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So this is it, the moment of truth. The day we discover whether Audi really has managed to build a car capable of beating the 911 at its own game.
We knew the day would come, but I don’t think we expected it to come in Las Vegas, Nevada. Land of the endless straight road and Highway Patrol officers who are as proficient with a radar gun as they are with a handgun, it’s not the ideal launch venue for a 187mph mid-engined supercar. Or rather it would be if it weren’t for the fear of incarceration that sweeps through you every time you prod the throttle.
There’s a greater irony attached to launching the R8 in Vegas, but it emerges only after we’ve checked in to our hotel. A huge and lavish affair, it’s a convincing facsimile of an Italian Renaissance villa. However, when you get up close, it’s clear the hotel developer doesn’t ‘do’ flaking grandeur, and it’s this perfection, not to mention the replica Pontevecchio complete with obligatory Wedding Chapel, that betray its artificiality. The fact that it also sits on the shores of ‘Lake Las Vegas’ – a super-sized Charlie Dimmock-style water feature – despite being in the middle of the desert only cements the whole sense of unreality. As you soon come to learn in Vegas, nothing is as it seems.
So what of the R8? Will it possess authentic, enthralling dynamics to match the slinky mid-engined styling, or fall foul of Audi’s oft-cited lack of passion? More crucially, are we really looking at a genuine, no-excuses alternative to the Porsche 911, or another promising challenger that ultimately falls wide of the mark?
In the cold – and I mean cold – light of a near-freezing Nevada morning, the R8 immediately answers one question: namely, does it fulfil the abundant promise of early pre-drive pictures? The answer is an emphatic yes, for the R8 is imposing and supremely aggressive. It’s exciting and unconventional too, studded with bold touches and sexy details. There’s certainly plenty to take in, and a few things to get used to, but the overriding impression remains one of purity, cohesion and originality. Given Porsche’s predilection for unembellished, pebble-smooth and increasingly predictable forms, the R8 really grabs your attention and holds it.
Following time-honoured launch ritual, we’re ushered to our car and given a short pre-flight briefing. Unique amongst the launch fleet, our test car is an interesting mixture of standard and optional hardware: standard six-speed manual transmission, cast-iron brakes and gorgeous 19in alloys, supplemented by optional switchable magnetic dampers at £1350 and the £1500 carbonfibre ‘sideblade’ (the carapace-like panel that sits behind the doors). All the others are fitted with the paddle-shift ‘R tronic’ transmission, reflecting Audi’s expectation that as many as 90 per cent of R8s will come equipped with R tronic. But we’re not disappointed to be shifting with a stick; the UK market remains the last bastion of drivers who enjoy the added interaction of changing gear manually.
At £76,725, this manual R8 is way more expensive than a 911 Carrera 4S (£72K), let alone a Carrera S. The £81,925 R tronic version is more closely aligned to the pricing of Aston’s V8 Vantage (£82K). While that’s to be expected from a product that’s hand-built in small numbers (a maximum of 15 cars per day – that’s 3000 per year – will emerge from the specially constructed block at Audi’s Neckarsulm plant) it’s disappointing that yet another purported 911 rival strategically sidesteps a genuine head-to-head battle through bullish pricing.
Open the driver’s door and the R8 does a great job of justifying the asking price. The driving position is excellent, the sense of space impressive, and the use of contrasting materials and bold design make it the most exciting Audi interior by quite a margin. In fact it’s right up there with Aston Martin. The stainless steel pedals, aluminium gearlever and knurled rotary controls shine brightly against the high-gloss piano black centre console and door pulls (these can also be had in optional carbonfibre), creating an exciting, supercar-like environment while retaining the uncompromising quality and logical layout you’d expect from an Audi. A Gallardo owner will certainly feel like the poor relation. A 911 owner will weep.
It all comes at a price, though, for another quick glance through the extensive options list reveals that the satnav, Bang & Olufsen stereo, full leather upholstery, Alcantara headlining, hill-hold assist, acoustic parking system, electric heated seats and even the Daytona Grey paint fitted to our car are all cost options, which together add the best part of another £9500. Combine this with the carbon sideblade and magnetic dampers and you’re looking at an £88,500 R8. As none of these options is what you’d call an extravagant choice (for that you want the £2750 carbon engine cover complete with Pimp My Ride engine bay illumination package) there really is every chance people will be blowing around £100K on fully-loaded R tronic models. That’s not just 911 money, that’s 911 Turbo money.
