Audi's mid engine miracle - the R8 [review]


If you think the story about an aluminium sportscar made by a company whose forte is four-door saloons sounds familiar, it is. Audi may be the most recent but back in 1989 Honda released the epoch making aluminium NSX onto an unsuspecting world and has changed forever how Ferrari and Porsche make their cars. However for the last ten years Honda has lacked the will or guts for whatever reason to continue its project and has left the door wide open for someone like Audi to step into the breech.

Audi have planned this for quite a long while, perhaps as long as twenty years but finally they had their wish come true. It is the recent acquisition of Lamborghini that finally allowed the German automaker to make their very own mid-engined sportscar.

Although they are loathe to admit it, the acquisition of Lamborghini and the development of the Gallardo was the necessary catalyst to bring the R8 to fruition. The Gallardo needed an aluminium spaceframe chassis which is made by Audi and shipped to Sant’Agata.

This is not to say that the R8 is a rebadged Lamborghini Gallardo but in the grand scheme of things, being owned by the vast VW-Audi empire, there is of course a lot of technology transfer with Lamborghini. Some of the metallurgical technology pioneered by Audi in the field of aluminium construction for their luxury cars was transferred to the Lamborghini Gallardo and that know-how has now been put to good use in the new R8. Some parts are similar but much of it is new as the R8 is a larger car than the Gallardo although it uses a smaller V8 engine as opposed to the Gallardo’s V10 engine.

The aluminium spaceframe shares some extrusions with the Gallardo but all of its nodal joints are new to meet the design requirements of the R8. Audi has tried to give the R8 as much cargo room as a mid-engine design will allow. Unless the driver is unusually tall, there is sufficient room behind the seats to carry a set of golf clubs or two. The storage space in the front is good enough for a couple of backpacks but no more. Cabin space is generous by supercar standards and the superbly crafted interior is better than something offered in either a Gallardo or 911. One option, the Recaro sport seats like those found in the R32 or S204 is a must for the enthusiast driver, It has an electrically adjustable backrest and side bolsters but the fore and aft adjustment is manual. However the standard seats offer better comfort and accommodates a wider range of body shapes which might be more welcoming.

The Gallardo’s V10 motor is part of a modular engine system that has common development parts with Audi’s high revving (8250 rpm!) 4.2-litre V8 first seen in the RS4. The V8 engine produces an impressive 420 bhp from just 4.2-litres without any turbocharging. Until recently Audi has been using some form of turbocharging to deliver those impressive figures but of late, especially after Lamborghini came on board, they have been relying on natural aspiration for their high-powered engines.

Unlike Lamborghini, Audi believes the engine need not be quite so intrusive and overwhelming. The engine may have an entertaining bark but it’s more for the benefit of bystanders than the R8’s occupants as it practically hums along with a refinement typical of most Audi saloons. But give it gas and the R8 really flies. It gets to 100 km/h in an astonishing 4.6 seconds, not far behind the 500 bhp Gallardo that posts 4.2 seconds.

Finally the E-gear system developed for Lamborghini could be easily re-engineered to suit the R8 and renamed R-tronic Sequential Manual but suitably honed for Audi clients, meaning to say it is smoother, less abrupt in its application than the hardcore Gallardo. Hence the familiar paddle type switches located just aft of the steering wheel which effect gear changes with no more than a finger tap. There is also a fully manual version which will find favour with the enthusiasts who must shift for themselves. Overall the R-tronic behaves much like the E-Gear and allows the driver to concentrate on the race lines rather than the clutch and gear lever as the time hounoure heel and toe technique is replicated by a mere flick of a paddle. Both valid arguments.

Rigidity of the chassis is certainly high and maybe better than that of the Gallardo given the Audi engineers had a few years more to improve on things. Not surprisingly the car shrugs off the worst road imperfections effortlessly and provides a secure feel not just in the cabin but through the steering as well. Comfort also comes from the new Magnetic Ride Suspension system, based on a ferro-magnetic fluid damper with softer springs compared to the standard items. First used by Audi in their latest TT the dampers can vary damping force in milliseconds and can change settings in a single stroke of suspension travel. It indeed provides a slightly alien feeling when we are so used to some overshoot in conventional dampers. However much as the dampers can be set almost as hard as the Gallardo or 911, the real advantage of the magnetic ride is the comfort that can be provided in the normal setting. In fact the R8 rides better than many of Audi’s own saloons and does not seem to sacrifice that much body control in the process as it has softer springs but finer control of damping through the magnetic dampers.

