Success: Is it something measured by popularity and profitability alone? Or is it something measured by innovation, inspiration, and ultimately, legacy? Furthermore, for something to achieve a lasting legacy, does it require an impeccable reputation, unscathed by any marks of negativity?
With production at over 830,000 units over the course of ten years, introducing advanced powertrain and forward-thinking drivetrain, and debuting trendsetting styling, the Audi C3 was by all means a highly successful and influential vehicle. But of course, with success comes haters. And the Audi C3 was not immune to an unscathed reputation, something its contemporary German competitors did not face, at least to the same degree.
Introduced as a 1982 model, the C3 was the third generation of Audi’s executive sized 100, which was also sold more premium 200, and badged as the 5000 in North America through the 1988, upon which it adopted the 100/200 model designations that were consistent with the European market.
Before delving into the C3’s many positive virtues, the elephant in the room must be addressed. As it’s been well documented here at Curbside Classic before, the 5000 is unfortunately highly memorable for a well-publicized and slanderous “unintended acceleration” scandal, largely the doings of the now infamous and very fabricated 60 Minutes story. Although the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s extensive study concluded that it was ultimately driver error and not any mechanical or design defect which was responsible for “unintended acceleration-related accidents”, the damage had already been done.
With the model and brand’s reputation in the U.S. severely damaged, Audi sales continuously plummeted from a high of 74,061 units in 1985 to just 12,283 by 1991, or a decline of 83.5 percent. Sales of the initially popular C3 5000, which accounted for over 64 percent of U.S. Audi sales in 1985, saw a direct correlation in their sharp decline of 84.3 percent to just 7,497 total in 1991, by which point the car had been rebranded as the 100 and 200, in a failed attempt to disassociate the car with the controversy.
Due to this rather tragic debacle, the Audi 5000 is a model that tends to get swept under the rug as far as Audi history goes, at least in the U.S. This is unfortunate, as the Audi C3 was truly a trendsetting vehicle for its time, introducing a number of innovations and making inroads for both Audi and the appeal of larger German sedans for the upper-middle class masses in the U.S. Its influence can still be seen today in modern vehicles nearly 35 years later.
Without even scratching the surface, one will notice just how slick that surface is. At a time when sedans wore very boxy and upright styling wrapped in sheetmetal with a lot of angles and creases, and don’t even get me started on many American sedans with their vinyl roofs, opera windows, and other excessive prosthetics, the Audi C3 wore flush, aerodynamic sheetmetal with no major creases or character lines.
A large, airy greenhouse featured expansive glass area, with an expansive six-window design unusually featuring the rear quarter windows entirely aft of the rear doors. This is something which Audi sedans have retained through the present, and something which has become very common on cars in recent years.
Additionally, versus most contemporary sedans which featured nearly vertical side glass, windshields, and rooflines in comparison, the C3 sported sweeping, nearly 90-degree angle A- and C-pillars, as well as side glass that gently sloped inward from its base for a dramatic, almost space age look. Equally notable, much like its distant NSU Ro 80 ancestor, the C3 featured a C-pillar that wrapped inward at the base, adding some visual distinction from the simple lines of the body.
Most notably, side window glass was completely flush with the body. Combined with smoothly integrated body panels and bumpers for maximum aerodynamic efficiency, the C3 sedan achieved an ultra-low for the era drag coefficient of just 0.30.
From any angle, the design itself was striking, and still is even today. Versus its predecessor and its competitors, the Audi C3 exuded a look that was futuristic but done so in a tasteful enough manner that it still boasted very broad appeal to the masses. Equally appealing were the Audi’s proportions, its long and low hood, low beltlines, high deck, fast roofline, and wide stance contributing to an athletic look that was quite novel in a sedan for the time, largely contributing to the rise of the “sports sedan” genre of vehicles.
Unlike most competitors, the C3 eschewed the traditional wagon bodystyle, with its Avant version featuring a dramatic and rather Citroën-like roofline, vaguely predictive of modern Audis such as the A7 and A5 sportback.
