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American motorists shopping for a German car gained an additional option in 1970: Audi.
It wasn’t a start-up; the firm’s history is a latticework of mergers and take-overs that began in 1910. Some of its predecessors (notably Auto Union-owned DKW) briefly sold cars on our shores, but they never managed to merge into the mainstream. Audi as we know it appeared in the United States 50 years ago, and its beginnings were markedly humble. Its success was far from guaranteed, especially in the difficult context of the 1970s.
It was positioned, as Peugeot would later put it, “between the Bugs and the Benz.” Its line-up included two models called Super 90 and 100 LS, respectively, and it managed to sell just 7,961 cars in 1970. This was not a glittering result; MG — which exclusively sold tiny roadsters — outsold it by about 22,000 units. And yet, half a century later, Audi stands proud as a major player in the luxury car segment that recorded 224,111 sales in the United States in 2019. It built its success on innovation and, more recently, design. We’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of Audi’s American division by looking at some of the cars that deserve credit for its success.
100 LS (1968)
While the Super 90 was essentially a four-stroke evolution of the DKW F102, the 100 LS was an entirely new model developed secretly and launched in Germany in 1968. Sales in the United States started two years later. The range originally included two- and four-door sedans both equipped with the same 115-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine. It spun the front wheels via a fully-synchronized four-speed manual transmission.
Audi charged $3,695 for the two-door variant of the 100 LS, a sum that represents $24,580 in 2020. It was markedly more expensive than the Super 90 yet it represented a vast majority of the company’s sales in 1970; 6,557 units were sold that year. That figure swelled to 18,179 in 1971 thanks in part to the addition of an optional three-speed automatic transmission. Many motorists got their first impression of an Audi in a 100 LS.
Known as the 80 in Europe, the Fox is the unsung hero that carried Audi through the 1970s. It made its American debut for the 1973 model year as a replacement for the Super 90, the firm’s entry-level model — it’s on the same branch of the family tree as the modern-day A3. The Fox’s 75-horsepower, 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine gave it a 100-mph top speed and a zero-to-60-mph time of 12.7 seconds, statistics that were respectable for the era and the segment. It was outsold by the 100 in 1973 but several factors reversed the situation the following year.
Audi made the four-door 100 more expensive halfway through 1973, a move that increased the Fox’s appeal. And, the model directly benefited from the 1973 oil crisis, which sent motorists flocking towards smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. The Fox became Audi’s best-seller in 1974 and it remained in the top spot through 1977. Nearly 150,000 units were sold in the United States, yet it’s one of Audi’s most obscure vintage models in 2020.
Audi launched the 5000 during the 1978 model year to replace the 100 LS. It arrived as a big, stately sedan that showed motorists the brand’s more upmarket side. It was the first in a long, on-going line of Audi models equipped with a five-cylinder engine and it came standard with a generous list of features including cruise control, tinted windows and trunk carpeting (don’t laugh; it was a big deal at the time). In total, 20,761 buyers took home a 5000 in 1978, a number that increased to 28,276 in 1979, when the better-equipped 5000S was released.
The 5000 successfully moved Audi up the automotive industry’s echelons during the 1980s and it laid the groundwork later flagship sedans (like the original A8) were built on. Its replacement, the second-generation 5000 made its debut in 1984 with a sleeker design and an available wagon variant. The nameplate was later tainted by claims of unintended acceleration that nearly torpedoed Audi’s American division. In 1989, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration fully (and quietly) vindicated Audi after a long investigation.
Audi’s American division launched the rally-bred Quattro in 1982 as a 1983 model. It was based on the Coupe, which in turn was an evolution of the 4000, but the similarities were only skin-deep. It received better brakes and an independent rear suspension to let drivers who wanted to channel their inner Michèle Mouton make the most of the turbocharged, 2.1-liter five-cylinder engine rated at 160 horsepower. Although the Coupe was offered with an optional three-speed automatic transmission, the Quattro was only equipped with a five-speed manual.
Pricing started at $35,000 in 1983, a sum that represents about $90,000 in 2020. That figure made it about as expensive as a Porsche 911 SC Cabriolet. Audi envisioned the Quattro as a low-volume halo model, and it remained that way during its entire production run. In 2020, it’s one of the firm’s most sought-after classics.
A4 (first generation, 1996)
The first-generation A4 cemented Audi’s reputation as a luxury automaker in the United States. It made its debut for the 1996 model year as a replacement for the 90. Front-wheel drive came standard, but most buyers went with optional Quattro all-wheel drive (10,027 of the 15,288 A4s sold in 1996 had it). The only engine initially available was a 2.8-liter V6 that made 172 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, though a 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder joined the range in 1997 as a base engine.
Buyers lusted after the original A4’s crisp, clean lines and its sharp handling. It quickly became Audi’s best-selling model in the United States; annual sales more than doubled between the 1997 and 2000 model years. Expanding the range with a station wagon called Avant and a 250-horsepower variant named S4 increased its appeal.
