Short Take Road Test: 2008 Audi R8
This 2008 review is representative of model years 2008 to 2012.
By Barry Winfield of Car and Driver
Some people may be tempted to dismiss Audi's R8 mid-engined supercar as a reskinned Lamborghini Gallardo. The format is just so similar, and Audi already makes the Gallardo's body in one of its aluminum-space-frame facilities. Besides, with a history of intelligent platform sharing under its belt, why wouldn't Audi simply indulge in a little badge engineering?
The answer is simple: Audi is a company on a mission. Remember — this carmaker revolutionized rallying with its Quattro and then later turned the 24 Hours of Le Mans into a company picnic, with five victories scored by this new car's namesake. Audi also kick-started a design renaissance with the first TT and prompted an entire industry to look at vehicle interiors in a different light. What's left to do? Well, Audi would love to steal a larger share of the luxury-sedan market, and it would certainly like to stick it to Ferrari and Porsche in the segments those companies rule.
That's a tough objective, but if the R8 is anything to go by, don't dismiss the idea as pie in the sky. For one thing, the R8's versatile nature reminds us more of Ferrari's F430 than it does the more-or-less relentlessly severe Gallardo. This is not a car that gets in your face the whole time you're in it. When equipped with the stock suspension or the optional adjustable magnetic shocks, the R8 will cruise the freeway with as little ride disruption and mechanical commotion as an A4.
Yet at speed the R8 gathers itself into a tautly controlled crouch, heading where it's pointed with remarkable precision and exhibiting none of the propensity for snap rotation that some mid-engined cars have made famous. Some of its stability is from the unequal tire sizes, and some, no doubt, is from the Quattro all-wheel-drive system that has a default rear-wheel torque bias of 90 percent. The viscous-coupling center differential will never furnish more than 35 percent of available power to the front axle when it detects slip at the rear, preserving a strong rear-drive character in almost all circumstances.
This leaves the flat-bottomed steering wheel calm and nearly free of front-drive contamination. Sure, there's enough load increase in turns to inform the driver of events at the front wheels, but the leather rim is almost devoid of vibration and kickback shock. It's so good that we'll undoubtedly hear criticism aimed at the mechanism for being isolated and uninvolved. It really is not. The steering on this car is for the finely tuned driver rather than those who require feedback at 7.6 on the Richter scale.
But don't mistake this for a luxury coupe. The mid-mounted, direct-injected V-8 is borrowed from the heavy-breathing RS 4, but with dry-sump lubrication for its new low-slung duty. Mounted so that its throttle-body intakes face rearward, meeting ducts that loop around from big intake slots ahead of the R8's signature "side blades," the V-8 is actually offset from the center line to package the all-wheel drivetrain.
The transmission mounts behind the rear axle, and a shaft runs forward through the engine's sump to power the front axle. Audi needed space for that arrangement. But Audi has camouflaged the offset effect carefully with engine-bay hardware that makes the view through the glass hatch appear symmetrical. You need to check the position of the four-ring insignia on the car's tail to confirm that the engine is shaded to the right.
No one should doubt that the direct-injection V-8 is intended to be on display to passersby, and there is even LED lighting in the engine bay to enhance the effect at night. Ferrari makes a big deal of its F430 engine, too, particularly with the Spider version. Coincidence? Not likely, given that Audi's V-8 is as much aluminum sculpture as it is machine, and it is dressed accordingly, with considerable attention paid to its dual role as window model.
Interior and Performance
European buyers can choose a pair of aggressive sport seats as an option, but they don't meet U.S. airbag regulations, so we get the standard ones, with less-prominent hip bolsters. This driver, for one, is grateful. The standard seats already suspend big-framed drivers from the hips, producing joint pain within 100 miles. But they're nicely supportive and should prove comfortable for average-size occupants.
Audi chose to forgo the keyless ignition nonsense for a conventional steering-column-mounted switch. The effect is nonetheless pretty amazing, as the engine spins to life with vehement energy, blurting a baritone roar before settling to a pulsing idle. Throttle response off idle is instant and muscular, making rev-matching exercises easy for those who choose the metal-gated six-speed Graziano box over Audi's paddle-shifted R tronic servo-manual. Which, of course, does all that stuff for you.
We tested an R tronic model at Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch in Pahrump, Nevada, and managed to achieve the benchmark 0-to-60-mph sprint in 4.0 seconds. Audi claims a 0-to-62-mph (100 km/h) time of 4.6 seconds, which sounds decidedly conservative compared with our data. The drill for maximum performance is to engage the launch-control function by braking and selecting the R tronic sport setting. This allows the engine to rev up to about 5000 rpm before you release the brake and it dumps the clutch. This produces brief wheelspin at all four corners before the car regains traction and rockets off to a quarter-mile time of 12.6 seconds at 113 mph.
We expect the manual-gearbox car to equal this performance, but the driver's technique will need to be similar to the program used by R tronic. As usual with these things, R tronic provides the sort of convenience you expect from an automatic transmission. Unfortunately, R tronic uses a single clutch, not the double clutch of the stellar Audi S tronic automated manual (known as DSG at VW) and is therefore not as smooth. Shove the selector to the left, and the transmission goes into automatic mode, but a nudge at the paddles or the selector lever itself quickly reasserts manual control. Since the steering-wheel paddles rotate with the wheel, making them difficult to differentiate when all crossed up in a mountain switchback, we found the console selector to be a handy alternative.
