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The Audi R8 racing car has won five times at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and finished first in an amazing 62 of 79 international endurance races. Audi's first super sports car for the street takes the R8 name, challenging the Ferrari F430 and others, although, at a price that's at least $70,000 less, it might be no contest.
The Audi R8 features an exotic aluminum space frame, and a mid-mounted compact V8 engine making 420 horsepower. The most stunning feature is the clear Lexan cover over the engine, with LED lighting to show it off. The R8's skin was designed for efficient aerodynamics, by the same team of engineers who designed the R8 racing car; an underbody diffuser creates downforce to keep the R8 on the ground at its top speed of 187 miles per hour. It will accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds.
Despite this performance capability, any little old lady could drive the R8 around on the street. It's that tame. She could probably even crawl in and out herself, and once she got in the cockpit, she would be comfortable. The R8 has every creature comfort of a luxury car, including excellent legroom, and many options, from a navigation system to a 12-speaker, 465-watt sound system. There's decent luggage space under the hood in front, and a lot of space behind the seats.
Two transmissions are offered, a six-speed manual and high-tech six-speed R-Tronic, which is a manual transmission with no clutch pedal, that can be shifted either with paddle shifters, a lever, or by automatic mode. This transmission works best when the car is being driven near its maximum; at casual speeds, it's inconsistent and jerky.
The brakes are race-worthy, and a bit sensitive at slow speeds. The shock absorbers adjust to the road conditions, and the ride can be set in two modes, Comfort and Sport; in either mode it's firm but never harsh. The cornering, with inherent ideal balance and quattro all-wheel drive, is in a class by itself.
What makes the R8 exceptional is that it does it all: incredible high performance without making any compromises for civility and comfort.
Audi has tried to separate the R8 from the mid-engine supercar crowd, styling-wise. That very small crowd includes the V8 Ferrari F430 and V10 Lamborghini Gallardo, on which the R8 is based, thanks to a partnership and platform-sharing between Lamborghini and Audi.
Standing alone, the R8 looks eminently supercar-ish. But when you hold the R8 up against the Gallardo, what you see is a former sleek Italian beauty that has unfortunately been made dumpy. Go ahead, compare profile shots of the two cars and see if you don't agree.
True, the Gallardo costs many thousands more, but it's unclear how much of that cost is from cleaner sheetmetal.
But before we pick on the R8's looks, it should be pointed out that it was designed in part by the same team who designed the R8 racing car. So it's about function, specifically aerodynamic function. The Gallardo is more about show, the R8 about go (though we're not suggesting the Gallardo doesn't go).
There are a few things that don't help the R8's sleekness. First, the huge grille. We understand that this has become the Audi image, not unlike the Dodge macho crosshair grille. But no grille can possibly work on every shape. Yet here is that big black grille, on the lowest and sleekest Audi of all. The chrome ring around it doesn't help.
The front fenders are edged and sort of flared, as if Audi was taking design cues from the Mazda RX-8 instead of the Gallardo. But no, again, the design cues come from the wind tunnel. Inside the fully exposed wheelwells are good-looking 10-spoke (twin fives) 19-inch alloy wheels, spindly enough so the black brake calipers are clearly visible.
There is also the theme of horizontal black slats, three big ones under each headlight and four under each taillight. The otherwise meaningless 14 slats do make the R8 look different. They don't make it any better looking.
Then there's what Audi calls the sideblade. One sideblade on each side of the car covers the engine's air intakes. It's more of a plate than a blade, a patch of contrasting color behind the door, that is two feet wide and sweeps back and up to the roofline, abruptly ending that roofline, to the eye. It's that contrasting color part that's too much. You'd think the 14 black horizontal slats would be enough distinction. If you get a black R8 with a carbon-fiber sideblade, you almost can't see it. That's better.
The angular tail of the Gallardo rises behind the rear wheels, and the rounded tail of the R8 sags. The Gallardo's butt would look fabulous in jeans, the R8's not. But the double twin exhausts coming out of the R8 bodywork are cool.
The best feature of the R8 is the engine under glass. Lexan, to be precise, and it's glowed upon by LED lighting. You can look right down on the compact double-overhead-cam V8, with its carbon fiber and silver-screen components. It's a beautiful installation, a work of art.
The cockpit of the Audi R8 shows its true intentions even better than the exterior. It's more for gentlemen than drivers (which is not to say it's not superb on the track, see below). Proof of this is the fact that two golf bags can fit behind the seats. We guess this is a plus. It might come from the R8 being shaped like a racing car, with what used to be called a cab forward design, on a long wheelbase of 104.3 inches.
We can't understand why the gauges and instrumentation aren't cleaner or racier (but they are nicely backlit). They could be transplanted into a common luxury car.
We like the flat-bottomed steering wheel, allowing more kneeroom. And there's an excellent digital speed readout, between the tach on left and speedometer on the right. The numbers are big and red, and you can read them in the sun.
Even when the seats are slid all the way back, there's still room for a briefcase, also leaving tons of passenger legroom, although the wheelwell extends into the foot area. For the driver, the dead pedal squeezes the clutch or brake pedal.
There's a small oval rearview mirror that's almost retro, with good visibility through the glass out over the engine and tail. It's auto-dimming and anti-glare, with a digital compass display that's bright red and too big; it keeps catching your eye and making you think for a split second that you've been busted. How do these things get past Audi's own testers?
