First Drive: Audi R8
Our UK correspondent gives a European perspective of this all-new sports car from Audi.
But there was another number in Audi's book last year, and it came up twice—once for an emotional exit, then for a very important entrance.
The exit was for the R10's on-track predecessor, the most successful endurance racing sports car in history: a five-time winner at Le Mans between 2000 and 2005, six straight wins at Sebring in the same span, multiple European and American Le Mans Series titles, 63 wins in total from only 80 starts, including a nice round tally of 50 ALMS victories—completed at its final race, at Lime Rock on July1, before it was officially retired to make way for that successor, the R10.
But while they'd tell you that the newcomer shares the racer's genes, the equally spectacular entrance wasn't a racer itself, it was a road car—a full-blown sports car, and amazingly, Audi's first of the genre.
World Debut at 2006 Paris Motor Show
It was unveiled in production-ready form at the Paris Motor Show last September, and we unanimously voted it as one of our top cars at the show. But it had started life three years before that, as a concept car called the Le Mans quattro, and had changed very little from show car to reality.
The stunning mid-engine, four-wheel-drive, two-seater coupe, is engineered to take Audi in a completely new direction. And if you'd been watching your motor sport for the past few years, it had a very familiar name—R8, just like that five-time Le Mans star that had won everything worth winning since the turn of the millennium.
But if the R8 road car's arrival was a big story in Paris, it's an even bigger one now, as the R8 has finally hit the road—and we have driven it.
For enthusiasts, it's a concept that had to happen. For Audi it's one of the most important cars they've launched in years—and they've launched plenty. In fact one of their favorite statistics is from 1997 to 2007, the marque has gone from a range of just 10 models to 23. In that time, they've added, among others, cars like the A3 Sportback, RS 4 Avant and Cabriolet, the TTs (coupe and cabriolet), the allroad and the Q7. Which (including the arrival and departure of the A2) took them to a 22-model lineup.
But number 23, the all-new R8, is by far the most exotic of them all. And beyond that, the R8 is headline news because it is as far outside Audi's existing road car spectrum as the R10 diesel is outside the racing norm. It's their first real sports car, the first ever mid-engine production Audi, and their first step into Porsche 911 heartland.
You certainly aren't going to miss an R8 on the road, or mistake it for anything else—not with that huge, signature Audi grille and a distinctive long wheelbase, wide track, cab-forward stance. In fact it looks slightly ungainly from some angles, but stunning from most, and build quality and attention to detail are conspicuously outstanding, inside and out.
That's now as much an Audi trademark as the gaping mouth. If you love the minimalist purity of a 911, you might find some of the R8's styling-driven bits a bit over the top; but actually they don't have to be if you realize that the R8 is just particularly color sensitive. So don't go for a light body color with the darkest, carbon-fiber-weave version of the contrasting "sideblades" that fill the gap between the doors and the rear arches; that just draws attention to the visual imbalance they were trying to conceal.
Take the other direction, a nice dark gunmetal body with the near-black blades looks far better—and the darkest grey body also downplays the big, slatted cooling vents at front and rear. You can specify a production first with all-LCD headlights, but the unique LCD array around the main lights is borderline Christmas tree if you're not feeling glitzy, although they'd probably argue that it makes the R8 easier to see. Don't worry about the wheels, though, the R8's spidery twin five-spoke alloys are gorgeous—even in usually unstylish bright chrome, but best in matte.
Roomy and Comfortable Interior
Inside is the same, beautifully laid out for function, stunningly well put together and detailed, and maybe just a bit too showy for the sports car purist. Again, R8 doesn't do minimalist—the shapes are big, bold, heavily sculpted and picked out with highlights rather than left to hide quietly—so lovely touches like the piano-black lacquered door grabs are genuinely beautiful, but maybe a bit more sedan than supercar.
You couldn't possibly complain about the ergonomics, though—not unless you're a very odd shape indeed. The high-backed, deep-winged sports seats don't only look good, they are comfortable and supportive, and still feel as good after a long day, even after a tire-shredding, side-loading interlude on the track. The driving position is widely adjustable, and even if you're pretty large, you'd be unlucky not to find a near-perfect set-up. Oh, and aside from the inevitable blind spots around the rear quarter pillars, all-round visibility is good for a mid-engine car, too.
