Naturally we’re tempted to put the squeeze on the distance between where we are (Eurotunnel petrol station, French side) and where we want to be (the car park of the Hotel du Castellet, Le Beausset, 766 road miles south) with all the force at our disposal. At least, as we squint at our charges through a haze of super-unleaded fumes in the dazzling mid-Thursday sun, we can dream about how spectacular our progress might be. Over caffeine and chocolate bars, Henry Catchpole, John Hayman, Andy Morgan and I muse that our three-car, 1300bhp collective would undoubtedly outrun anything the French fuzz could give chase in on four wheels, maybe even two. But probably not the choppers. And how would we explain turning up, eventually, at our destination sans motors, driving licences and, indeed, money? A steady, beady-eyed 90-ish it is, then. With a relaxing overnight stop in Macon.
Might as well keep the powder dry, after all. Even as we strike out towards Reims, a right-hand-drive, six-speed-manual Audi R8 has been positioned in a lonely corner of the Hotel du Castellet’s car park, and it’s got evo’s name on it. The hotel nestles within the Paul Ricard circuit complex just west of Toulon and, like the circuit itself, is owned by Bernie Ecclestone (hence the inevitable nickname: Bernie’s Inn). Our plan is to check in by noon on Friday, shower, grab a bite and then, before the surrounding roads start swarming with R8s driven by the UK press posse being flown in from Stansted the following day, hit Audi’s new 187mph, 414bhp mid-engined V8 supercar with everything we’ve got and see if it buckles under the heat.
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The thing is, every performance-orientated Audi since the original Quattro (with the arguable exception of the RS4) has done just that, but you don’t have to read between the lines of Richard Meaden’s dispatch from the R8’s international launch in Las Vegas (evo 102) to know that it’s far more than a ‘poor man’s Lamborghini Gallardo’ or to rate its chances against any version of the 911 this side of a GT3 as better than even. And if it really is as good as it seems to be, it will rupture the supercar status quo just as surely as a couple of sidewinder missiles would rupture the Hoover Dam. Richard posed the question: ‘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?’ We’re not coming back without the answer.
Collecting most stares – for the noise as well as the looks – are Henry and Andy in the 425bhp Prodrive Aston V8 Vantage, only the tasteless carbon boot spoiler detracting from the impact generated by the drive-by beauty, brutal soundtrack and, for any observer truly on the pace, the knowledge that this is how Aston’s own forthcoming Vantage Sport Pack will go, sound and look. Not to mention cost. At just over £100K, the Aston even trumps what we expect to be a plumply-specced R8 (circa £85K).
Hayman, meanwhile, is completely at home in the £82,710 BMW M6, which, as well as being the most powerful of the trio, with a nice round 500bhp, is also the quietest and most comfortable. In fact, apart from the M5, it’s hard to think of any other car that has fused so much performance and dynamic ability (‘M’ button engaged, of course) with so much down-to-earth practicality and usability.
But the longer I drive it, the more I’m convinced that the 911 Carrera 4S (here equipped with the factory-fitted Power Kit that hikes peak power by 25bhp to 375bhp and liberates still more raucous decibels from the quad exhaust pipes) will give the R8 the biggest fright, even if you discount the fact that it’s also comfortably the least expensive car here, costing £71,980 basic if you forego those rather pricey (£8241) additional 25 horses.
Next morning, in the hotel courtyard, I reacquaint myself with the M6’s cabin, and it’s no place for beginners. As well as the often brain-numbing iDrive to contend with, the M6 has more user configuration settings than your average Xbox 360 rally car simulation. Then there’s the third-generation, seven-speed SMG transmission, which shifts gears, on the full-attack setting, in 65 milliseconds. The shift speed is adjustable: there are five settings in auto mode and six in manual. This, of course, is as ridiculous as a mountain bike having 28 gears when most riders will only ever use about three.
The M6 has multiple suspension settings, too. It’s hard to say how long it would take to explore all the possible engine/transmission/chassis permutations, but my guess is that were BMW to survey the first thousand M6 owners, the preferred profiles would be pretty similar: second-fastest shift speed, standard damper setting, and full – rather than partially or completely deactivated – traction control (it works brilliantly 99 per cent of the time). That said, it seems fairly certain that, in the true spirit of Spinal Tap, The Haymanator will have configured everything to approach the fabled 11.
