LAS VEGAS – Some decry that the modern commercialization of motorsports has eroded the notion factory-backed racing efforts bear fruit in dealer showrooms.
However, if ever a racecar was worthy of a road-going tribute, Audi AG’s 5-time Le Mans-winning R8 prototype is it.
Other competitive efforts by auto makers have helped instill the racing DNA of their brands with consumers – Porsche AG’s long-standing endurance racing pedigree and the recent triumphs of the Chevrolet Corvette GT1 racing program, for example – but Audi’s R8 was something special.
The Ingolstadt, Germany-based auto maker launched the R8 racecar in 2000 as the culmination of more than 20 years of racing experience. The mid-engine prototype quickly established itself at the top of its class, eventually winning 62 of 79 races before being replaced last year by the diesel-powered R10.
In short, the R8 was one of the most successful racecars ever produced.
To pay homage to such an icon, and to elevate the status of the brand, in general, Audi has blessed its first mid-engine street car with the same name – and set it up to do battle with some of the world’s greatest sports cars.
“The R8 is a car built out of our best ideas,” Audi board member Ralph Weyler says at the vehicle’s first media drive here.
Executives are cagey about citing the R8’s direct competitors, but given its performance potential, approximate $100,000 price tag and racing cachet, Porsche’s famed 911 likely was the first to be painted with a bull’s-eye.
Fortunately for the Stuttgart-based auto maker, the new Audi isn’t likely to sway many Porsche traditionalists into the 4-ringed fold, mainly because the R8 is such a special machine by itself.
All the requirements for a world-class mid-engine sports car are present and accounted for: a high-revving, 420-hp, 4.2L DOHC V-8 sporting direct gasoline injection; optional 6-speed R-tronic sequential manual transmission; lightweight aluminum chassis with track-tuned dynamics; and unique styling with exemplary build quality and attention to detail.
However, after spirited drives through the Nevada desert and hot laps around the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the R8 comes off as a highly capable art piece, rather than the competition-focused machine its namesake implies.
Sure, the R8 is fast (Audi claims a 0-62 mph [100 km/h] time of 4.6 seconds and a terminal velocity of 187 mph [301 km/h]), but it is the effortless manner in which the R8 gathers this pace that sets it apart.
The same goes for the chassis, which grips the tarmac like Velcro, yet would be more than accommodating on a high-speed, cross-continental road trip.
Approaching the R8, attention immediately is drawn to the beautiful, sweeping design; aggressive stance; and the way the contrasting sideblades invigorate the otherwise elegant form. Its lengthy 104.3-in. (265-cm) wheelbase, nearly 4 ins. (10 cm) longer than the Lamborghini Gallardo that shares some of the same components, contributes to the unique shape, while also improving ride quality and drivability.
Next, intricate details begin to emerge, such as the “R8”-engraved turn signal refractors; intimate light-emitting diodes in the daytime running lights and carbon-fiber-lined engine bay; and intricate aerodynamic tweaks that give the R8 a slippery drag coefficient of 0.34, yet still produce negative lift (downforce) at speed.
Moving inside, the interior is as stately as any high-end Audi sedan. Comfort and performance are emphasized equally, with supportive power seats, numerous electronic controls and storage space aplenty contrasting with the flat-bottomed racing steering wheel, business-like shifter and carbon fiber-framed driver’s binnacle, or monoposto as Audi calls it.
The feeling is of an almost completely new type of “affordable” exotic; one that is rewarding to drive hard, soothing to pilot every day and styled to levels more commonly found on far more expensive vehicles.
Porschephiles will argue that this is the description of a modern 911, but the elegant, futuristic lines of the R8 flow in a manner the 43-year-old Porsche could only hope.
Once seated in the spacious cabin, all the controls are within easy reach and feel of the highest quality. There is plenty of space in which to get situated. The aluminum pedals are placed perfectly and the manual shifter glides through its open metal gates with a precise and satisfying “clack.”
The Audi navigation system and Multi-Media Interface are easy to operate, while the optional 465-watt Bang & Olufsen sound system produces thunderous sound with the utmost clarity. Storage space is abundant, with 3.2 cu.-ft. (90 L) behind the seats and another 3.5 cu.-ft. (100 L) in the nose.
