THEIR tires squealing, the two cars race neck and neck down the quarter-mile straightaway until, in the final seconds, the Audi nudges itself into the lead, taking the checkered flag. Although Audi of America is an active participant in United States motor sports, a recent series of heats at Seattle International Raceway pitted an unusual group of contenders: Audi's new V8 Quattro ultra-luxury sedan vs. three of its top European competitors - the BMW 7351, the Jaguar XJ6 Vanden Plas, and the Mercedes-Benz 420 SEL.
The V8 Quattro is Audi's newest model, and with a base-price of $47,450 it is the West German automaker's most expensive product ever.
The day-long test of acceleration, handling, and braking capabilities at the Seattle raceway was meant to demonstrate that the Audi can stand up to the best of its competition. And, indeed, in virtually every event, the all-wheel-drive Audi was able to out-accelerate and outmaneuver the BMW, Mercedes, and Jaguar.
Add the fact that the Audi is significantly cheaper than any of those other models and offers some unique features and services and that should spell a winner, right? Maybe not.
For one thing, there are a variety of other new ``ultra-luxury'' sedans coming on the market from Japan, notably the $35,000 Lexus LS400 from Toyota and the $40,000 Infiniti Q45 from Nissan.
But an even bigger obstacle for Audi will be overcoming its own recent past. In November 1986, the CBS program ``60 Minutes'' aired a segment alleging that the Audi 5000 had been involved in numerous cases of ``sudden acceleration,'' in which the vehicles unexpectedly raced out of control when shifted into gear.
Federal safety investigators have received reports of more than 1,000 such incidents and hundreds of resultant accidents, leading to scores of injuries and several deaths.
As a result of the publicity, Audi sales plunged from a high of 74,421 in 1985 to just 22,493 in 1988.
Audi has always argued that there were no mysterious gremlins affecting its vehicles. And early this year, government safety investigators in the US, Canada, and Japan concurred. In separate reports, the three governments concluded that the problem was actually the result of drivers inadvertently stepping on the gas pedals rather than the brake when shifting into gear.
Despite that vindication, Audi sales have continued to decline this year and are currently tracking at an annualized rate of barely 17,500 vehicles.
``We're been cleared, but we don't get over that type of hit very easily,'' says Richard Mugg, Audi executive vice-president, adding that ``we're looking for a big boost from the V8.''
That boost - if it comes - won't be in the form of massive sales. Mr. Mugg expects to move about 1,000 of the luxury sedans during the remainder of 1989, with volume climbing to somewhere around 2,500 units in 1990. More significant will be the V8 Quattro's ``halo effect,'' which Audi hopes will rub off on the rest of its model lineup.
Except for a distinct new grille, there is from the exterior little to easily distinguish the V8 Quattro from the company's mainline sedans, the 100 and 200 series. The first major difference can be found under the hood: a 240-horsepower, 32-valve V8 engine, compared with the 4- and 5-cylinder versions found in other Audi models.