1986 Audi 5000 CS Turbo: Hot Number

Since the late ’90s, things have gone pretty well for Audi, but it took some doing to bring back their luster. That is primarily due to the TV “expose” on their 5000 model in 1986. The resulting bad press likely set them back 15 years. None of it needed to happen.

But before we talk about the journalistic indulgence that led to big trouble for Audi, let’s talk about the car itself. The “C3” 5000 was introduced in autumn 1982 as an ’83 model. It handily won the European Car of the Year award. The flush glass, smooth lines and slippery 0.30 coefficient of drag were intriguing to new car buyers. It was fresh and new. Many a Yuppie found them must-haves. The new 5000 was a new design direction. It was the future, and looked like nothing else. We take that for granted now. The 5000 did of course have its share of upper-crust German car issues, electrical and otherwise. It didn’t seem to affect sales much. But a series of unpredictable events would soon overwhelm the firm, at least in the U.S.

In 1986, 60 Minutes “reported” that lots of Audi 5000s were apparently accelerating without any driver input. They then proceeded to jury-rig the 5000 featured in the program to behave the way they wanted it to behave. To put it mildly, pandemonium ensued.

Audi USA’s reputation was ruined overnight. U.S. sales went off a cliff. From a high of 74,061 units in 1985 to 12,283 by model year 1991.

Indeed, such 5000 “journalism” seemed to become the template for future “dangerous vehicle” television programming. Remember the 1973-87 GM pickups ‘expose’ seen on prime time TV just a few years later?

In both of those cases, the vehicles would not behave the way the grim-faced talking heads wanted them to behave. Naturally, the TV producers immediately printed an apology, the people who worked on the show were all fired and sued, and the car companies were vindicated and re-compensated. Of course I am kidding. Not sure if it’s really funny or really sad!

What ultimately caused the acceleration troubles was drivers simply hitting the gas pedal instead of the brake pedal. As is often the case, the trouble was not the car but the nut behind the wheel. You see, the Audi’s pedals were placed rather close together, for ideal heel-and-toeing. It was a German car, for crying out loud. It was meant to be driven spiritedly, not to mosey on over to Burger King or the mall. That’s simply the way they were designed. Mercedes-Benz and BMW were similar in pedal configuration.

European Audi owners understood the layout and used it the way it was intended with no trouble. But certain folks who bought a 5000 in the U.S., who were perhaps more used to domestic cars with a vertical accelerator pedal and a wide, horizontal brake pedal, might have not been as familiar with two nearly identical and closely-set pedals (or three, if the car had a manual transmission).

And thus did fender-benders, injuries and lawsuits multiply like rabbits. Audi redesigned the pedals to be father apart, but the brand never really started to recover until around 1996, when the redesigned A4 sedan and wagon came on line. That was a great driving car, and very stylish. It was just the thing to help turn the tables back in Audi’s favor.

The last year for the now-infamous 5000 nameplate was 1988, though the car itself would be back. In 1989, a mostly unchanged car returned bearing ‘100’ and ‘200’ nomenclature. Ironically so, as the home-market 5000 had always been known as the 100, going back to 1968. The most obvious external difference were redesigned alloy wheels. There was a new turbo diesel variant, the first of many VW/Audi cars to have the soon-to-be-famous direct-injection diesel (and later, infamous!). The ’89 sported a 2.5-liter engine with 120 horsepower.

Interiors were still befitting a German luxury sedan. As a matter of fact, they were more pleasant than ever, with a handsomely restyled instrument panel and slabs of genuine wood to dress up the inside. I especially like the gauge layout, in which the minor gauges march off in a line toward the passenger’s side.

There was no difference at all in the sheetmetal: The 1989-91 100 (the 200 was the fancier version, but otherwise the same) had the exact same shape as the ’83 original. And why should they change it? Everyone, and I mean everyone, was copying it, the 1986 Ford Taurus perhaps being the most obvious example. And the copying continued for decades, until somewhat recently when sedans starting taking on a faux fastback look.

Other than the aforementioned TDI, the 100/200 could also be equipped with a 130 hp, 2.3-liter inline five-cylinder or a 2.2-liter turbo five in your choice of a 162-hp or (in 1991 only) 220-hp version.

I was a kid grade school when these cars were still new. I remember seeing several of them in a most attractive pearl-white paint scheme with color-keyed alloy wheels.

This was well before pearl white was common (circa 1987-88), and I remember thinking how great they looked.

Rexroat Porsche-Audi, in nearby East Moline, clearly sold a lot of them. I remember seeing those pearl white 100s and 200s well into the late ’90s, though Rexroat itself closed its doors in about 1992. The Audi franchise was duly snapped up by the Jaguar-Mercedes-Benz dealer across the river in Davenport.

But if even the 220-horse 100/200 wasn’t enough power for you, by the end of 1988 one could go with the new flagship Audi V8. It looked an awful lot like its C3 brethren, but was a unique model.

Although it was in fact based upon the C3 architecture, it had its own unique sheetmetal, a longer wheelbase and a wider track.