While the steering is far better than the one in the TT, it is not as incisively quick as either the Gallardo or 911. Still on its own the tiller directs the R8 with precision that no Audi has ever possessed before, RS4 included. Part of this accuracy comes from the pre-release new generation, 19-inch Pirelli P-Zero Corsas that shod the entire fleet of R8s in Las Vegas. Of course Michelins and Contis will also be standard fitment on customer cars with the 18-inch wheels which makes the ride comfort on these optional quasi-race spec 19-inch tyres even more remarkable. If you are going for the optional magnetic ride suspension do it for the added comfort otherwise the standard fixed rate suspension is an excellent compromise that does not give away that much compared to the magnetic ride system.

We had the good fortune to also sample the colossal, optional 380mm Carbon-ceramic brakes that makes brake fade a thing of the past. For hard track use these beat the standard steel items but having said that we found the standard brakes to be as good in stopping ability so long as it is not sustained like on a circuit and in heavy town traffic where there are lots of stops and starts, the standard steel items felt more progressive and easier to modulate providing smoother stops which might be something to consider for our local traffic conditions.

Finding a meandering road around Vegas that would test the mettle of the R8 is like finding a needle in a haystack. They have no idea what meandering means but fortunately Audi provided a test track at the Las Vegas raceway. Pushing the R8 hard revealed lots of mechanical grip and very progressive handling for what is a mid-engined car. The longer wheelbase must provide some added measure against twitchiness but the R8 resolutely refused to spin. Only when severely provoked without the rearguard ESP activated can one spin the R8. Complete deactivation takes a three second press on the ESP switch and a single click leaves one layer on that catches the R8 late in the spin.

Much of the handling characteristic is due to the weight balance spilt of 44:56 with most of the load in the rear. And although the R8 has permanent quattro drive, for a traditional mid-engined feel most of the time 90% of the torque goes to the rears and up to 35% can be transmitted to the fronts through the viscous coupled center differential when adhesion levels drop. Even in the slalom the fronts do not wash out in understeer and indeed the rears seem well balanced with the front grip. Most corners will reveal only mild understeer and only with late braking at high speeds and chucking the R8 through corners will the rears let go. The slide is easy to read and catch with the steering and the chosen steering weight does not hamper counter-steer.

As for styling the R8 is indeed a masterstroke of design. It appears best from the front and rear three-quarter view. The unique side styling with the slab “Sideblade” trim that can be color-coded or appear as black carbonfibre has produced divided opinions though. Touted as a functional piece for directing air to the side intakes behind the door, the sideblades help disguise a rather lanky side profile. This is because the R8’s wheelbase is a surprising 90mm longer than the Gallardo’s and weighing 1565-kg the R8 is 135-kg heavier as well. Strange that it does not look that much bigger than the Gallardo but that is perhaps because of its demure lines in contrast to the stark chiseled outline of the Gallardo. It does however swallow two golf bags if placed just behind the seats and the front boot space can hold a couple of overnighters.

Finally here is an Audi with the capability and attitude as well. While it is more gentlemanly than the usual boisterous supercars it goes and handles just as well. Audi knows their clients needs better as they are europe’s most prolific luxury marque. It offers a healthy serving of refinement along with the punch of the 420 bhp V8. The engine is never overbearing like most Italian mid-engined exotics and it is there to serve not demand of you. Audi believes there is room for a polite supercar so and refinement prevails in the construction and the keen ride-handling qualities. This is by a large margin the best car Audi has ever made.

Fast Facts

CAPACITY : 4163cc
VALVES : 4-valve heads, 32-valves
BORE X STROKE : 84.5 x 92.8 mm
MAXIMUM POWER : 420 bhp at 7800 rpm
MAXIMUM TORQUE : 430 Nm at 4500 to 6000 rpm

TYPE : 6-speed R-tronic Sequential Manual

TOP SPEED : 301 km/h
0-100KM/H : 4.6 seconds

FRONT : Double wishbones
REAR : Double wishbones

FRONT : Ventilated discs
REAR : Ventilated discs

TYPE : Continental CSC3 or Michelin PS2
SIZE : f: 235/40 ZR 18, r: 285/35 ZR 18


LENGTH : 4431mm
WIDTH : 1904mm
HEIGHT : 1252mm
WHEELBASE : 2650mm
KERB WEIGHT : 1565-kg

Price in 2007 : € 104,000 or SGD $

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