The cars we loved.
If you remembered the early 80’s you’d know that before there was any Lexus, Infiniti or Acura, there was Audi, BMW and Mercedes fighting for the entry level luxury pocketbooks (or wallets) of the American consumer. One of the first breakout successes in this competitive arena came from Germany’s Audi. Long associated with small sporty cars, Audi stepped out with a large luxury car that competed directly with Mercedes and to some extent Cadillac.
The Audi 100, 200 and 5000 were already available with 4 or 5 cylinder engines and in multiple variations in Europe. The new platform called C3 internally by Audi, had grown from being boxy to a sleek aerodynamic shape. Many innovations both stylistically and functional were first seen on this car and eventually spread to other Audi’s and were copied by other manufactures eventually. Flush window glass and wheel covers were just a few of the advancements that contributed to a low .cd of just 0.30. Another prominent feature of the 5000 was the black “rubber belt” that went around the center of the car, protecting it from minor impacts. This belt became widely imitated on everything from Chryslers to Hondas. In fact, nearly every car with Japanese or European aspirations seemed to have these belts around them. Today we associate such stylistic features with base level cars, whereas more upscale cars now feature a body colored band or strip.
The list of firsts also applied under the hood. There was a vast array of engines available from normally aspirated inline 5 cylinder engines to turbo and turbo diesels. The direct injection turbo-diesel, labled TDI, had almost single handedly changed Americans perceptions of diesels as dirty and smelly power plants. Today the TDI label is a common fixture in Audi and VW cars.
All 5000 sedans and wagons had sporting aspirations, but it was the S model what was the top performer. Its 2.2 L turbocharged 5 cylinder engine eventually produced 163 hp, a figure on par with many V8 of the time. It’s all wheel drive handling composure and the fact that many were sold with a 5 speed manual transmission made the 5000S unlike any large car US buyers were accustomed to. It offered a sporty feel with just the right amount of road feel and response. The unusual 5 cylinder engine was more efficient than most 6 or 8 cylinder engines in competitors.
A fully independent suspension meant that the 5000S ride was compliant while maintaining composure on poor surfaces or in bad weather. These factors combined with good looks and decent fuel economy made the 5000 very popular, especially in climates where snow and ice were common. The car became so popular at one point that it became part of the emerging hip hop vernacular in reference to its speed. “Audi 5000 G” became an alternative to saying see ya or goodbye when you were in a hurry to get away. Audi was seemingly at the top of the emerging American near luxury car market. Then tragedy struck.
After a six documented accounts and 700 accidents related to unintended acceleration, Audi was forced to recall all 5000s made between 1982 and 1987. Word of the recall spread quickly, just as Audi sales had reached a peak. The result was sharp declines in all of its cars sales, not just the 5000. Resale values fell off dramatically also. It took Audi years to recover from the fallout. 5000’s had other problem as well, mostly centered around the GM and VW supplied automatic climate control system which had only two settings high or off.
In 1992 a new replacement called simply the Audi 100 was introduced. Developed from a heavily revised C3 platform, the new car looked similar, but did not sell nearly as well. The 5000 leaves a legacy of innovations, prompted no doubt by Audi’s purchase of NSU a decade or so before. Most people will remember the 5000 for the unintended acceleration debacle when in actuality, it was one of the most forward looking cars of the 80’s.