It's reasonably practical. The space under the front hood is only claimed to be 100 liters, but it's a luggage-friendly shape, and seems to swallow a surprising amount of soft-shelled traveling kit. There's also a useful space where rear passengers definitely won't go—big enough, they say, for two golf bags, and in fact in Paris they proved it. And there's reasonable oddment space inside, in doors and center console—although the glove box is the usual letterbox-sized excuse for somewhere to keep the handbook and CD changer, leaving no room for much else.
It comes moderately well-loaded, but more so if you don't mind hitting the options list. In the UK we'll get electronic climate control, remote central locking, leather and an MP3-compatible audio system, large color info display, and plenty more as standard. Optionally you can add heated and electrically adjustable seats, stainless steel pedals (another bit of iffy window-dressing), cruise control, navigation, a premium Bang & Olufsen sound system, even a garage-door opener. In fact there's far more than that, but you need a dealer, not a journalist.
What's Under the Shell
And now you'll need to know about the bits that make the R8 a sports car, and they make good reading. They showed us the complex aluminum Audi Space Frame structure in its naked glory with most of the skin peeled away and it is enormously impressive—massively engineered and clearly strong but extremely light, which is the starting point for the R8's very reasonable fighting weight of 1560 kg or 3432 lbs, minus the driver.
On that frame they hang classic double wishbone and coil-spring suspension, massive disc brakes with ABS and ESP stability control, and hydraulically assisted rack and pinion steering, twiddled by a really neat, chunky steering wheel with a flat-bottom just like a race car's. . .
Now look at Audi's launch info and you'll find some significant claims for the dramatic-looking coupe. They describe it as the only production sports car below £120,000 ($240,000) to combine mid-engine and four-wheel drive; they claim the most power in price class; best power to weight ratio in class; the highest revving engine; highest top speed in class; the best acceleration; even the best projected residuals in class.
And there's no doubt that with an entry-level sticker of £75,900 ($151,800) for the UK market, the R8 is aggressively priced—but that "only below £120,000" claim may come as a surprise to Porsche. Their 3.8 Carrera 4S presumably doesn't qualify because its engine is behind the rear axle as well as behind the driver, even though it sits right at the top of Audi's potential rivals list, and in Europe actually costs slightly less than the R8.
So just for the record, that mid-engine all-wheel-drive price reference is obviously to the Lamborghini Gallardo, which like the Audi comes from the VW Group, and uses essentially the same all-wheel-drive system as the R8. In Europe the core version of that costs £121,000.
Power and Performance
But back to the real rivals, and 911 apart, most of the cars Audi cites in the R8's price range are actually front-engine, two-wheel-drive coupes, including the 380-horsepower Aston V8 Vantage, the 420-horsepower Jaguar XKR, the 400-horsepower Maserati Gransport, the 388-horsepower Mercedes SL500, and BMW's 367-horsepower 650i Sport. They actually cost a lot less than the R8 but can't touch it for performance, while the far more powerful BMW M6 costs rather more but gives the R8 a closer run for its money—it's that kind of game.
The 5.0-liter V10-engine M6's 500bhp would have stolen the "most power" crown, and the XKR equals it, but the R8's naturally aspirated 4.2-liter V8 is a superb engine in its own right. The same engine as used in the road-burning RS 4 sedan and Avant (save for a dry sump to squeeze it in low behind the R8 driver), it is light and compact, and gives 420 horsepower at 7800 rpm and 317 lb-ft of torque between 4500 and 6000 rpm. It also looks great through the R8's rear window—to the extent that one of the R8's sillier accessory options is soft blue "mood" lighting for the engine bay, so others can share the V8's glory with you, if only from a distance.
A more significant option is transmission choice—which comes down to six-speed stick-shift or R tronic sequential shift with steering-wheel paddles and a stubby lever to do the manual bit, plus a hatful of electronics to shift automatically if you want to be lazy.