However, it was less intuitive when making quick three-point turns. Because you need your foot on the brake to engage a forward gear after shifting out of reverse, the transition sometimes had us revving fruitlessly in neutral while trying to get out of the way of oncoming traffic.
It doesn't happen that often, and perhaps increasing familiarity with the car would inculcate the correct operating habits. But given the smooth and precise way the manual shifter navigates its artfully convex metal maze, that option might be a better solution. We certainly preferred the stick when circulating a handling track at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where having to do one's own footwork provided a clear idea of this car's formidable integration.
The Quattro drivetrain and the limited-slip rear diff work transparently when the car is running hard, balancing the control sense between quick directional response and adequate yaw damping. A lack of mass on the nose lets this car dig in harder than you might expect when turning, and it was only on one fast, opening-radius turn that hard acceleration had the front wheels pushing into mild understeer.
But don't just take our word for it. Audi had race driver Jacky Ickx on hand to show us how it's done. He's in his early 60s now, and this six-time Le Mans winner and 25-time Formula 1 podium finisher hasn't forgotten a thing on the track. As he launched the car into Audi's cone-lined autocross course at the Vegas track, it was as if he were back in a race car, eager for one more podium waltz. He was at full throttle off the line, the 4.2-liter V-8 behind us issuing a staccato snarl. After that it was rapidly alternating surges of big power or crushing deceleration as he braked hard for the turns. This intense activity was accompanied by emphatic and decisive inputs at the steering wheel and with continual tiny sawing corrections as he felt for grip.
Okay, we had all been trying to do something pretty much like that, but Ickx was sliding more, and he was definitely faster. There's nothing like a paid professional to impress writers, but none of us really needed Ickx behind the wheel to see that this new-generation, mid-engined sports car has dynamic qualities that make the once-supreme Acura NSX feel downright unstable in comparison.
Okay, that's an old car. Even compared with a contemporary rival — a Porsche 911, say — the R8 has stability that makes driving at the limit feel easy, with little of the tight-laced discipline that causes the 911 to get bouncy and sudden in extreme situations, and certainly none of the reminders the Porsche provides about an inequitable weight distribution. At 44/56 front-to-rear, the Audi R8 feels just about perfectly balanced, given its all-wheel-drive system, larger rear tires, and 3500 pounds. Not to mention the centralization of the heaviest parts, the reduction of unsprung mass by using aluminum suspension components, and an obsessive attitude to weight wherever it is found. As a matter of fact, the word "weight" is mentioned 25 times in the company's press material, usually in reference to how little there is.
At about 3500 pounds, the R8 is 500 pounds heavier than an Acura NSX, so it doesn't take all the Weight Watcher prizes, but it does have four-wheel drive and meets current and foreseeable crash standards. Not to mention the battery of airbags and belt tensioners and the comprehensive equipment specifications, including high-end stereo systems and copious high-grade leather surfaces. Besides, with 420 horsepower and 317 pound-feet of torque, the R8 is carrying considerably more muscle along for the ride.
The claimed 187-mph top speed would likely be higher, but the aerodynamic profile of this car is intended to generate downforce as well as knife through the atmosphere. Its drag coefficient of 0.34 is respectable, given the inevitable drag produced by underbody diffusers and the auto-deploying tail spoiler that pops up at 75 mph and then sinks at speeds below 50 mph. Like all high-power sports cars, the R8's appetite for air is enormous, and the management of air passing through the various coolers, past the brakes, and into the engine is a complicated challenge. The Audi gulps cooling air through huge front intakes and then channels it to the flat underbody via numerous vents and slots. You just know the Le Mans experience was brought to bear here. If these conduits posed potential noise problems, the R8's tranquil passage through the air suggests they were efficiently dealt with.
Certainly, in the area of brake cooling, race expertise pays off. At Las Vegas speedway, there was little recovery time for the brakes after some hard use, and even the cars fitted with steel discs showed no signs of distress. Ceramic brakes are to be offered in Europe, but they won't be available initially when the R8 arrives in the States this summer. No autobahns, see, and our slow traffic conditions tend to promote squeal with ceramic rotors.
Another option not available immediately is the LED headlight system on the Le Mans show concept, but the bixenon units supplied normally are framed by LEDs, and the taillights use similar technology. Options that will come our way include a choice of body color; carbon-fiber or metal side blades; and carbon-fiber, piano-finish, or various leather surfaces for the car's interior.
It remains to be seen whether cars shipped to the U.S. will have, as standard equipment, the 19-inch wheels and Pirelli P Zero tires that are options elsewhere or come standard with 18-inchers. It also remains to be seen whether the forecast base price of $110,000 will pertain. If it does, the R8 will compete directly against the Porsche 911 GT3 rather than the 911 Carrera S we have posed as its iconic target. That's tough company, but we bet Audi relishes the contest.