It is the scariest roller-coaster ride in recent automotive history.

It began in the early 1980s with a steady rise in sales and euphoric predictions. Thanks to ultra sleek styling that pioneered the idea of having glass flush with the car's exterior surfaces, Audi appeared well on its way to becoming a worthy rival to BMW and Mercedes at the top of the luxury car food chain in the U.S.

Then disaster struck. A woman crushed her young son against the back wall of her garage with an Audi 5000, the brand's flagship. She claimed the car accelerator stuck, and she was unable to stop the car with the brakes. Soon there were dozens of similar claims of Audis running amok, many with tragic results.

After carefully studying the wrecks, Volkswagen AG, Audi's parent, determined the claims were impossible to prove and insisted drivers were simply stepping on the gas instead of the brake.

Most car experts and magazines such as Car and Driver supported Audi's position, knowing full well that working brakes can always overpower engine torque, even at full throttle. But most major media outlets chose to ignore such basic facts and instead gave front-page treatment to ridiculous theories about sunspots causing the cars to run wild.

Even though Audi was ultimately exonerated, the negative media coverage proved devastating. Sales were so bad in the late 1980s and early 1990s that VW considered pulling the plug in the U.S.

But while VW and Audi officials publicly blamed irresponsible reporting by the media, some admitted privately the auto maker's terrible quality problems made it vulnerable to such accusations.

Early '80s Audis were prone to a litany of catastrophic failures, from faulty transmissions and electronics to disintegrating constant velocity joints. Then there were the bad head gaskets, shorted out windshield wiper motors and leaking brake master cylinders. The list goes on and on, and those were just the problems with my wife's car. She came home so often in a tow truck I thought she was having an affair with the driver.

So let's review Audi's challenges circa 1989:

  • Its products are declared free of any design defects, but the majority of the car-buying public still thinks Audis are possessed by the devil. “Audi 5000” has become a slang term for doing something unexpectedly fast.
  • Most current owners hate their cars, if not for repeatedly being stranded by shoddy quality, then because the “sudden acceleration” crisis has made their cars almost worthless.
  • Any new buyers willing to take a chance on the brand are frightened away by rumors the franchise will be pulled from the U.S.

In comparison, the worst sin GM and Ford currently are guilty of is boring their customers.

Now, once again, Audi looks poised to challenge Mercedes and BMW as an equal. It made its long climb back not with dramatic exterior styling, but by fixing its quality problems, capitalizing on the growing demand for all-wheel drive and offering customers some of the best engines and interiors in the business.

If a brand as severely wounded as Audi can make a full recovery based on solid engineering, great engines and benchmark interiors, then it should not take GM and Ford more than a few years to get their houses in order.