredibly, the Evos took 16 races between them and claimed the top three places in the drivers’ championship at the end of the year. By the time it was retired the following year, the Evo had chalked up a staggering 50 race wins, ranking it just behind the M3 as one of the most successful touring cars ever made.

The Eighties were without a doubt the golden era of homologation specials. It was a magical time where, thanks to the quirky rules of racing, manufacturers were compelled to make cars like the M3, the Audi Quattro and the Lancia Delta Integrale, which brought the kind of performance and exclusivity previously reserved for the supercar set, well within reach of the masses.

Capturing the spirit of that lunatic era, the Evo II is undoubtedly the paragon of its outrageous breed. It’s a shame we’ll probably never see its like again.

 

THE ONE AND ONLY 

Although the Evo was never sold in Australia, the shift to Super Touring regulations in 1994 allowed privateer Phil Ward to resume Mercedes’ European grudge match on home soil. Having raced 190Es since 1987, Ward won his class both in the ATCC and at Bathurst in 1990 before making the decision to pull out when the series switched to V8s the following year.

By ’93 the rules had changed yet again and Group A cars were viable once more in the 2-litre class. A competitive year in the Nokia-backed 190E saw Mercedes offer Ward the ex-Zakspeed Evo II that had been run in the DTM.

With the car converted to 2-litres and stripped of its Evo II aerokit (it was never homologated for the 2-litre class) Ward still managed to put on an amazing show consistently finishing in the top five to take fourth overall in the championship behind the 318s of Tony Longhurst and Paul Morris and the M3 of John Blanchard.

Incredibly, Phil still has the car and is in the process of returning it to its former DTM glory. So, you never know, Australia’s one and only racing Evo II could well be thumping round your local racetrack sometime very soon!

 

FOX COLLECTION

Unless you were looking for it, you probably wouldn’t know it was there. In fact, even when you are looking for it, the Fox Classic Car Collection can be a bugger to find.

But there, inside the austere Queen’s Warehouse in Melbourne’s Docklands, is one of the finest collection of cars you’re ever likely to see.

Whatever your taste in cars, you’re sure to find something of interest houses within the Warehouse’s historic walls. The bottom floor is dominated by Ferraris, with a 288GTO, F40, F50 and the only Enzo in the country taking pride of place. Porsche also features strongly, with 959, 550 Spyder and beautiful little 718 RSK on display.

There’s a room full of Jags, along with a good number of vintage Rolls-Royce and Mercedes too – the Evo obviously being the pick of the bunch.

Entry is only $10 and you could happily spend the four-hour opening time wandering around and drinking in all the exotica on display. For more information check out their website: www.foxcollection.org.au

 

 

SPECIFICATIONS 

Mercedes-Benz 190E Evo II

 

Body: LHD-only four-door sedan

Weight: 1360kg

Engine: 2463cc 16v in-line four

Transmission: Five-speed dogleg manual, LSD, rwd

Power/Torque: 173kW/245Nm

Performance: 0-100kmh 7.1s Top Speed: 250km/h (limited)

Wheels: 6Jx15" with 185 60 R15 (f) 195 60 R15 (r)

 

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