Driven: 2008 Audi R8

Never mind the very act of building such a car, it was a bold move on Audi’s part just to name its production sports car, based very closely on the 2003 Le Mans concept, with the legendary alphanumeric title “R8”. That moniker was born and burned into the minds of motorsport aficionados by the company’s now-retired R8 racecar – a car that took a stunning 65 victories out of 80 starts during its seven-year competition history. During that time, the racecar never failed to finish a race and it earned the common title of ‘most successful endurance racecar of all time.’

To build a production car with the same name set some great expectations. Even without the long beautiful summer sunsets in Le Mans, the racecar casts an awfully big shadow. Considering the new production car will also be an icon for the Audi brand, the A-game expectations were already weighing on the car even before the fabled designation was announced. The weight of the name and the hype around the car run through my head as I depress the clutch on a pre-production R8 (a.k.a. “Zero Series” with a ZZZ at the beginning of its VIN), running it through its gated gears, accelerating down I-15 and speeding toward the Las Vegas strip’s neon glow like a moth to a light bulb.

I pull up to a red light separating me from the Vegas boulevard. If sin and excess married and had an address, Google Earth would spy their home on this street. The windows rolled down, my driving partner and I see many a double-take on the aluminum cocoon that holds us so lavishly. “That’s an Audi?!?,” one man asks his buddy as they walk close enough to the front of the car that I can see each of the 24 LED driving lights (twelve on each side) cast a reflection off of the guy’s designer pant leg. “One light for each hour in the French enduro where the R8 racecar earned its racing stripes?” I wonder. It would make sense.

More stares ensue as we roll up to the valet stand in front of the Belaggio casino, near the fountain made famous for its ridiculously high water spouts and a short scene in the move Ocean’s Eleven. As I jump out of the R8 with my camera, I tell the valet that we’re just shooting a few photos. He nods as if he understands what I’ve just said to him, though he never takes his eyes off of R8. It’s as if Paris Hilton herself had strutted out to pick up her McLaren, dressed in nothing but her birthday suit… though given the R8’s rareness and Hilton’s promiscuous activities, seeing the R8 in the buff might be a less common occurrence for him.

By the time I have rattled off a few shots on my camera, a crowd begins to envelop us. They hammer us with questions, shooting photos of their own on mobile phones and Blackberries.

It’s like this everywhere we’ve driven today. Whether it be the Belaggio, the Valley of Fire State Park where we did an earlier photo shoot, or even the truck stop on I-15… this car draws a crowd like few we can remember. Supercars aren’t rare in Vegas, and while the newness of the R8 must assuredly be multiplying the intensity of the reaction, it is the sheer impressiveness of the R8’s handsome lines that draws such attention. As a testament to its designers in Ingolstadt, the prominence of this effect is even still quite apparent in a place as jaded or distracting as the valet stand at the Belaggio.

Earlier in the morning, we’d taken the keys to an R8 with as much curiosity as excitement. Of course we’d wanted to drive it, but there’s been so much hype around this new Audi that we were almost afraid of being let down. Would the thrill of the R8 be as exciting as the buildup? Could a car live up to that kind of introduction?

Considering all the push-button, keyless wizardry that many Audis feature today, we were surprised with the more traditional key-in-the-ignition approach of the R8. The romantic in us wants to think this is because the standard system is lighter in weight, but the realist within figures it’s probably more an issue of system compatibility or a business case not being made over such a short run of cars. Only 200 cars built in the first year will be tagged for America, arriving in next fall on this side of the pond (spring 2007 for Europe). Even under full production, Audi only has the capability to build 15 a day, meaning no more than 1,000 in a full production year for the US. Not surprisingly, there’s a bit of a waiting list.

Out in the desert with an R-tronic version, the closest thing you’ll get to a slushbox in the R8, we had a mix of reactions. Pulling out of the hotel in a pack of these cars, it’s quickly evident that the R8 has the road presence to rival an Italian exotic. However, no Italian drives this easily. Steering is light, perhaps a little too light for those cross-shopping other exotica. However, it is communicative – the best we’ve seen thus far in an Audi.