But the Audi C3 wasn’t merely a sports sedan in appearance only. It had the performance credentials to back its looks. Apart from the 100’s base 1.8L inline-4 available only in Europe, the heart of the C3 100, 200, and 5000 Series’ was its inline-5 cylinder engines. Combined with the car’s ultra low coefficient of drag, the C3 was able to achieve both better acceleration and speed, and better fuel economy than most competitors.
The U.S. market naturally had fewer engine choices, but the 5000 always offered buyers with the choice of one naturally aspirated I5 and one turbocharged I5. Almost annually, both inline-5s received increases in both displacement and output. By this featured car’s 1987 model year, the base engine had gone grown from a 2.1L making 100 horsepower to a 2.3L making 130, and the turbo had grown from a 2.1L making 140 horsepower to a 2.2L producing 162 horsepower.
Diesel engines were also offered for the C3’s entire production run, though unlike the previous generation, were not made available to the U.S. market. The C3 100 was significant in premiering one of the world’s earliest and Volkswagen Group’s first direct-injection turbodiesel engine in 1990, making it the first vehicle to wear the now somewhat infamous “TDI” badge.
U.S.-market 5000s did not receive any of the European-spec 200’s higher output gasoline turbo engines either, with the notable exception of one. Featuring dual overhead cam design, four valves per cylinder, turbocharging, a reworked intercooler, and port injection, this special version of the 2.2L boasted a 9.3:1 compression ratio with 11.8 pounds of boost, and pumped out a very impressive for the era 217 horsepower and 228 lb-ft of torque.
The most powerful engine offered over the course of the C3’s production, it was available only in conjunction with Quattro all-wheel drive and a 5-speed manual, earning the model’s designation as the “200 Turbo Quattro 20V”. Achieving a zero-to-sixty time of 6.5 seconds, quicker than the Ford Taurus SHO, V8-powered Infinti Q45 and Mercedes 400 E (which would arrive in 1992), and within less than a second of the BMW M5.
On a design note, the 200 Turbo Quattro 20V was easily distinguished from other models by its flared front and rounded rear wheel arches versus other models’ flush front and flatter rear wheel openings. This design modification was necessitated by the Turbo Quattro 20V’s wider tire sizes and wider front and rear tracks.
Regarding Quattro, introduced on European models in 1985 and U.S. models in 1986, it should be noted that Audi was among the first of any manufacturer to offer full-time all-wheel drive in a production sedan. It was also the very first among premium brands to offer all-wheel drive in its midsize sedan, something that preceded the all-wheel drive craze in luxury sedans by nearly three decades. In the C3, all Quattro-equipped vehicles sent 50 percent of torque to each transaxle via an intelligent torque-sensing differential, but could send up to 75 percent of torque to the transaxle with most traction.
As for our featured 1987 model, it’s a top-spec 5000 CS Quattro, featuring the 2.2L turbo inline-5 making 158 horsepower and 166 lb-ft torque, along with a few tasteful modifications including taillight clusters from the related Audi V8, Euro-spec headlight assembly, and aftermarket rims that work rather nicely. The top-of-the-line 5000 variant for the 1987 model year, this car carried an original MSRP of $26,640, which translates to $57,830 in 10/2017 USD, which is within $1,000 of MSRP for a 2018 Audi A6 Quattro with the larger 3.0L I6 — how’s that for consistency?
Even at a decade old by the time production ended in 1991, the C3 remained a highly competitive, appealing, and polarizing midsize luxury sedan in the face of its competitors from BMW, Mercedes, Saab, Volvo, and now Acura, Infiniti, and Lexus. Its successor, the C4 Audi 100, was not an entirely new vehicle, but a heavily reengineered and restyled C3, retaining its predecessor’s radical-for-the-times greenhouse.
With its advanced engines that maximized both power and efficiency, pioneering all-wheel drive, and trendsetting design, the Audi C3 100/200/5000 was truly a revolutionary vehicle, that above all, looked like no other vehicle on the market at the time. As a whole, it largely set the mold for sedans that would arrive in immediately ensuing years, and its influence can still be seen in vehicles of the present day. You might just call it, a “runaway success”.
Featured 1987 Audi 5000 CS Quattro photographed at Porsche Westwood in Westwood, Massachusetts – October 2017