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 anti-lock braking system and height-adjustable seat belts, as examples--than its 1983-1988 ancestors.

And, in moving closer to Granada Hills and away from Beverly Hills, the 190E has not been cursed by plastic wheel covers, a Marconi radio or other Woolworth trappings 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.

Mercedes spokesman John Chuhran said the new 190E 2.3 offers "high quality, high durability, high safety . . . all the strong features of a Mercedes-Benz for the person who has a difficult time coming up with the money 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 190E 2.3, Chuhran continued, definitely was not introduced as a counter to Lexus and Infiniti, the Japanese-built high-performance luxury cars, which, at $40,000, are underselling the best from Jaguar, BMW and Mercedes.

It was introduced, he continued, to serve customers lost in recent years as fluctuating exchange rates and higher production costs drove the Mercedes' price beyond many suburban reaches.

"What we are trying to do is show that we are not exclusively in the high end of the market and that we have a commitment to the entry-level end of the luxury car market," Chuhran added.

Mercedes hasn't always been quite so altruistic.

The Mercedes-Benz 190E was introduced in 1983 and became a two-model series in 1986. O ne 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.

Yeah, right.

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

So this year, with BMW and Jaguar pioneering the vogue for defrilling cars without damaging their souls (and with auto sales limping just about everywhere), Mercedes-Benz has reissued the 2.3.

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 ho rsepower 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.

Freeway entrances are fine, if you bury the gas pedal. Passing is no big deal, if thoughts are kept ahead of the traffic flow and the five-speed gearbox (automatic transmission is a $900 option on the 190E) is worked briskly. Once rolling, however, the car settles in to that flat, purposeful, wonderful lope so suggestive of a velvet tank.

Even Mercedes will concede that its 190E 2.3 really doesn't like to be thrashed.

There's an indecent amount of travel built into the clutch and gas pedals, which isn't conducive to crisp shifting and smooth applications of power. The multilink suspension is designed to temper the lumps and maneuvering forces of civilized surface street travel, not the dog legs of Laguna Seca Raceway.

Oh, the car will survive any demand and configuration imposed upon it.

But expecting it to handle extremes with gobs of verve is rather like asking Prince Charles to fix the plumbing. He could do it. But it's a job better handled by others and certainly beneath his dignity.

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

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

The gearshift is precisely at hand, of just the right heft, and that adds much to a sense of instinctive shifting. As always, the click of every knob, every lever, every switch, sends out the Mercedes message of substance and quality.

There's enough wood to remind us of the olde worlde craftsmanship of the Teutons, and the polish is about nine 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. The lever goes up to accelerate and set the speed. Down to decelerate and establish a new pace. Over to cancel. Simple. Fumble free.

Mercedes' free thinking is evident in other cockpit areas. The glove box latch is set to the far left of the lid--so the driver can reach it when traveling alone. Only the passenger-side mirror is electronically adjustable--because the driver's mirror is always within close reach for ma nual adjustment.

From inside, the 190E feels to have more room than its exterior suggests. In the rear, thanks to some hollowing out of the front seat backs, there is indeed more knee space than in the old 2.3.

The raison d'etre of Mercedes-Benz, of course, is building top-quality cars that allow safe, comfortable and precise travel with a maximum of solid set and a minimum of fuss.

They are adult cars dripping tradition. Styling is kept close to timeless because a Mercedes vehicle will hang tough for a decade, at least. They are tight and solid and the doors slam like a Chubb safe because superb engineering to microscopic tolerances is a Mercedes norm.

On the move they are expected to be a little scholarly, somewhat dignified, driver-friendly, prestigious and respected by valets and neighbors everywhere.

The renewed 190E 2.3 is such a hardy, classic vehicle.

1991 Mercedes 190E 2.3

The Good Quality survives price r eduction. Solid, sure-footed Mercedes handling. Up-market options as standard equipment. Classic, proven interior.

The Bad Unimpressive acceleration. Excessive clutch and gas pedal travel.

The Ugly Simply is not there.

Cost Base, with five-speed manual transmission, $28,050. As tested, with electric seats, sunroof, alarm, $30,555.

Engine 2.3 liters, four-cylinders, in-line developing 130 h.p.

Type Five-passenger, four-door, rear-wheel drive sedan.

Performance 0-60, as tested, 11.8 seconds. Top speed, on closed track, 122 m.p.h. Fuel economy, EPA city-highway, 20 and 28 m.p.g.

Curb Weight 2,987 pounds.