In 2020, the A4 remains the core of the Audi range. It will enter the 2021 model year with significant updates including more power, a 12-volt mild-hybrid system, and, fittingly, standard Quattro all-wheel drive.
TT (first generation, 2000)
Introduced in Germany in 1998, the original TT was a design masterpiece that brought concept car styling to the showroom floor at a price many enthusiasts could afford. Audi resisted the urge to launch a high-end supercar with a six-digit price tag. Instead, it kept development costs in check by building the TT on the same basic VW Group platform as the Audi A3 and VW’s Golf, Jetta and New Beetle. It caught its German and Japanese rivals completely off-guard.
Sales on the American market started during the 2000 model year. At launch, the TT was only offered as a coupe powered by a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine tuned to 180 horsepower. Model year 2001 brought a convertible (which could be optionally ordered with gorgeous baseball glove-like stitching on the seats) and a 225-horsepower model equipped with Quattro all-wheel drive. Audi made a six-cylinder engine available later in the production run.
In 2020, the TT is well into its third generation and has remained true to its roots.
Allroad (first generation, 2001)
Audi decided not to follow Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Lexus into the burgeoning luxury SUV segment. It instead added a taller, more adventurous-looking version of the A6 Avant named Allroad to its American line-up for the 2001 model year. The wagon gained a height-adjustable suspension that allowed owners to dial in more ground clearance when needed, and it came with a twin-turbocharged, 2.7-liter V6 rated at 250 horsepower. Quattro came standard; how could it not in a wagon like this? All told, the Allroad was reasonably capable off the beaten path but it remained enjoyable to drive on the pavement (and less truck-like than SUVs in its price range).
America’s waning love affair with station wagons convinced Audi to enter the SUV segment with the original Q7 introduced for the 2007 model year. It put the American-spec variant of the Allroad on the back burner as it expanded its line-up of crossovers and SUVs, and although an A4-based Allroad is now in its second generation after returning for 2013, the A6-based Allroad has made a comeback in the United States for 2020.
R8 (first generation, 2008)
Audi bridged the gap between its Le Mans-winning prototypes and its street-legal cars when it launched the first-generation R8, its first series-produced mid-engined model, in 2006. It shared some components with the Gallardo but it was more than merely a re-skinned Lamborghini. It was notably built around a space frame made with aluminum and magnesium to keep weight in check, and it went on sale with a direct-injected V8 engine roaring a couple of inches away behind the driver’s ears. Quattro again came standard, and enthusiasts could ask Audi to bolt the V8 to a six-speed manual transmission with a gated shifter. They were better for it as the single-clutch automated manual wasn’t the smoothest operator.
Audi announced the availability of a naturally-aspirated, 5.2-liter V10 in 2008 and it unveiled the drop-top Spyder at the 2009 Frankfurt auto show. In 2020, the R8 is in its second generation. It’s exclusively offered with a V10 engine, and it’s no longer available with a stick, but Audi briefly offered a rear-wheel drive model named RWS.
A7 (first generation, 2012)
The stylish Sportback Concept unveiled in 2009 morphed into the first-generation A7 introduced in 2010 as a 2012 model. Audi stylists drew inspiration from the 100-based Coupe S that wasn’t sold in the United States to give the sedan a fast-sloping roof line. Its proportions were spot-on; Autoblog called it Audi’s design leader when we drove it for the first time in 2010. And, as we predicted, it proved that the long-standing belief that Americans don’t buy hatchback is false. It’s the dinky ones with an ungainly silhouette that we’re not hugely interested in.
Besides paving the way for an A5 Sportback and second-generation A7, the first-generation would influence the entire automotive industry as even mass-market sedans like the Honda Accord and Hyundai Sonata would eventually mimic its roof line, if not the hatchback trunk.
RS6 Avant (fourth generation, 2020)
Audi entered the hot-rodded station wagon segment in 1994 with a little bit of help from Porsche. The 80-based RS2 Avant introduced at the previous year’s Frankfurt auto show wasn’t the first wagon with the heart of a supercar, but it completely redefined the segment and lured other carmakers into it. Enthusiasts in the United States had to admire it from across the pond; it was never sold here. The first three generations of the RS6 Avant were forbidden fruits, too, but that changed for 2020 when the fourth-generation model (pictured) made its debut.
It was worth the wait. It shares its front end with the second-generation RS7 Sportback, it packs a 4.0-liter V8 twin-turbocharged to 591 horsepower, and it was developed with the American market in mind from the get-go. Quattro comes standard, and it can send up to 85% of the engine’s power to the rear wheels when needed. Sales began during the 2020 model year. Audi marketing boss Hildegard Wortmann told Autoblog response to the model has been extraordinary, which isn’t surprising considering how long some have been waiting for it.