Mercedes-Benz, following the laudable lead of Jaguar and BMW in producing entry-level wheels that don't require a third mortgage, has recycled the 190E 2.3 as its starter car.

With a base price of $28,050, this four-door Mercedes minor actually costs $1,570 less than the 190E 2.3 of 1988, the year of the great marketing bollix that caused its temporary disappearance.It also carries more standard equipment, an antilock braking system and height-adjustable seat belts, as examples, than its 1983-1988 ancestors.

And, in its move away from Beverly Hills, the 190E has not been cursed by plastic wheel covers, a Marconi radio or other Woolworth trappings that are standard on too many budget-sensitive products.

Instead, it comes blessed with cast aluminum wheels, cruise control, driver-side air bag, central door locking, power windows, automatic climate control and great noise from an Alpine sound system identical to those installed in larger and pricier Mercedes.

Thanks to a new suspension system, the car slinks just low enough to have lost the pug-nosed Tonka look that blighted earlier 190s. It appears longer (although chassis length and design is unchanged) and certainly is much smarter.

Lower body cladding has been added. The front air dam and rear valance have been resculptured to further serve the aerodynamic aesthetes of the '90s. (Technical note: Such Buck Rogers bodywork makes virtually no contribution to the handling of the car.)

In short, the car has lost absolutely nothing, not even that secure squat and lovely lumber so typical of Mercedes handling, while staying within walking distance of affordability.

for a higher-priced model."

That higher-priced model is the 190E, with a 2.6-liter engine and a sticker price of $33,700. Then comes the highly popular 300E, with a base of $47,200, and on up through sticker stratosphere to the Mercedes 500SL at $89,300.

The Mercedes-Benz 190E was introduced in 1983 and became a two-model series in 1986. One sold with a 2.3-liter engine; the more expensive version came with a 2.6-liter engine.

The 190E 2.3 became a huge seller and, in 1988, was second in U.S. sales behind the Mercedes-Benz 300E sedan.

The bean counters, however, saw the 190E 2.6 moving up fast. With the smaller-priced 2.3 out of the way, they reasoned, buyers would automatically switch to the big-bucks 2.6.

With the 2.3 discontinued in 1988, sales of its big brother did, indeed, improve. But they still fell more than 20 percent short of the previous year's combined sales for the 2.3 and 2.6.

At 2,987 pounds (only about 400 pounds heavier than, say, the Mazda 323), the 190E 2.3 isn't a heavyweight. Nor is its four-cylinder, 2.3-liter engine, producing 130 horsepower (five horsepower less than the oomph produced from the smaller engine of the BMW 318i), a powerhouse. And, in the obvious interest of keeping production costs down, the 2.3 does not follow today's trend of multivalve engines.

So for the undisputed privilege of driving behind Mercedes' century-old tridentate emblem, be prepared to dawdle a little during your daily commute.

Internally, little has changed on the new 190E; Mercedes has never seen a need to get drastic about anything. At least not more than once in a generation.

Instruments are large, analogous and visible. The steering wheel is leather-covered but not adjustable, in keeping with the firm European belief that a correct driving position is obtained by adjusting the seat, not the steering wheel.

There's enough wood to remind us of the olde worlde craftsmanship of the Teutons, and the polish is about 9 feet deep. The dash and upholstery are vinyl. But as anyone with a 20-year-old Mercedes will tell you, that's the best and actually a better warm-weather fabric than leather.

And there's the 190E's magnificent cruise control (in German, Geschwindigkeitsregler, and you don't get more magnificent than that) functioning like a simple hand throttle of yore.