As promised, the R8 is waiting for us when we finally reach the Hotel du Castellet. It looks so futuristic, the 911 visibly sags around the edges; so different, the M6 suddenly seems feebly cautious; so sexy… well, so does the Aston. In a suave, old- school sort of way. And it seems the Vantage is also the only car that can hold a candle to the R8’s cabin for sheer aesthetic and tactile appeal, though they could hardly be more different. It’s the feeling of space, light and simplicity that hits you first when you swing open the R8’s long, low door.
The first electric, extraordinary miles in the R8 – experienced after 766 straight in the C4S – make me feel uneasy. Something isn’t right, and it’s the car. Or maybe its the tectonic plates beginning to shift beneath its wheels… I knew it would happen one day. Thing is, I didn’t expect it to be at the wheel of an Audi. The revelation is as shocking as it is thrilling. Game’s up. Porsche has made 1963 last for 44 years, now it’s time to move on.
After just half an hour, it’s obvious the R8 isn’t tracing the usual high-performance-Audi flightpath but is heading into orbit. I’m reminded of the supercars that have hard-wired themselves into my central nervous system and downloaded a rush of sensations that linger and glow like direct sunlight on retina. A decade ago, an insane, twenty-minute blat across the North York Moors in a Porsche 959 left me tense, twitching and close to visceral meltdown. My adrenalin-drenched state had more to do with what I’d managed to get away with than achieve, but the concentrated memory will stay with me forever. I repeated the exercise a few months later in a tweaked Ferrari F40. The experience was so intense, so wild and so sharply administered, it left me with an aching neck and tingling nerve-ends for hours after.
It soon becomes clear that the R8’s baseline abilities are similarly extraordinary: its amazing stability, traction and grip, unparalleled steering accuracy and bite, its uncannily flat and disturbance-free ride. For these attributes alone it blows the reference points thus far provided by the others out of the frame. But the crucial difference between the Audi and the supercar markers we’ve driven down in – what shines through like a halogen beacon – is the sublime effortlessness of it all.
By any standards, the C4S is a formidable benchmark. The Porsche’s all-drive chassis’ grunt/grip balance, kept in check so effectively by the PSM stability control, is truly a thing of beauty, even on the loops of tarmac that sweep you from one autoroute to the next. There’s colossal cornering power and almost miraculous traction, but despite the considerable acreage of sticky, ZR-rated rubber on the road, there’s also an almost sensual subtlety about the way the car changes direction, with steering that resolves kickback not so much as a tugging at the rim but as a hermetically sealed bond between hands and road. Moreover, as long as you stay away from the ‘Sport’ switch down on the centre console, the ride seems to confound the contribution of the ultra-low-profile tyres and firm spring and damper settings in its ability to sponge up minor bumps that agitated the superseded model.
Away from the autoroute, the C4S’s cross-country pace is mind-bending, making heroic A-to-B feats accessible to even the moderately talented. The way it feels so compact and grips with such unerring force quickly builds trust. Stopping power and pedal feel are second to none. In a straight line, the 911 feels rampagingly rapid; on a demanding road it feels all but invincible; when it rains there’s no place you’d rather be.
The gruff, metallic timbre and sheer aerobic reach of its 375bhp is quintessential 911, though. There are two components to the engine noise: a granite-hard core cocooned by the low-pass whoosh of an F16. It isn’t a musical sound in the same way that Motorhead isn’t a musical sound. But it is gloriously gruff, gravelly and macho. I’m inclined to think back to 3.0 RS; there’s something of that old car’s deep-chested character here. It spikes your pulse rate in the same way – especially that adrenalin-milking shriek as the engine rushes from 5000rpm to the red line.
In the M6, it’s easier to switch off from the car’s potential. Fact is, you can treat the M6 as a luxury coupe and forget all about the fact it will hunt down a Ferrari F430. Hitting the facia button that kills 100bhp of the available 500bhp is a good start. But it’s more to do with the way in which any type of tarmac is dispatched without an irritating barrage of bumps, wind noise or tyre roar. And, shorn of the run-flat tyres and active steering of the lesser 6-series models, the M6 has a consistently fine ride, whatever the damper setting. As John remarks when we stop for another comfort break, it isn’t just that the M6 seems to hold all the cards, it has another couple of packs on standby.