Upon ignition, the V-8 erupts from behind the seats, bellowing at first and then settling into a deep, menacing burble that instantly attracts onlookers. For added curb appeal, the key fob temporarily activates the LED engine bay lighting when the doors are locked.
A quick jab of the throttle is met with instant Quattro all-wheel-drive acceleration (biased 65%-80% to the rear), propelling the R8 at speeds easily transcending legal limits. An accompanying howl ensues as the FSI (fuel stratified injection) V-8 redlines at 8,250-rpm in each gear.
On the open road, the R8 never feels out of breath, thanks to the direct-fuel-injection system’s ability to provide about 90% of the RS4-derived engine’s 317 lb.-ft. (430 Nm) of torque between 3,500-7,500 rpm. Even slow corners taken in too high a gear are tackled with aplomb; the R8 scrabbling for traction before launching down the next straight.
Through all this, the chassis begs for more, directly communicating with the driver and never losing composure.
The rear-biased drive system and 44%/56% front/rear weight distribution mean coaxing the tail out in corners is possible with the electronic stability controls turned off. However, the precise steering and abundance of traction make it easier to just run smooth, clean lines around the apexes. Balance is very neutral for an AWD car, with both understeer and throttle-on oversteer easily summoned at will.
Additional security comes from the massive 8-piston, 15-in. (38.0-cm) front and 4-piston, 14-in. (35.6-cm) rear brakes (24 pistons in all) showcased in beautiful 19-in., split-5-spoke alloy wheels (Audi says optional 6-spoke, 18-in. units likely will be offered only in Europe). Overall brake feel is solid and reassuring, especially under heavy loads at the track.
European models will be available with an even more extreme carbon-ceramic brake upgrade, which improves acceleration and handling by reducing unsprung mass at each wheel. The brakes also produce less dust, operate virtually fade-free and last much longer than conventional iron discs, the auto maker says.
However, Audi has yet to determine pricing for the technology and whether there would be sufficient interest to offer it in the U.S.
All R8s come standard with independent double-wishbone suspensions front and rear supported by coil-over shocks. Optional is theCorp.-supplied Magnetic Ride active suspension, which constantly varies damper rates through electric currents in the magnetorheological shock fluid.
The standard system works very well, nearly eliminating body roll while remaining compliant over undulations and rough washboard sections of pavement. But the Magnetic Ride offers the choice of a slightly softer setting for cruising or a more focused, yet still comfortable, sport mode for aggressive driving.
The conventional 6-speed manual is far more exhilarating to drive than its high-tech clutch-pedal-less counterpart, allowing 7,000-rpm standing launches and giving the driver total control over the car’s actions.
The R-tronic is best suited for the racetrack, where its rev-matched downshifts and full-throttle upshifts are most appreciated. However, like most gearboxes of this type, it is jerky and hesitant in normal operation, making it somewhat out of place in a vehicle so capable of being driven every day.
R-tronic also features an F1-style launch control function, but repeated tests of the system proved effective operation to be elusive. It’s easier to just drop the clutch.
Both technologies will be available on U.S. market R8s when they arrive in showrooms in early fall.
However, Audi says, initially, it probably won’t offer U.S. buyers the R8’s full LED headlights (a first for a production car when they debut in Europe later this year) due to pending safety regulations.
Also not offered on U.S. models will be the carbon-fiber race seats borrowed from the European RS4 sedan.
Priced at €104,400 ($132,343) in Europe, “well-equipped” U.S. models will run about $110,000-$115,000, officials say, noting the auto maker will finalize U.S. pricing in the coming months.
Not a bad value for so much performance and practicality. That is, before options are fitted.
The R8 will benefit from one of the most expansive customization programs Audi ever has offered, including a wide array of standard and custom interior and exterior colors; body color-matched and contrasting sideblades made of various materials; and a multitude of interior trims such as piano black, aluminum and carbon fiber.
With the R8, Audi’s recent racing efforts come full circle and should help solidify the 4-ringed marque in the minds of enthusiasts.
More to the point, the R8 is one of the most blindingly beautiful and capable sports cars of the modern world. Period.