Of course, the big news was that V8. It was initially offered with a 3.6-liter V8 with 247 hp at 5800 rpm. Also standard was quattro all-wheel drive and a Torsen rear differential. Available transmissions were a four-speed ZF automatic and a five-speed manual. A 4.2-liter model, which joined the 3.6 in late ’91, offered more power (276 hp), plus a new six-speed stick. Built through late 1993, this most interesting offspring of the C3 platform outlasted the 5000/100/200 models it was based on.

1991 was the last year for the 100 and 200 models in their circa-1983 form. In 1992, a redesigned C4 100 would take their place, which, despite its new sheetmetal and interior, still kept much of its predecessor within it. By the late ’90s it would morph into the A6 we all know today.

The gold ’86 5000 CS turbo was spotted in nearby Milan, Illinois on Halloween 2015. It was the nicest 5000 I’d seen in decades, and was sitting for sale at a small car lot. I have since seen it around town, most recently last autumn. It is still going strong. The owner must be a mechanic, ha ha! The gray 100 was seen in December 2013 in Moline. It was a bitterly cold day. I’d just waltzed out of the Best Buy with the second season of The Bob Newhart show on DVD, but had the presence of mind to take some pictures before running over to the most excellent heated seats of my Volvo wagon. I haven’t seen that 100 since!

10 Replies to “1986 Audi 5000 CS Turbo: Hot Number”

  1. DirtRoads

    There was a C4 Audi? They stole that from Corvette! 🙂

    I worked on those cars in the 80s and I was never taken by their design/engineering or reliability. Then again, mechanics always see the stuff that breaks.

    Reply
  2. stingray65

    The best foreign car garage in my hometown always had a whole row of these parked out front waiting for power window motors, which crapped out regularly and very expensively. The V-8 was notorious for engine-out cam belt replacement because the engine was put in backwards and so the belts were jammed up against the firewall. The other interesting thing about these cars is that they were always tested with 5 speed manuals by the magazines, because for many years you couldn’t get an automatic with the turbo engines, but most of the ones you saw on the street were driven by middle-aged women with the slow motor and automatic, which probably saved many lives when they slammed on the accelerator instead of the brake.

    Reply
  3. safe as milk

    these were very popular when i was in high school. i remember being stunned by the flush glass. i always thought that the first generation taurus was ford’s interpretation of audi’s design language.

    Reply
  4. Hank chinaski

    I spent some time behind the wheel of a 5 cylinder C3, but unfortunately an automatic. Not bad for the era.

    Reply
  5. Glenn Kramer

    A business partner had one of these, same gold color. I remember it as stark inside, cloth interior. It had Cadillac climate control, with the digital temp. readout and the chrome buttons, it looked sort of out of place in the midst of all that sobriety. It felt really buttoned up, relatively slow to accelerate, but cruised at very high speeds once you got it going. The climate controls added just a touch of broughamessence to an otherwise stark interior.

    Reply
  6. Shocktastic

    You are not being sarcastic about the pedal placement. High school GF had migraine during hike in 1987 and while driving her father’s Audi 5000 home, I nearly ran a red light because my hiking boot also hit the gas pedal when I braked. Now in the present, i have had a few close calls when I commute in a manual tranny 2010 Subaru Forester. I just ran out in my garage & measured from the middle of each pedal to the middle of its neighbor which resulted in a middle-of-pedal measurement of 4 inches between the center of the clutch pedal to the center of the brake pedal to center of the gas pedal. More humbling was measuring the distance between gas & brake pedal (2.25 inches) vs clutch & brake pedal (3 inches). All close calls (engine revving while braking & pressing down on clutch) came while wearing wide shoes like Keens or hiking boots. YMMV size 13 narrow width.

    Reply
  7. rambo furum

    PJ O’Rourke had some quip about the close pedal arrangement stupefying the Americans who were used to luxury cars in which the stop and go pedals were located “in different states” IIRC.
    I saw a hilarious mention in a late 80’s owner’s manual’s “Winter Driving” section that warned against driving while wearing ski boots. It now dawns on me that this was likely in response to the Audi fiasco.

    Reply
  8. Doug

    Boy this car can really differ in looks depending on the wheels that are put on it. The lace type wheels really make it look better, but overall the wheels that are so thin really make the car look bad.

    As far as the reporting on the Audi, this has unfortunately made its way into almost ALL journalism these days. There are so many made up stories with fake “facts” that you cannot believe any story that is out there anymore. These days I assume if most of the media is reporting it in the exact same way then it must be a lie that was set up to make it fit the story they wanted to write.

    Reply
  9. sabotenfighter

    I worked in a VW/Audi factory garage for a few years in the early 2000s. Still would get these in on occasion. You’re right, that pearl white was really something. Well kept, its still one of my favorite factory colors.

    Reply
  10. John C.

    It is interesting about Audi doing a 5 cylinder in these cars instead of the V6 that would have moved the car better. If you look back at the 100LS, they were painfully slow with their 2 liters and even the 5 in 78 just kept it from falling farther behind. A 5 of course was cheap to do but given that Audi eventually sucked it up and designed a V6, the penny pinching really hurt the ownership experience. Not many of them were turbos and a lot had the old 3 gear auto.

    Reply

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