So Audi hasn’t been shy with the pricing. Question is, can the R8 live up to the 911-beating claims? Settled behind the wheel, and with a hot tip for a great road that’s not on the prescribed launch route, it’s time to find out.
You start the R8 with a key, rather than with a starter button as you do in the RS4 and even the Q7. This seems perversely conventional for Audi’s first out-and-out sports car, but it matters little once the 4.2-litre, 414bhp V8 engine has spun busily on the starter motor. It fires with an encouragingly vocal bark: not as exuberantly as Aston’s pumped-up fanfare, true, but with smile-inducing gusto nonetheless.
Smoother, more isolated and less animalistic than a Gallardo’s V10, but more intimate and muscular than a 911’s outboard flat-six, the R8’s soundtrack is civilised at idle but simmers with potency and responds immediately to every blip of the throttle. The clutch is light and progressive, the open-gate gearshift similarly delicate. With the V8’s abundant torque, even at idle speed, it’s easy to shuffle the R8 around the car park, which bodes well for its billing as an everyday supercar, and even at such low speed you know you’re in something genuinely special.
Once out of the hotel compound and onto the wide, smooth interstate freeway heading for Boulder City, the sense of occasion intensifies as the R8 settles into a satisfyingly broad-shouldered, no-nonsense gait. You can feel the structural rigidity of the aluminium spaceframe (ASF) chassis and the uncompromisingly sporting bias to the springs and dampers, but while a certain amount of road noise is transmitted around the bodyshell, there’s a subtle, rounded feel to the ride that smooths the sharpest edges off the road’s imperfections without isolating you from what’s going on.
We’re heading away from downtown Las Vegas and the vulgarity of The Strip, shunning the sleazy, cheesy succession of surreal hotel and casino complexes in favour of the naked, parched desert from which Vegas sprouted like some genetically-modified adults-only Disneyland. It’s out here you’ll discover Nevada’s true heritage: lonely, lawless one-horse mining towns like Nelson, which sprung up during the gold rush of the 1860s. Towns that also witnessed bloody clashes between miners and the indigenous Native American tribes.
Now, a century-and-a-half later, we’re pleased to discover that Nelson, and the El Dorado Canyon in which it sits, appear to be as lawless as ever. It’s also an invigorating contrast to the endless, perfectly surfaced interstate, which reveals little of the R8’s character or ability, other than the fact that it sounds busier than it should at an 80mph cruise. Out here, on the coarse, sun-baked and sinuous canyon tarmac, we’ve got the perfect opportunity to stretch the R8 and get a feel for whether it has the killer-instinct to claim a few scalps of its own.
At 1560kg, the R8 is 90kg heavier than a Carrera 4S and 10kg heavier than a V8 Vantage, but counters with a significant power and torque advantage, with peaks of 414bhp at 7800rpm and 317lb ft at 4500rpm. What you feel is big-capacity muscle combined with relentless, high-revving urgency. First through to fourth gears are all tightly stacked, and on one of the long, straight inclines we see an easy 140mph, the R8 punching convincingly forwards with each upshift. It’s a bigger step from fourth to fifth, and you notice the V8 dropping off the boil slightly as it digs deeper to get on top of the taller ratio. We ran out of road to explore sixth, but given that we were accelerating uphill there’s little reason to doubt that the slippery-shaped Audi will be good for the claimed top speed of 187mph.
Further into the canyon we find a great sequence of corners, which the R8 happily peels into in fourth at 90mph. The steering – so often a source of disappointment in fast Audis – shares the precision and ease of the other major controls. There’s a clarity and linearity that make the R8 an intuitive car to guide. No jumpy turn-in, no dead on-centre feel, no artificial weighting. You guide it to the apex with your eyes rather than your hands, almost imperceptible steering inputs matching your plotted trajectory. It’s a poised, fluid sensation, and one that’s increased by the sense of confidence and connection you get through the steering.
