Time was that if you wanted a proper supercar, you went to the Italians -- Ferrari or Lamborghini. But for 2008, German automaker Audi has introduced their first mid-engine supercar, the R8. With a 420 horsepower V8 nestled behind the passenger compartment, all-wheel-drive, and a shape to die for, the 2008 Audi R8 sure has the right resume. But how does it work in real life -- is this the stuff of which dreams are made? Read on. $112,100 base (including destination and gas guzzler tax), $133,045 as tested, EPA fuel economy estimates 13 MPG city, 19-20 highway.
First Glance: Fourteen again
When I first booked the R8 for a test drive, I vowed I would write a serious review. I'd talk about turn-in understeer and trailing-throttle oversteer and all sorts of high-end performance-related stuff. I'd write as if I drove Lamborghinis and Ferraris and Moslers every day, and the R8 was just another supercar, and, at $112k, a deeply-discounted one at that. Ho-hum, just another day at the office.
All that went out the window the moment the R8 arrived. I instantly turned into a 14-year-old with his bedroom walls covered in posters of Countaches and Samantha Fox. (I grew up in the 80s.) Even now, as I sit here at the keyboard, all I can think is Holy cow, there's an Audi R8 in my driveway! How cool is that? (The answer, by the way, is REALLY FRICKIN' COOL.)
Never mind how fast it is (very). Never mind how well it handles (unbelievable). Never mind how beautiful it is (breathtaking). As I drove the R8, my left brain would ask questions like "Do I detect a bit of front differential binding in sharp turns?" to which my right brain would answer "I'm driving an R8, this is so awesome!"
Bear in mind that the R8 makes it easy to spend all of one's time reveling in its coolness, because it's so incredibly easy to live with. By definition, supercars are temperamental beasts that buck at anything but the open road. Not the R8. You can get in and tell it "We're just going to run down the street to pick up a quart of milk," and it'll say "Sounds good to me," and go about the job with the ease and convenience of a Honda Civic.
In the Driver's Seat: A car you can live with
Once I stumbled inside -- getting in and out of low-slung coupes like the R8 is never easy; I don't know how the Beautiful People do it, perhaps there's a special class -- I really liked what I saw. The R8's cabin bears a strong resemblance to other Audis, for better or for worse. Better: Top-notch materials that befit a six-figure car -- no cheap plastic anywhere. And the R8 has inherited some of Audi's best interior bits such as the 3-dial climate controls (link goes to photo) and navigation directions displayed right on the instrument panel. (That said, it uses the old red-and-black display, not the color screen found in other new (and less pricey) Audi models.) Worse: It still uses the Multi Media Interface to control the stereo and navigation, which takes way too much attention from the road. And the R8 has a few foibles of its own, like cramped footwells and tiny sun visors that don't swing out to the side.
For the most part, though, the R8 is quite comfortable. The driving position is low, but visibility is surprisingly good to the front, rear and sides, though forget about seeing over your shoulder. Despite having an optional backup camera, if you have to back out of a parking spot, your best bet is to take it slow and hope other drivers stop to stare at the car. (Most will.)
Since the R8's engine is where the trunk ought to be, the R8 has a small (6.7 cubic foot) cargo bay in its nose, plus a small shelf behind the front seats. My wife Robin and I were able to pack enough for a long weekend trip to Arizona, but it was a tight squeeze.
On the Road: Power and glory
The R8 is powered by Audi's venerable 4.2 liter V8; it employs the high-revving 420 horsepower version found in the RS4. What makes the R8's engine unique among Audis is that it's in the back, driving all four wheels through either a six-speed manual transmission or a version of the Audi/VW Direct Shift Gearbox called R-Tronic. R-Tronic is a fully-automated transmission that has the guts of a manual (two manuals, actually -- for more on how R-Tronic works, go here). Audi offered me my choice of transmissions, and while I know that R-Tronic actually makes the car faster, the idea of driving an R8 without a clutch pedal felt like a sacrilege -- so I opted for the stick-shift with it's Ferrari-like gated shifter that clack-clack-clacks through the gears.
The engine does its best work at high RPMs, but thanks to the R8's short gearing you'll be at 3,000 RPM at just 15 MPH in 1st. Audi claims a 0-60 time of 4.4 seconds. That's about a third of a second behind the Lamborghini Gallardo, but it's still pretty darn fast. And the sound at wide-open thottle is simply marvelous.
Handling? Oh, brother. With the magnetic suspension in Sport mode (which makes the stiff ride considerably stiffer), I drove the About.com Cars Top Secret Curvy Test Road fast enough to scare myself and still never tripped the electronic stability control system. It became clear that my bladder would give up its hold before the tires would. If you do get the R8 to slip -- which I did, just once -- it's rear-biased power output means it'll power-slide just like a proper rear-drive supercar. Way cool.
Journey's End: A supercar for the common man (provided he's uncommonly rich)
My week with the R8 included an 800-mile round trip to see my folks in Phoenix. Again, the R8 amazed my wife and I with how well it handled such a mundane task. We found the R8 comfortable and, aside from lots of tire noise on rough roads, pretty quiet. I'll plead the fifth on how fast we drove, but I was amazed by the fuel economy: Nearly 20 MPG.
And that's what makes the Audi R8 such a fantastic car. It's not that it looks like a supermodel, or that it goes like a scalded dog, or that it clings to the road like Velcro. What makes the Audi R8 so awesome is that it does all that, yet it still works as a regular daily driver. I could see myself commuting daily through Los Angeles traffic in an Audi R8, and having no complaints save gas mileage (around 12 MPG in town, not a problem if you can afford the R8's four-figure car payment).
The R8 ain't cheap ($112k and no standard navigation system? Cripes!), but it's a bargain by supercar standards: $70k less than a new Lambo and $65k less than a Ferrari. And it's not like you're getting a cut-rate knock-off, either -- Audi owns Lamborghini, and the R8 shares its basic layout (and a few of its parts) with the Gallardo. It looks as good, sounds as good, and gets just as much positive attention from valet attendants and passers-by.
No doubt about it: The R8 is a proper supercar. And it's a great one at that, because you can enjoy its awesomeness every single day. Hmm... I think it's time to ask About.com for a raise. A big one. -- Aaron Gold