The turning ratio, 3 turns lock-to-lock, is less aggressive than even the S6 at 2.5 turns. Still, it seems perfectly aggressive for the “daily driver” type to whom Audi insists the R8 will play.

At a reported 4.6-seconds from 0-60mph (ed. we think Audi might be sandbagging on this figure), this isn’t exactly Ferrari F430 territory. Think Carrera 4S with more curb appreciation.

The car’s R-tronic transmission, we’re told, is an evolution of Lamborghini’s eGear. Unlike the Lambo, the Audi continues to utilize a traditional shift lever on the center console. There are only three main lever positions: A for Automatic (basically drive, with provisions for up and down shifting), N for Neutral and R for Reverse. For Park, you leave it in Neutral and engage the e-brake just like the manual gearbox. Note also, you can’t engage drive (or A) without putting your foot on the brake.

For those who have driven the twin-clutch S-tronic or DSG systems from Audi, forget what you know… especially the never-lift, point-and-squirt method of throttle application. The single clutch R-tronic seems more purpose –built for performance, with much less provision for mimicking so seamlessly an automatic box in the way that DSG does. With its single clutch, smooth driving is, like a manual, all about feathering the throttle around shifts. In automatic and more-aggressive Sport Mode, this can be annoying, as you need to be intuitive as to when the computer will choose to shift.

Unlike DSG where we can leave it in automatic mode all day and be fooled into it being a capable automatic, we found ourselves manually shifting the R-tronic via the steering wheel’s butterfly shifters so that we could control shift points ourselves and feather throttle around those shifts for a smoother ride. It can be driven like an automatic, but not very satisfying, a problem not uncommon with other single-clutch setups such as BMW’s SMG or Ferrari’s F1 setup.

Like the SMG and F1 systems, R-tronic might be a bit of a nuisance on the road, though it’ll make you all smiles in more aggressive situations – say, a track. Shifts are quick enough, and the experience downright video game–like once you get the handle of the throttle modulation. R-tronic was our first choice on the small tight road course Audi had set up for evaluation purposes at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. With its barely audible metallic whine, R-tronic sounds a bit like a straight-cut racing ‘box and makes you feel like Tom Kristensen or one of his Audi Sport teammates blowing down Mulsanne in the original R8.

Of course, this isn’t Le Mans, nor is the short straight afforded to me on this relatively tight course set up by Audi anywhere near as long or as fast as Mulsanne. Still, it gives a great impression of just how the R8 will handle on the edge in a very controlled environment.

From a standing start, the car launches with a growl, this more aggressive viscous-coupling-based version of quattro transferring the power of the high-revving 420-horsepower FSI V8 directly to the ground. The whole affair of the R8 shooting forward toward the first set of slalom cones might even be described as boringly composed if it weren’t for the wail of the V8’s wide-open-throttle exhaust note, a strong bass with a hint of big-displacement Trans Am racecar, emanating from the quickly accelerating Audi and bouncing off of the nearby red, white and blue grandstands that tower around the Vegas racetrack from all sides.

The high-revving 4.2 is peaky, bringing you to its lofty redline faster than you might expect. An expected V10 version using the engine from the current S8 and S6, and aimed more at the 911 Turbo, should have a much more relaxed and torque-laden character. That’s something we can’t wait to see mated to a manual transmission.

Our slalom course ends quickly. Into the cones, as with the S-curves out in the desert, this 3439-lb. car bestows a sense of agility we have yet to see on any modern Audi. Even though the R8 is a full 3.5 inches longer in wheelbase than the Gallardo, the 4.2-powered R8 is identical in weight distribution to its Italian cousin at 44 front: 56 rear.

It’s no featherweight like the Lotus Elise, yet its mid-engine layout confirms what Audi’s engineers can do with a vehicle that doesn’t have massive amounts of weight, say an engine, hung over the nose. Cars like the RS 4 are fantastic, but the R8 is in a whole different league, as the handling course ably reveals.