The V8 revs to a heady 8500 rpm and sounds glorious when it's working hard, without being in any way rude enough to be anti-social. Power to weight? Audi quote 269 horsepower per metric ton, which means the M6 would have it beaten again, but not by much, and the R8 comfortably shades the next-best rival XKR's 245 horsepower per metric ton, the Carrera 4S's 241 and 650i's 214.
Supporting the fastest accelerating claim, that gives the R8 a 0-62 mph time of 4.6 seconds. That's most closely rivaled by the Carrera's 4.8, with the 625i (they say) at 5.4. An M6 would also turn 62 mph in 4.8, so you can see that the R8 is pretty quick, and as Audi's first non-restricted production car it comfortably takes the top-speed crown as well, at 187 mph to the Porker's 180 (and most of the others' are limited to 155 mph).
Audi's mighty sports car handles it all with a great deal of composure. The R8 feels staggeringly well-built, giving it an underlying refinement that isn't always a big sports car selling point. Which means you can concentrate on the dynamics without being distracted by the usual little irritations of things that don't quite work, or don't fit nicely, or creak and rattle when you don't need them to. The R8 simply feels as though it's made in one piece, period. It's the single most impressive thing about it.
But it's not the only impressive thing—not by a long shot. That ultramodern, high-revving V8 is now one of the great road car engines, and even greater in the R8 than in the RS 4, just because of where it sits, right behind your neck, and how it sounds in this different installation. It is smooth and absolutely vice free, and it gives the R8 performance to match the looks. Not quite enough to blow you away though—partly, perhaps because of the sheer refinement and super-broad flexibility of it all.
So whatever the figures say, it doesn't feel like it has the instant, borderline savage punch of a 911, but it is seriously strong, and keeps going quicker with a certain relentlessness. In particular, it punches its weight between corners without any drama whatsoever, and that alone sets it apart.
It's driver-friendly, too. The manual is smoother and more involving than the optional sequential-shift R tronic, which is frankly a bit clunky—but the manual has a downside too, because the heavy metal manual gate can make an otherwise lovely shift a bit less friendly, and you know it's essentially there for styling purposes, not engineering.
The brakes, on the other hand are almost beyond criticism, even without the upcoming option of ceramic discs—they're simply big on stopping power, great on pedal feel, and very resistant to heavy use.
And the bit we're always suspicious about when you put it into the sporty context? Well, the best roads around the piece of Nevada outside Las Vegas and up into the stunning scenery around Lake Mead are quite capable of showing up weaknesses in any car, with a mix of challenging twisties and weather-punished surfaces that any test facility would be proud of—but they didn't phase the R8 in the slightest.
Yes, maybe the four-wheel drive takes the ultimate edge out of steering feel, but it stops way short of dulling it, and the R8 is precise, neatly balanced, and with the optional "magnetic ride" variable damping it is impressively supple even on poor surfaces, yet always well-controlled, however hard you push.
At the Las Vegas Speedway
On a deceptively demanding infield course at Las Vegas Speedway, the standard 235/40 front and 285/35R18 rear Pirelli rubber proved to have plenty of grip while the chassis showed few obvious faults. Four-wheel drive gives astonishing traction even under full-bore starts, and the R8 changes direction with little drama and a lot of precision. Push hard enough and the front will wash out, but get the power down and the gradual step out of the rear-end is progressive and predictable.
With 44/56 front/rear weight distribution, long-wheelbase and rear-biased torque split the R8 has a rare balance between comfort, refinement and sports car character. You'll inevitably keep going back to the 911 benchmark and saying that the R8 isn't so raw or ultimately involving, but then nothing else is either, and some people might well prefer the notion of a genuinely quick sports car that's almost as uncomplicated as a sedan.
And in a nutshell, that's what the R8 is—a hugely civilized junior supercar that will have more than enough performance for most people and a character of its own for those who are open-minded enough to look for it. Audi plan to build just 3,000 a year, largely by hand on a special line in Neckarsulm, Germany. Even in Vegas you'd get pretty long odds against that being nearly enough to go round. The 911 might not have to reach for the pipe and slippers yet, but as an all-rounder the R8 will be one more alternative.
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