From the moment you sit in the M6 it starts to apply the psychology. The mere act of placing yourself behind the wheel triggers an automatic, torso-hugging pressure from the seat’s electrically adjusting lateral bolsters. It’s a kind of tactile ‘You sure you want to do this?’ message. And probably necessary because, from the outside, you’re not quite sure if the M6 means business.
But then you remember what’s under the bonnet. The all-alloy, naturally aspirated, 90-degree V10 has Double-VANOS variable camshaft control and, in addition to that astonishing 500bhp at 7750rpm, some 383lb ft of torque at 6100rpm. Each cylinder has its own electronically actuated throttle valve. Four oil pumps and two oil sumps ensure constant lubrication even during 1.3 g braking and 1.0 g cornering. The spark plugs act as knock detectors by measuring ionic levels during ignition. It may not be a Formula 1 engine, but it is a technological tour de force.
Through corners it calls on reserves of grip you wouldn’t believe possible. While it never feels truly nimble, neither do you ever get the impression it won’t rise to the occasion. However twisty the road, the Porsche and Aston are never going to get away from it. And, on the longer straights, they battle to stay in touch. The only real criticism is steering that eases its assistance perhaps too enthusiastically as successively stiffer damper modes are selected, and which lacks detail feel at lower speeds.
Front-end grip is simply astonishing. But push harder and, as with all the best-sorted rear-drive chassis, balance moves to the point where it rests on a broad line drawn between helm and throttle inputs. You can use the grunt and the grip separately, deliberately, and travel very quickly. Or you can try to co-ordinate them into a single, fluid reflex. Then the M6 starts to flow at speed in a way you simply wouldn’t believe, a way even the C4S finds hard to emulate.
And yet the Aston’s chassis is a thing of still greater finesse, supplementing amazing grip with faster responses and more acute direction changing abilities than the M6 and, indeed, any Aston has ever had. The car has control-arm suspension all round, giant ventilated disc brakes with four-piston monoblock callipers, and standard 19in wheels. In effect it’s a DB9 chassis not only shortened but stiffened and granted a 230kg weight saving. The DB9’s speed-sensitive steering system has also been omitted – another good call. The Prodrive Aston V8 Vantage corners flat and very fast. Of all the Astons we’ve driven recently, it’s the one most transparently dedicated to the provision of pure driving pleasure. It looks gorgeous, sounds shattering in full cry, is very quick and handles beautifully.
The slim seats offer man-sized lateral and under-thigh support and a huge span of adjustability, while the driving position is laid-back perfection. It’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of cosiness, an impression massaged by the outstandingly good secondary ride, which filters small bumps and road surface scars with surprising facility. But take to the open road with closer inspection of the horizon in mind and life changes dramatically. To realise the potential pace of the V8 Vantage requires a mental as well as physical change of gear. If it’s your intention to feel the carpet with the toe of your right foot, you’d better tense up other parts of your body. When the Prodrive V8 Vantage gets angry, you can literally hear it from a couple of miles away. The C4S has a distinctively hollow six-cylinder bark, but it doesn’t come close to matching the Aston’s audio-visceral intensity.
The R8 does, though it’s completely different in character. Even neck muscles conditioned by the Vantage ill prepare you for just how hard this thing goes. Surging out of tight corners, the Audi unleashes visceral violence with an urgently punctuated rhythm reminiscent of the wrung-out superbike motors echoing through the valleys.
It all feeds into the overriding impression of fabulous dynamic cohesion already established by the exquisite steering feel, enormous grip, brilliantly judged damping and colossal top-end energy. The bottom line is that the R8 can corner at a quite ridiculous lick – all the time feeding back finely resolved information about the road surface to the rim of the wheel. And its transient responses are little short of phenomenal. Up in the hills it scythes through one particularly challenging series of sweeping semi-hairpins into a section of manic S-bends with frankly amazing speed and precision. It’s as extreme and addictive as you could want.
The ride is equally revelatory. You wouldn’t rush to call it supple or cosseting, and yet it’s less ruffled than anything else here and unerringly consistent, even in Sport mode. As such, it ceases to be an issue – other than being one less thing to worry about when you’re going hard on a demanding road.
As the R8 returns to Bernie’s Inn for the last time, its low-level LED driving lights looking like two squadrons of miniature UFOs in close formation, there are only the minor places to be decided. The M6, for all its V10 grunt and bulk-defying agility, is finally battered into last place by something beyond its control: its size. On these roads at least, the benefits of a true sports-car remit are impossible to usurp.