After a short chicane to slow you down just a bit, it’s back on the throttle and running full out into the embrace of a long, decreasing -radius sweeper. Hot into the curve, lift-off oversteer comes on most welcomely and controllably, bringing the tail out just enough- and this is with the ESP still turned on! ESP can be deactivated, though the standard setting is aggressive enough that we doubt there’d be much improvement in lap times, even if the tail wagging would be quite impressive. To get the back of an RS 4 to come out like this, you’d have to turn once in the opposite direction to throw the car’s weight, then manhandle it back in the intended direction in a classic pendulum maneuver to throw the car’s weight about. In the RS 4 it can be done with skill, brute force and forethought. In the R8, the same maneuver is as simple as a lifting of the pedal until you wish the oversteer to stop. Like other Audis, you can push the R8 to oversteer, but unlike other front-engine Audis, you almost need to consciously try to make it do so.

The all-wheel drive system is still called quattro, but it’s the most aggressive version we’ve ever seen from Audi. Like the Gallardo from which it came, the system sends as little as 15% and only as much as 35% of the power to the front wheels, assuring the car maintains qualities much more akin to rear-wheel drive.

Go flat out down another straight and it’s back into an S-curve, this time shaving the inner line by placing the inside wheels on the apex curbing. Even this is done with grace. There’s no uncomfortable redistribution of weight. There’s no harsh jarring as the car transitions plains. Compliance is king, even an hour beforehand when we cruised straight into a poorly marked speed bump at the track’s entrance (ed. We weren’t the only ones. We asked around.) The car took every bit of this abuse with poise without so much as a scrape on the chin spoiler.

The R8’s basic forged aluminum double wishbone front suspension with gas-filled shock absorbers is shared with Gallardo, though the Audi’s rear suspension incorporates a new toe-control link that allows for increased toe-in under hard cornering. The new design adds to the general improved feeling of stability that the R8 exhibits over the more extreme Gallardo. There’s also greater travel for the suspension that, combined with less extreme spring rates at all four corners further increase the Audi’s compliance.

Around the last curve, you encounter the longest stretch of the course. It’s our own Lilliputian Mulsanne. Hammer the throttle for all it’s worth, flirt with triple digits then kick that brake pedal harder than Joe Pesci would kick a victim in the movie Goodfellas.

“Do I amuse you?”No, but these brakes sure do.

Audi’s European option-only carbon ceramic brake system does its thing and the R8 rather violently digs into the tarmac as you test the catch mechanism on your safety belt. It’d take much more torment or laps than we have allotted to see these things fade, and that likely goes for the standard 8-piston front and 6-piston rear brakes too.

Carbon ceramics are über cool, but we’d guess more bragging rights than anything else. The standard brake system on the R8 is so capable, the Ceramics seem a bit unnecessary – a fact that seems doubly apparent when you consider you’d pay about $10K for their outfitting at all four corners if they were offered in the US (ed. which they’re not going to be from what we hear).

Further, after spending a few hours in two different carbon ceramic-outfitted cars, we find that they are difficult to modulate. They’re very touchy, inducing brake check maneuvers more often than you actually intend. It takes some getting used to.

After the track we swap into a manual transmission car. Unlike other roadgoing Audis, the R8 differs a bit through its use of a satin aluminum shiftgate instead of a leather boot. The look is definitely more exotic, something you’d expect to see in a Ferrari than the more likely Porsche 911 Carrera 4S or Aston Martin V8 Vantage competitors.

We expect shifting to be a bit clunky in comparison, the gear positions looking rather wide apart visually as one ogles the gate. Surprisingly, we’re wrong. Throws feel roughly equivalent to what you’d find in an RS 4 – aggressive, but not annoyingly so. With no leather boot to muffle the shift action and satiny silver aluminum to smack, there’s this metallic snickt, snickt, snickt as you shift the gears rather effortlessly through the range. Around town and up the strip, this car is no harder to drive than a manual transmission S4, other than trying to wade through the gawkers and the kids with cell phone cameras at stoplights.

