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Descended from the Auto Union company that produced a series of legendary racecars in the 1930s, Audi has survived a checkered history, aided for a while by a close tie to Volkswagen. Back in 1899, August Horch established a company using his name. German courts demanded a change because Horch had established another firm carrying that name, so he selected a Latin translation: Audi, which meant "Listen!" Horch departed after a decade, but remained in the auto business.
Automobile production began in1910. Early models featured narrow, pointed radiators. In 1921, the 14/50 models had an aluminum cylinder block and four-wheel brakes-uncommon at the time. Starting in 1927, Audi produced cars with an engine design obtained from Rickenbacker, a defunct American company.
In 1932, Audi joined the Auto Union group, which included DKW and Wanderer, as well as Horch. Years later, that group would reappear as Audi's symbol: four interlocking rings, used on all grilles. During the 1930s, Audi issued a front-wheel-drive car with a Wanderer six-cylinder engine, followed in 1938 by a rear-drive model 920. Just before World War II, rear-engined Auto Union Grand Prix cars, initially designed by Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, competed against Mercedes-Benzes.
After the war, the Audi name evaporated as the Auto Union group focused on DKW and other small cars with two-stroke engines. In 1956, Mercedes-Benz became a major stockholder, but Volkswagen bought that share in 1964. VW elected to revive the Audi name, beginning with a front-wheel-drive car designed by Daimler-Benz.
Two sedan models appeared in 1966: the 80 and Super 90. Two years later a series 60 joined, along with a bigger 100 series. Late in that decade, Audi merged with NSU Motorenwerke.
Audis began to reach American dealerships by 1970, beginning with the Super 90 and a newly-designed 100LS. In 1973, the spirited little Audi Fox reached the U.S., later evolving into the 4000 series. Audi introduced a five-cylinder engine in 1976, for the 5000 luxury sedan.
By 1980, Audis could have a turbocharged five-cylinder engine. Front-wheel drive had been Audi's forte for years, but developers began to ponder all-wheel drive. First AWD model was the Audi Quattro rally coupe, issued in 1980 after enthusiastic response at the Geneva auto show. Audi retained that "Quattro" designation for all subsequent AWD models.
Sales set records in the early Eighties. But in 1986, Audi suffered a dramatic assault of bad publicity, due to allegations-aired on CBS-TV's 60 Minutes-that 5000-series sedans with automatic transmissions were subject to "unintended acceleration." All 1978-86 models were recalled voluntarily to install a shift lock device. Even though the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration eventually exonerated Audi, it took years to recover from the negative publicity.
New models were launched late in the 1980s, followed by a top-end V8 Quattro sedan. All Audis since the mid-1990s have used a model designation with a letter (A for passenger cars, S for Sport performance models) followed by a number that denotes comparative size. During the 1990s, Series 100 gave way to the A6, and the smaller 80 sedan faded away. Audi's first convertible, the 90-based Cabriolet, arrived in 1994.
Not until 2007 did Audi turn to an SUV: initially the large Q7, soon followed by a smaller Q5 crossover wagon. Earlier, Audi had offered an A6-based allroad quattro, which was essentially a regular wagon with some SUV-like characteristics.
Audi's modern-day product list stretches from the subcompact A3, which debuted in 2006, to the full-size flagship A8 sedan, with the compact A4 (launched for 1996) the most popular model. Audi introduced the TT sports coupe for 2000, later adding a roadster and performance-oriented TTS editions. A considerably larger A5 coupe arrived for 2008, followed by a soft-top version. Audi's recent lineup has included "S" (sport) offshoots of each "A" series: S4, S5, S6, and even the big S8.
RS editions promised ever more stimulating performance. Also late in the 2000-decade came an R8 supercar, selling in tiny numbers but earning considerable publicity among the enthusiast crowd. Audi released an A7 four-door hatchback for 2012. Whatever the model, Audis continue their well-deserved reputation for premium motoring.