Unexpected to some, only a matter of time to others. Audi’s mid-engine R8 supercar shocked the world when it was introduced a couple of years ago, and it is still a jaw-dropping anomaly to actually see on the road. Not as ubiquitous as the Porsche 911 and even harder to spot than Aston Martin’s gorgeous V8 Vantage, the Audi R8’s unique sensibility is truly rare. Then again, I don’t know if such an otherworldly design could ever become common.
The R8 probably is a bit of an acquired taste for some. It plays with angles as if it was the love child of a Lamborghini Countach and a Ferrari Testarossa, although its deep four-ringed grille and high-intensity headlamps topped off with LED eyebrows mean that from the front at least it can only be an Audi. It’s the two black strikethroughs front and rear that remind us of a Testarossa and the slant-nose of a 911 Turbo, circa the eighties. These details are complemented by radical “side blades” that can be ordered in body colour, in contrasting hues and shades, in an aluminum finish, or in carbon fibre. They give it a smart-car-gone-ballistic look, a sci-fi robotized, exoskeletal animality that’s anything but friendly, making the R8 one of the most daring rides I’ve come across in years.
Its 420-horsepower direct-injection V8 is daring enough, too, and while its go-fast output and accompanying 317 pound-feet of torque might not get exotic car buyers all that excited, it certainly overwhelms its main competitor, Porsche’s standard 911, by 75 horsepower and close to 45 pound-feet of torque. To be fair to the 911, the R8 is about 200 kilograms heavier at 1,560 kilograms, which definitely gives it a different feel on the road. But the Audi is all-wheel drive, so a fair comparison would have to include the Porsche 911 C4’s added weight. Nevertheless, Porsche has little to worry about; they own Audi through its Volkswagen AG majority share holdings, and therefore celebrate any success the Ingolstadt brand enjoys. And furthermore, no matter how good the R8 is, the 911 will continue to sell circles around it, due to a more practical 2+2 configuration (or at least better stowage), a lower initial price point, and the very fact that it’s a Porsche—not to mention the very real fact that Audi has only built the R8 in exclusively limited numbers.
Ultimately, the R8 is a feast for the technologically famished.
The two cars drive very differently, other than a penchant for trail braking, something the mid-engine R8 does very well. I found out while high-speed testing it on the inner track at the Las Vegas International Raceway, after an agonizingly slow pace (except for a few “throw my license to the wind” high-speed jaunts) set through Nevada’s heavily policed Valley of Fire State Park. Whether flicking the sequential manual’s paddle-shifters or the R8’s standard Ferrari-esque aluminum gate for the six-speed manual, it’s a responsive powertrain that suits the car well. Although, the new R8 V10 5.2 FSI, with its 525-horsepower ten-cylinder mill, plucked straight out of a Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4, would be all that much better.
Ultimately, the R8 is a feast for the technologically famished. Its lightweight aluminum space frame structure and skin amounts to only 210 kilograms of aluminum extrusions, castings and panels, all held together by almost a hundred metres of seam welds, 382 self-tapping screws and 782 punch rivets. Inside, the R8 is equally advanced, although optional brown tones for the leather seats and trim exude visual warmth that its sport-focused wrap-around “monoposto” gauge cluster, centre stack and lower console desperately try to expel. The quality is near perfect and overall refinement is top of class. The optional 12-speaker, 465-watt Bang & Olufsen stereo is also a nice touch.
Exclusive, exotic and bloody well brilliant, the R8 is a car that few can rival. It’s a significant addition to what is already an impressive Audi line-up, capping off the four-ringed brand in perfect style.
Photos: Audi and Empire One Car