Go to the online slang dictionary and type Audi 5000, and you’ll see that it means ‘to leave or exit quickly’. Such was the extent of bad press that the Audi 5000’s sudden unintended acceleration got, that the name has found itself a place in the world of urban slang.
But things were not that bad for the saloon in its early days. In fact, the stylish model had helped boost Audi sales significantly by the mid-Eighties, and it was the German carmaker’s biggest weapon in the battle for North America. Until one day a six-year old boy was fatally crushed by an Audi 5000 driven by his mother, who insisted that the car lurched forward despite her foot being on the brake pedal.
Things started taking an ugly turn for Audi when this much publicised accident was followed in quick succession by reports from all around the US of accidents, some of them fatal, caused by the 5000 accelerating suddenly on its own.
By 1987, there were hundreds of sudden acceleration accidents reported, out of which six resulted in death.
While Audi maintained there was nothing wrong with its cars, the sheer volume of incidents led the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to enforce a recall. Audi made modifications including increasing the distance between brake and accelerator pedals and adding a shift lock for automatic transmission models, requiring the driver to press the brake before shifting to drive.
But all these proved too little too late, as sales plummeted sharply from 74,000 units in 1984 to just over 12,000 by 1991. Although an investigation by the NHTSA later proved that driver error was the reason for most of these accidents, the bad publicity the four rings got from this incident was so damaging and long-lasting that it took more than a couple of decades for the German marque to re-establish itself in the US market.