(first posted 2/25/2013) Audi has long been an aspirational brand. While in the U.S. market it has tended to play second banana compared to Mercedes-Benz and BMW, in Europe it is held in rather higher esteem; in fact, in its home market the A8L is considered in some quarters to be more prestigious than the S-Class Merc. Perhaps part of the reason why is the raw deal Audi got with their 5000 model. While Audi was ultimately absolved of any mechanical or engineering issues with the car, the resulting bad press likely set Audi back 15 years. The first small step back to normalcy was removing the tarnished 5000 nameplate from the model roster.
The “C3” 5000, introduced in 1983, was the European Car of the Year. Its flush glass, smooth lines (still widely copied on most all mid-size sedans today) and slippery 0.30 Cd were most impressive, and many a Yuppie found them must-haves. Although the 5000 did have its share of trouble, electrical and otherwise, it didn’t seem to affect sales much–at first. But a series of unfortunate events would soon overwhelm the German company, at least in the States.
In 1986, 60 Minutes “reported” that lots of Audi 5000s were seemingly taking off without any driver input. Then they proceeded to jury-rig the 5000 featured in the program to behave the way they wanted it to behave. Pandemonium ensued, and Audi USA was kneecapped, given two black eyes and had a piano dropped on their head. From a high of 74,061 units in 1985, total U.S. Audi sales nosedived, to the tune of 12,283 by model year ’91.
Indeed, such 5000 “journalism” seemed to become the template for future “dangerous vehicle” television programming. Two more recent examples are the side-saddle 1973-87 GM pickups and Toyota accelerator pedal debacle, in 1993 and 2009, respectively. In all three cases, the cars would not behave the way the grim-faced talking heads wanted them to behave. So of course, they immediately printed an apology, the appropriate decision-makers of the shows were shown the door, and the car companies were vindicated. Ha ha ha! As you undoubtedly have already guessed, I am kidding about the last part.
What ultimately caused the acceleration troubles was drivers simply hitting the gas pedal instead of the brake pedal (I repeat: Sound familiar?). As is often the case, the trouble was “the nut behind the wheel.” You see, the Audi’s pedals were placed rather close together, for ideal heel-and-toeing. While Europeans “got it” and used the placement the way it was intended, Americans, who were used to Caprice Classics and LTDs with a vertical accelerator pedal and a wide, horizontal brake pedal, might have not been familiar with two nearly identical and closely-set pedals (or three, if the car had a stick). 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 from the cluster-freak until the A4 appeared, in 1996.
The last year for the infamous 5000 was 1988, albeit in name only; in 1989, a largely 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 was new alloy wheels. More importantly, there was a new TDI version, the first of many VW/Audi cars to have the soon-to-be-famous direct-injection diesel. The ’89 sported a 2.5-liter mill with 120 hp.
Interiors were still quite nice, and in fact were more pleasant than ever, with a handsomely restyled dash and slabs of genuine wood to dress up what had been the rather stark, functional interior of early 5000s. 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.
Other than the aforementioned TDI, the 100/200 could also be had with a 130 hp, 2.3-liter inline five-cylinder engine, or a 2.2-liter turbo five in your choice of a 162-hp or (in 1991 only) 220-hp version.
As a kid in middle school when the 100/200 was finishing its run, I remember seeing several of these cars in a most attractive pearl-white paint scheme with matching alloy wheels. This was well before pearl white was common, and I remember thinking how great they looked at the time. Rexroat Porsche-Audi, in nearby East Moline, clearly sold a lot of them. I remember seeing those pearly Audis well into the late ’90s, though Rexroat itself closed its doors about 1992.
But if even the 220-horse 100/200 wasn’t enough, as of late 1988 you could go with the new flagship Audi V8, which 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.
But of course, the truly important part was found under the hood, initially in the form of a 3.6-liter eight that provided motivation to the tune of 247 hp at 5800 rpm. Also standard were 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 1991, offered more power (276 hp), plus a new six-speed stick for those who wanted to shift themselves. Built through late 1993, this most interesting offspring of the C3 platform outlasted its donor 100/200.
Nineteen ninety one was the last year for the 100 and 200 models in their original 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). Just a few short years later, it would morph into the A6 we all know today.
When I saw this solid gunmetal-gray 100 just a few weeks ago, I had to pull over to check it out. I have not seen one of these in years, and this one seemed to have beaten the odds, especially considering that it bore a Massachusetts inspection sticker, since neither MA nor northeast IL are very kind to items made of metal. My only regret was it wasn’t pearl white.