And for that reason, the 911 just (just) gets the decision over the Aston. Despite the ongoing more-is-less 997 debate, the C4S still reminds me of all the things that define a 911 and make it great. That amazing size-to-speed ratio, the intensity and resolution of tactile and aural feedback (steering, suspension, engine sound), the oversteer – even if it’s especially hard to extract in the case of the C4S. And it is hard to ignore the 911’s singular aesthetic, the finely honed minimalism where the car’s envelope in space is as tight and as simple as possible. You can argue that no one needs a car that’s faster. No one needs one with fiercer acceleration, greater grip, stronger brakes, better build or more bodywork. You can argue that, at a little over £70K, the 911 C4S is, quite simply, the most complete, cost-effective supercar on the planet. At close to maximum effort, it’s the car you’d rather have on your side, though the V8 Vantage looks sexier, sounds better and is just as quick point to point.
But, in the end, purity of purpose and breadth of ability win the day, and no car here – probably none under £100K – expresses the fusion more perfectly than the R8. There are faster supercars, but we can’t think of another currently in production that takes a demanding road apart with quite the surgical precision and cool-browed composure of Audi’s incandescently rapid and hugely desirable R8.
So here’s the answer. It’s one we sometimes doubted we’d ever witness, but, for the good of the supercar’s evolution, it could hardly be better. Audi humbles Porsche. A new dawn starts today.
|Porsche Carrera GT||1:19.70||120.5|
|Caterham CSR 260||1:21.00||112.8|
|Lamborghini Gallardo ’06||1:22.80||116.9|
|Porsche 911 (997) GT3||1:23.40||114.4|
|Audi R8||BMW M6||911 C4S Power kit||Prodrive Aston|
|Location||Mid, longitudinal||Front, longitudinal||Rear, longitudinal||Front, longitudinal|
|Bore x stroke||84.5mm x 92.8mm||92mm x 75.2mm||99mm x 82.8mm||89mm x 86mm|
|Cylinder block||Aluminium alloy, dry sump||Aluminium alloy||Aluminium alloy, dry sump||Aluminium alloy, dry sump|
|Cylinder head||Aluminium alloy, dohc per bank, 4v per cyl, variable valve timing||Aluminium alloy, dohc per bank, 4v per cyl, Double-VANOS||Aluminium alloy, dohc per bank,4v per cyl, VarioCam Plus||Aluminium alloy, dohc per bank, 4v per cyl, variable inlet timing|
|Fuel and ignition||Bosch electronic engine management, direct injection||Bosch electronic engine management and ignition||Motronic electronic management, sequential multipoint injection||Electronic engine management, multipoint injection|
|Max power||414bhp @ 7800rpm||500bhp @ 7750rpm||375bhp @ 7200rpm||425bhp @ 7500rpm|
|Max torque||317lb ft @ 4500rpm||383lb ft @ 6100rpm||306lb ft @ 5500rpm||325lb ft @ 5400rpm|
|Transmission||Six-speed manual, four-wheel drive, EDL electronic differential lock, ASR||Seven-speed SMG paddle-shift, rear-wheel drive, M differential, DSC||Six-speed manual, four-wheel drive, PSM||Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive, limited-slip differential, TC, DSC|
|Front suspension||Double wishbones, coil springs, gas dampers, anti-roll bar||MacPherson struts, coil springs, adaptive damping, anti-roll bar||MacPherson struts, coil springs, PASM active dampers, arb||Double wishbones, coil springs, dampers, anti-roll bar|
|Rear suspension||Double wishbones, coil springs, gas dampers, anti-roll bar||Multi-link, coil springs, adaptive damping, anti-roll bar||Multi-link, coil springs, PASM active dampers, anti-roll bar||Double wishbones, coil springs, dampers, anti-roll bar|
|Brakes||Ventilated discs, 380mm front, 356mm rear, ESP, ABS||Drilled and vented discs, 348mm fr, 345mm rear, ABS, CBC, DBC||Drilled and vented discs, 330mm front and rear, ABS, EBD||Grooved and vented discs, 355mm fr, 330mm rear, ABS, EBD, EBA|
|0-62mph||4.6sec (claimed)||4.6sec (claimed)||4.6sec (claimed)||4.7sec (claimed)|
|Max speed||187mph (claimed)||155mph (limited)||186mph (claimed)||182mph (claimed)|