The bucket seats, most gorgeous in rich brown Alcantara leather, for that extra $5500, are easy to climb into, by plunking your butt down at 90 degrees to the car and then swinging your legs in. Reverse the process to climb back out, although you have to lift your butt over the hip bolstering; you can't just slide out, although there's a grab handle down by your knee that you can use to push on.
The seats are not as well-fitting as those in the Audi S6 with the V10 engine, and other high-performance Audi sedans that use the same seats. Shouldn't the most super car have the most super seats? But it does seem that the longer you're in them, the better they feel, though still only okay.
The dash is dominated by more horizontal slats, for the vents. The center stack slopes away from the driver at an angle, like an off-the-shoulder blouse. The optional navigation system usefully includes gas stations. The controls are simple, or can be, compared to other luxury Audis. Climate, for example, can be controlled by actual knobs. There are also steering wheel controls.
The cabin is well-finished. Ours had aluminum inlays on the doors and around the navigation screen, as well as some vinyl in shades of gray and black, and aluminum elsewhere. The headliner was a Cordova-like material, not expensive looking but nice in black. Alcantara leather is an optional headliner material. Expensive looking.
There are a few cubbies, both on the center stack and in the doors where there are long narrow pockets. The passenger's left elbow may fall into a big cupholder, while the driver's right elbow rests on the padded brake lever. There's no center console compartment, and the optional 6CD changer lies between the seatbacks.
The trunk in front has a capacity of 3.5 cubic feet, which is more than it sounds. With another 3.2 cubic feet behind the seats, there's plenty of room for a road trip for two.
We got about a dozen laps in the Audi R8 at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California, and despite what we said about the interior being designed for gentlemen rather than drivers, we have to say that the R8 might feel better on the track than it does on the road, at least with the R-Tronic sequential manual gearbox. Not that it doesn't feel good on the road, because this supercar is totally civilized, except for the rough R-Tronic. And it's versatile, with shock absorbers (and the R-Tronic) that have two electronic settings, for Sport and not Sport. We also got about 200 wonderful miles on northern California freeways and uncrowded winding roads.
The engine is eminently drivable at around-town speeds, and understated at cruising speeds. Yet it's a racing-bred engine, aluminum block and heads, and a dry-sump oil system that only racing engines have. Above cruising speeds, redline is a fantastic 8250 rpm, where the rev limiter makes a gentle sputter.
But the Ferrari F430 has a better howl, and the Corvette Z06 a better rumble. Even the Audi RS4, using the same engine as the R8, has a better growl. That's a letdown. Maybe it's because you hear so much intake noise from the R8 engine, located behind your ears.
And it's not just from the driver's seat; when the R8 is being revved across a parking lot, it might not even catch your ear as something exotic. It's got almost a whizz, as if there were fans in the exhaust pipes. There are actual valves in the exhaust system that only open up under full throttle, which explains its understated rumble. When cruising, there's a slight hiss in your left ear from wind noise, but it's forgotten.
The R8 does roar when you floor it, and it takes off like a rocket. It will accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about 4.4 seconds. That's slower than a Porsche 911 Turbo, Lamborghini Gallardo or Corvette Z06, but faster than almost anything else you could name. And besides, who's counting. Not Audi. They're boasting about the incredible aluminum space frame, and rightly so.
This engine is a high revver. We can't believe we're about to quibble with the torque, when there are 317 pound-feet of it, but if you want to pass a car going uphill at 3000 rpm in fifth gear and feel too lazy to downshift, the R8 won't take off like a rocket. That's because those full 317 pounds aren't reached until 4500 rpm. We don't know how much torque is available at 3000 rpm, but even 4000 rpm isn't quite enough; we floored it at 4000 rpm in third gear, and then 5000 rpm in third, and there's a big difference.
The R-Tronic transmission works better on the track than it does on the street, because the faster it shifts, the better it feels. Around town, the shifts aren't very smooth, whether you're making them yourself or leaving it in the automatic mode. There's rocking with each shift, because of the pause and grab. Audi's similar DSG, or Direct Shift Gearbox, as used in the A3 (and VW GTI and R32) is beautifully smooth; but it won't hold up against this much horsepower. Hence, the R-Tronic.
The shifts are smoother when it's not in Sport mode, but not smooth enough to solve the problem. And in fact, to set the transmission in automatic and sport is incompatible. It contradicts the car's senses (sensors), and doesn't complement any rational driving style. If you're going for sport mode, you want to be in manual.
In automatic, the program reads your alleged driving style at any given moment, but not very well. It's impossible to say here when the shifts take place, because they keep changing. We watched once, between redlights, and the R8 upshifted at 12 mph, 18 mph, 26, 34 and into sixth gear at 45 mph. Not what we would have chosen. Another time it hit sixth gear before 40 mph. And then it wouldn't kick down when more gas was applied.
When it kicks down in automatic, it sounds an
In the category of mid-engined supercars for less than $120,000, the Audi R8 stands alone. Many components are stupendous. The aluminum space frame, the eight-piston front and four-piston rear disc brakes, the underbody diffuser to keep it from flying away at its top speed of 187 mph. The high-revving and compact 4.2-liter V8 lives in a Lexan house and under LED spotlights. The R8 offers every creature comfort and is totally tame around town. It seems almost unkind to point out that it?s not as shapely as its Italian cousin the Lamborghini Gallardo, and its voice isn't as sexy as that of its sister the Audi RS 4. The biggest drawback might be its highest-tech component, the R-Tronic transmission, whose shifts are jerky and inconsistent on the street. But the six-speed manual gearbox costs $9000 less anyhow.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses drove the R8 in California's Wine Country and filed this report from Sonoma.
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