Driving through evening traffic, it’s easy to feel at home in this car. Visibility is not what you’d expect from a supercar. Blindspots are surprisingly small. Backing up in cramped quarters is also quite easy thanks to Audi’s capable reverse camera system mated to Parktronic – something you can already find in the Q7, A6 and A8.

Even at nosebleed speeds, noise within the R8’s cabin is surprisingly minimal. So is road noise and harshness from the low profile tires, even though both our test cars had the optional 19-inch wheels.

Each one of these will be custom-ordered to an owner’s tastes. We hear a base in the neighborhood of $90,000 will get you into a standard R8 with contrasting painted side blade and piano black interior trim.

Of course, since quattro GmbH builds this car, there’s plenty of tailoring to decide from. There’s leather color, stitching color, a great-looking carbon fiber interior trim that will be optional, as well as the carbon fiber exterior blade. Satin aluminum, as seen on some of the cars during our test, will be available at a later time.

Full LED headlights will also be offered as optional toward the end of the 2007 calendar year, and should compliment the wide use of LED lighting around the car that offer such incredible visual detail to the R8. From sharp, thin amber-lit turn signals and dual square taillights to cool LEDs that bathe the engine in soft white light in “coming home” mode (standard for America, optional for Europe), even the lighting on this car is all about the details.

Both the aforementioned carbon ceramic brakes and the same Euro-only Recaro sport seats from the RS 4 will be options North Americans won’t get access to – the former probably due to cost, the latter due to lack of side-impact airbags and passenger airbag sensor.

America will have the opportunity to check the box for Audi’s optional Bang & Olufsen sound system. Not as intricate a system as the one found in the A8/S8, Audi staff tell us it also won’t cost as much as the version in their big sedan. Sound is good from the system, but (no surprise) is not on the level of the A8.

Also optional will be Audi’s Magnetic Ride. We tested cars with and without this option on the street, and composure seemed just as good with or without. Flip the Sport Mode button and you can feel a difference, but it’s not as harsh as other similar suspensions we’ve driven that are on the market. Volvo’s S60R, for instance, can get downright teeth-rattling in its most advanced setting. Clearly that level of aggressiveness wasn’t a priority for Audi, though capable handling was. In Sport mode, the R8 rides almost as well, but exhibits less roll and improved turn-in from what we could tell.

Interestingly, the handling characteristics of Magnetic Ride are controlled via software, which would suggest quite a wide range of potential settings should Audi or the aftermarket choose to offer alternatives in the future.

Liberally optioned, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the R8 go into six-figure territory. Given Audi has made no bones about benchmarking the Porsche Carrera 4S in price, this comes as no surprise.

So there we are, back on the strip and trying to decide if this thing lives up to the name. The strict answer is that this is very hard to determine. Few on this earth have actually driven the R8 racecar, though the R8 production car gets plenty of incredible pedigree from other sources within the family. Even for parts-sharing critics, it’s hard to argue against the engine of an RS4 (though bolstered with dry-sump lubrication), interior components of the TT (one of the best in the industry), and chassis components shared with its Lamborghini cousin. This could be the parts bin perfect storm.

Driving back to the hotel at Lake Las Vegas to regretfully hand back the keys, there’s a bit of despondency in the air. It’s easy to get acclimated to this car, and begin to picture it in your day-to-day driving identity. Its comfort and compliance suggest it would be most worthy of a real-world 24-hour run… much more so than its exotic car competition. On the track, it will show itself to be most capable – no, not an F430 (ed. at almost double the price), but enough to hold your own, put a huge smile on your face. You can clench your teeth while you’re smiling. Right?

Check out our own little slice of video nirvana below…

Fourtitude R8 video – Quicktime 7 required/download here

Alternate Viewpoint: Jamie Vondruska

I have to admit I went into this very skeptically. Audi has a history of making some great cars from a day-to-day driving standpoint, with impeccable attention to detail, but that often suffer as overweight, understeering pigs on the track and end up disappointing when you have the opportunity to drive them at 9/10ths or better.