With a 44:56 weight distribution front to rear, the R8 has just the right degree of polar inertia to feel alert without feeling nervous or twitchy. Naturally, Audi has equipped the R8 with all-wheel drive, but it’s not something you’re conscious of, and it certainly doesn’t intrude on the driving experience, even through the tighter, twistier corners that we discover next. As confidence builds with each run past Andy Morgan’s Nikon, it feels more and more natural to play with the R8’s cornering balance, initially once we’re into the heart of the corner, eventually finding sufficient trust in the R8 to pitch it in and provoke the tail into oversteer.
With plenty of sticky rubber, state-of-the-art magnetic dampers a la Ferrari 599, and legendary quattro all-wheel drive, we’d expected terrific lateral grip and traction. What we hadn’t bargained for was such precise and exploitable throttle-adjustability, such a willingness to be driven below, at or beyond the limit, and such involvement and entertainment when you do. And all this on roads lined with jagged rocks, man-sized yucca plants and tough, scrubby trees. If you’re looking for fun on challenging, unforgiving roads, the R8 has all the consistency, progression and predictability you could wish for.
The brakes – cast-iron discs on this car (carbon ceramics will be a future option) with eight-pot callipers up front, four-pots at the rear – feel slightly over-servoed at low speeds, but it’s a feeling that fades with familiarity. What’s certain is that the harder you use them the better they feel. Tireless stopping power combines with linear response, and the middle pedal sits perfectly adjacent to the throttle for satisfying heel-and-toe downshifts. Of course, R tronic drivers won’t worry about these old-school techniques, but for those of us who do, it’s further proof that the R8 was set up and honed by drivers who care about such details.
To be honest we need more wheel-time – on UK roads – to fully appraise the magnetic dampers. Switching between normal and sport modes on the bumpy canyon road reveals a subtle increase in tension, a more direct feel and less compliant ride, but the surface is either coarse or smooth, with little of UK surfaces’ diversity of character.
What we can say is that over a particularly interesting corner with a pronounced drop-off at its entry (or crest at its exit, depending on the direction of attack) the R8 has a delicious, tip-toe poise and a stubborn reluctance to be thrown off line. While it feels different to a 911, it shares the Porsche’s sense of a malleable, elastic limit, which you can lean on when required. Thats always been something only the boys from Stuttgart seemed to understand. Until now.
We head back towards Vegas, skirting around the Strip and onwards to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Occupying a plot on the perimeter of the 14,000-acre Nellis Air Force Base, the LVMS is petrolhead heaven, for when you’re not watching an R8 powering around the infield handling circuit or laughing as the Nevada police indulge in some high-speed pursuit training, complete with Hollywood sirens and roof lights fully-lit, you’re staring skywards as a gaggle of F-22 Raptor stealth fighters scream overhead.
The handling circuit is a largely makeshift affair, with a coned slalom leading into a series of second- and third-gear corners. It’s good to cut loose while there’s nothing to hit, and half a dozen increasingly spirited laps reveal the full extent of the R8’s forgiving nature and exploitable balance. The only understeer we encounter is through a long, decreasing-radius, third-gear corner, in which you’re squeezing deeper and deeper into the throttle’s travel. It’s a friendly warning of the approaching limit, and easing off the throttle brings the nose smoothly back in line. It also comes at a speed and a level of commitment that you’re unlikely reach on the road. More to the point, its also tidier and more controllable than a 911 C4S is on track.
As we drive back to our hotel, the full scale of what Audi has achieved sinks in. Yes, it’s more expensive than the Porsche it was aimed at, but with such comparatively low volumes and such a rich seam of potential buyers there’s no doubt Audi will sell every car it builds. Indeed, with just 750 R8s allocated to the UK, the waiting list is already growing. Commercially, then, it’s doubtful Porsche will lose much sleep. However, Aston Martin should be more concerned.
More impressively and encouragingly, what will rattle Porsche is the R8’s dynamic ability and mouth-watering desirability. With 911-matching everyday driveability, superior power and pace, similar polish and, when compared with the all-wheel-drive C4S, more progression and ultimately more entertainment, Porsche’s pride is in danger of being hurt. We need to drive the R8 back-to-back with a 911 and a V8 Vantage on UK roads before we can give a definitive judgement, but on the evidence of our drive through the land of the fake, the R8 is unquestionably the real deal.
|Engine||V8, 4163cc, 32v, mid|
|Max power||414bhp @ 7800rpm|
|Max torque||317lb ft @ 4500rpm|
|Top speed||187mph (claimed)|
|On sale||Spring 2007|