Let's start with the Ferrari 458 Italia, a car that doubles the base price of the Audi. It's much more fun to drive than it is to talk about; discussions among enthusiasts usually begin with someone saying, "It's amazing!" and end with everyone else agreeing. Opposite that is the vast, swirling nebula of cars that are often more fun to talk about than they are to drive.
In between, there are very few cars that are as fun to discuss as they are to drive, and this Audi is one. It's a car that challenges our notions about its actual competitive set and, even better, its philosophical competitive set, its driving experience, its price, its future, its present viewed from the future, and its verifiable and/or potential pedigree.
We recently attempted to sort out some of those notions during ten days in an R8 V8 driving from Munich to Le Mans. We arrived at quite a few answers, and although we walked away from it still confounded, there's no denying one thing: it is so, so good.
We took possession of a white R8 with black sideblades at the Munich airport, then headed straight to meet a local friend and to photograph it before introducing all that Ibis paint to German bugs at 180 miles per hour. Taking a long look at it while it sat posed in front of the Nymphenburgschloss and Antikensammlungen, your author thinks it's an impressive and deeply alluring car, as opposed to beautiful – not a Venus, rather one of the finer works of that ferocious hot smithy, Vulcan. With an overall aesthetic that, like its performance, is sublimely balanced. In fact, only one note strikes as odd, and only when you stop to notice it: there's ample front overhang.
Audi's R8 is an impressive and deeply alluring car, as opposed to beautiful.
But its compact shape is all business, low and wide, nary a superfluous curve, and once you turn it on, its LED daytime running lamps transform that already fierce face into an ice-cold threat. If The Wolf ever saw fit to get rid of his Acura NSX, this would make an excellent replacement. And let us go on the record as saying it's criminal that Washington won't let us have the facelifted R8's sequential turn signals.
As we would discover over a few days tooling around Bavaria's heart while loading up on Würst, Radler and idyll, the R8 is the perfect urban pet. For a car that looks so low you could scrape your knee on the roof – it's two inches lower than a Porsche 911, the same height as an Aston Martin V8 Vantage – it's easy to get in and out of. The diktat of exterior purpose continues inside, with exactly zero fuss inside the cabin, only a lot of leather, aluminum and quilting. The coupe is seven inches shorter than an Audi A5 and almost half an inch shorter than an A3 sedan, so you can always find a parking spot. The drama is entirely outside the car; sitting inside, it takes a foot full of throttle to even hear it. It's such an obsequious daily driver that if it weren't for the endless stares and your knuckles scraping the pavement when you adjust the seat, you could be excused for thinking you're in a slammed RS5.
If it weren't for the endless stares and your knuckles scraping the pavement when you adjust the seat, you could be excused for thinking you're in a slammed RS5.
Except for the way it looks, the R8 exhibits almost no urging – which is part of its conundrum and why we've always been conflicted about it. If it's not beautiful, it is definitely magnetic, but we wonder what we'll think of it in ten years. It looks like a supercar and it makes us want supercar thrills, but its performance fits firmly into the sports car segment. It starts at $115,900, about $10,000 more than a Porsche 911 Carrera 4S, about $15,000 less than Aston Martin's new entry-level V8 Vantage GT. It's not as classically beautiful as either of them, but it's four times as striking and un-ordinary as the other two – and yes, we are aware of how much gall it takes to even hint that any Aston Martin is ordinary. It has 430 horsepower and 317 pound-feet of torque, meaning a little more hp and a little less torque than those other two cars. Its 0-60 miles per hour is 4.3 seconds, equaling the Porsche, just a few tenths ahead of the Englishman.
A supercar on the outside, sports car in genus and when not being pushed it behaves like... please don't take this the wrong way... the Platonic form of A Daily Driver. That should be a good thing, right? So why can't we help missing the thrill? What's more, it's not as convenient as those competitors, for lack of a back seat area to assist that tiny trunk. On top of that, unlike every other sports car in its segment, the R8 has a dearth of pedigree – which is astonishing considering how much racing and winning Audi has done. So maybe that's perceived pedigree?
When not being pushed it behaves like the Platonic form of A Daily Driver.
This philosophical goulash, and its Audi badge, might be why we hardly see them anywhere. Over three days in Munich we saw two R8s, one less than the number of C5 Corvette coupes - not all Corvettes, just C5 Corvettes – and equal to the number of Ford Mustang models. This isn't about money, either – the Münchner are a wealthy lot, jamming the roads with Porsches; it was easy to ring up three or four 911 Turbos an hour. In LA, we see more Ferrari 458s than R8s, even though Ferrari has sold just 171 cars in total in the US this year compared to 422 R8s.
That's another astonishing truth, because the R8 is so, so, so damn good. When we finished in Munich we had to get to Waibstadt for a wedding, and that meant a run over 300 kilometers of Autobahn.
The mid-mounted V8 is a sweet piece of business, the OED definition of drivability and composure, and the package around it is spooky good at Autobahn speeds. Goad the needle on toward 190 mph and the R8 fastens itself to a derestricted stretch of empty highway in a manner that goes beyond confidence, into certainty. It welcomes fearlessness – not foolishness, mind you – on roads you've never seen before and at speeds you've only dreamed.
The R8 fastens itself to a derestricted stretch of empty highway in a manner that goes beyond confidence, into certainty.
We stayed in Heidelberg, meaning we had to make the round trip to and from Waibstadt every day. The bride and groom had their true love, we had our 42-kilometer commute morning and evening, and we still wouldn't trade one for the other. Once off the highway, rural Germania is cut up by plentiful and sinuous tarmac ribbons begging for summertime blasts between burgs. The R8 isn't as light on its feet as some other highly focused machinery and it's no stranger to understeer if you go looking for it, the counterweight to Quattro being the solid sensations it imparts and its superlative balance on the Autobahn and just such B-roads.
One (more) thing we like about exotic sports cars is the lack of driver assistance systems; they don't want to do much beyond try to keep you from killing yourself, so the R8 is, in the main, nanny-free.
When finally called to make the 722-km trip to Le Mans, we left Waibstadt on a supernaturally beautiful weekday morning, and whatever German word is the opposite of Autobahn in a nasty traffic jam around Saarbrucken. Legendary for unlimited speeds, the vehicular constipation on German highways can be just as extraordinary. At this point it was back to R8 as... please don't take this the wrong way... a regular Audi. Like the aforementioned Porsche and Aston Martin, you could live in it all day, but the aging Audi cabin arguably isn't as special the other two, certainly not the Aston Martin.
It's so easy to access what the R8 can do (and it can do so much), but it's still missing a few specific bullet points of "Wow."
Not long after being set free from the mess around Saarbrucken we hit the French border, where maximum speed limits encouraged the use of cruise control and a return to the R8's Clark Kent mode. We tried to figure out what this car is during this last leg into Le Mans – it's clinical in many ways, yet it's impossible not to notice. Even so, once you close your eyes, there's almost nothing visceral about it. It performs beyond its price, and it's got the interesting dichotomy of being short on space yet otherwise easily livable on a daily basis. We occasionally wished the new S-Tronic transmission had reflexes that were quicker still, but thankfully its steering is gorgeous. It's so easy to access what the R8 can do (and it can do so much), but it's still missing a few specific bullet points of "Wow." Perhaps that's what the V10 model is for.
Taken in total, it is a conundrum that from now on we will always enjoy revisiting and pondering anew from behind its flat-bottomed steering wheel. No matter what else we might want from it, what we definitely get is a coupe that is so, so good.