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!