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.
Audi 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 brand, 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.
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.
The new Audi isn't likely to sway many Porsche traditionalists into the 4-ringed fold, mainly because the R8 is so special.
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; unique styling; and exemplary build quality.
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.
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 and business-like shifter.
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 more expensive vehicles.
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.
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.
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. But 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.
Priced at €104,400 ($132,343) in Europe, the R8 is a good value and one of the most blindingly beautiful and capable sports cars of the modern world.