The R8 finally fixes that problem. In fact I’d go so far as to say the R8 is more Ferrari-like in spirit and soul, and less like the Porsche 911 that Audi was targeting. That’s not to say this is a Ferrari F430-slayer, but more a tribute to the Italian styling and German engineering at hand here. Park the R8 next to a 911 and the R8 looks more like a supercar than a simple sports car – in fact the 911 looks a little dowdy sitting next to it.

From a performance standpoint the R8 couldn’t be more fun to drive. Audi endowed the R8 with a baritone V8 soundtrack that is unique and unlike other V8 supercars and sports cars out there. Winding this car out in each gear is an aural and tactile treat. On the track it balances extremely well on the throttle and is capable of power oversteer, particularly out of slower corners. Float it in, lift off a touch and apply power liberally and this car will dance in your hands. The steering can feel a touch over-assisted at times, but to be honest I never really noticed much as my senses were bombarded with sound, smells and a car scrabbling for traction as it drifted sideways. The whole experience is much more visceral than it is in a Porsche and overall more Ferrari-like in terms of the general driving experience.

Add in the fact that this car will be fairly rare, has a large number of color, trim and feature options, and doubles as not only an absolute blast of a track car but also as a car you could drive to work everyday, and the R8 will be hard to beat. I just want some more time at the track in one…

Alternate Viewpoint: Eddie Alterman

By George, Mr. Achorn, you’ve nailed it. The R8 does indeed navigate the wide-open space between the Porsche 911 and the Ferrari F430. As such, it’s a sorta-supercar: more than a mere sports car by virtue of its mid-engined layout and yet not quite in the Ferrari league, since it doesn’t make sweet, sweet love to you every time you drive it. This is not to suggest there’s no sex here, only that Audi was going for maximal precision, not passion. Audi got its precision, and the car’s soulful residue is a nice fringe benefit. Still, the R8 is more wife than mistress.

Because, really, the R8 is a car on a mission, and that mission is not to out-Ferrari Ferrari. It’s to out-BMW BMW. Notice how, in the US at least, Audi has always struggled to pitch itself as something more than simply an upscale VW (one could argue that the joint US VW/Audi sales channel in the 70s made it impossible for Audi to sit alongside BMW and Mercedes-Benz in the American mind). And despite the great strides Audi has recently made in refinement and luxury appointments and technology, there was still a small, dark question hanging over the brand: vehicle dynamics. The R8 rectifies all that. It’s as spirited as anything Lamborghini currently produces (even if the steering is a little feel-free for my tastes), which is to say the R8’s handling and ride are an order of magnitude better than anything coming out of Affalterbach. Indeed, BMW and Mercedes-Benz don’t even compete in this class; there’s no other mid-engined German sorta-supercar out there (and no, I don’t count the Cayman S). Audi has simply leapfrogged the German Big Two. You have to take Audi seriously now.

Required Reading:

Audi Press Materials:



Video Downloads:

Fourtitude Audi R8 Video Short

Audi R8 Intro Short

Audi R8 Production Short

Audi R8 Design Short

Audi R8 Driving Dynamics Short

Audi R8 Drivetrain Short

Audi R8 General Short

Related Articles:

Win a Las Vegas R8 Experience and Trip to Elton John’s Oscar Party as Part of Charity Auction

Production R8: Early Details

R8 Parades Down Park Avenue for Audi Forum NYC Grand Opening

Audi R8 Revealed at Paris Auto Show 2006

Historic Era Ends with Final Race of Audi R8 Racecar

Other Resources:

R8 First Drive Photo Gallery

Fourtitude R8 Photo Gallery

Fourtitude R8 Discussion Forum

R8 Wallpaper and Spec Sheet Downloads

For more discussion on this story, click on the link to our discussion forums to the left.
For more photos of the car in this story, click on the link to our gallery at the right.