Review: 2008 Audi R8

2008 Audi R8 – Click above for high-res image gallery

There's been considerable debate about whether the Audi R8 is a bona fide supercar, able to hang with the best and brightest from Maranello, Stuttgart and beyond. But power figures and price points don't tell the whole tale.

What's been missing from most reviews is how Audi's midship masterpiece handles the rigors of daily duty. And that's what we wanted to find out. So no track tests, no slalom numbers, no skid pad hijinks -- just a comprehensive review to illustrate how the R8 deals with the day-to-day tasks its above-average owner will ask of it. But before all that, let's get one thing out of the way: it's absolutely breathtaking.

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Photos Copyright ©2008 Brad Wood / Weblogs, Inc.

Sure, there may be a few detractors who don't think the proportions are spot on, or that the side blades are a poorly-executed attempt to take "cutting edge" to its aesthetic extreme; and yes, one ill-informed soul in a Mexican restaurant parking lot asked if it was the new TT, but after bludgeoning her with a stale tortilla, she saw the light. For the rest of us, the R8 has all the crowd-stopping presence of Heidi Klum walking down Wall Street wearing only a pair of Pradas and a matching handbag. It's positively stunning in person and rolls right up to that cliff separating elegant grand-tourer from ostentatious supercar, looks down from its elongated snout and pisses into the abyss.

View the R8 from any angle and it's clear that Audi's designers were sweating the details like Richard Simmons on an ephedra binge. It's got attitude up front, a cleanly defined profile and a posterior we could -- and did -- gawk at for hours. And we weren't alone. During our week-long stint in the R8, we lost track of how many heads spun, and interrogations by curious onlookers had us reciting stats like a Fantasy Football fiend.

And what about those stats? By now, you're well aware that the R8 is packing the same 4.2-liter, FSI V8 found in the devilishly delectable Audi RS4. That means 414 hp and 320 lb.-ft. of torque (peaking between 4,500 and 6,000 rpm) are at the beck and call of your right foot. The run to 60 is dispatched in 4.4 seconds and the R8 will top out at 187 mph given a suitable stretch of tarmac. Beyond the engine's 8,250 rpm redline (250 more than the RS4) and trick dry sump lubrication system, it's Audi's application of quattro all-wheel-drive that impresses. With a healthy amount of rearward bias and a 44/56-weight distribution, the potential for tail-out merriment is simply a flick of the wheel and stab of the throttle away. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Audi's patented blend of function and form is instantly apparent from the moment you open the door. Unlike other mid-engine exotics, you don't have to be a double-jointed gymnast to get planted in the supple sports seats. You enter the R8 like any other GT, as massive doors make ingress and egress a snap for anyone short of Shaq. Once inside, it takes a second to realize that you're in something special – then you catch a glimpse of the V8's silver intake manifold in the auto-dimming mirror and the goose bumps begin forming on the back of your neck. The flat-bottom steering wheel is the perfect diameter and frames two large white-on-grey gauges to keep tabs on the speed and revs. Work your way to the right and you're greeted with Audi's familiar and functional MMI setup, which remains one of our favorite wart-manipulated multimedia controls. The HVAC switchgear below the large nav screen is easy to understand and a pleasure to push; the knobs and buttons are only slightly reminiscent of those found on the R8's lesser siblings. But that large stalk sprouting from the transmission tunnel caused inadvertent bouts of cursing. Yes, we were saddled with Audi's R-tronic automated manual gearbox, and no, it's not good.

Just before you insert the switchblade key into the steering column (seriously, a key?), you hear the faint whine of the fuel pump priming the lines. Twist the fob and the direct-injected bent-eight snaps to life with a sound decidedly more metallic than manly. Dip into the throttle in neutral and your ear drums duck for cover as the revs make an effortless run into the red. If God's ring tone is a ten-cylinder R8, the V8 variant is Satan's doorbell; and it's even better under load. But getting that load to the wheels proved less than pleasurable.

Choose first gear through either the central-mounted transmission stalk or the "+" button on the steering wheel-mounted paddles, release the brake, and... nothing. After the transmission's computer takes a few seconds to think, the R8 begins to roll forward, doing its best Michael Richards impersonation – tactless and taut. When you finally give it some go-juice, the R8 jerks its way to speed under part-throttle, then finally smoothes out before you grab the next gear. Then the jerkiness begins anew. We're not sure if the transmission's reluctance to shift smoothly was a product of the gearbox alone or the hack that had driven it before us, but by week's end we found ourselves adapting to suit the tranny by a combination of lifting while shifting and applying the right amount of throttle pressure to keep things smooth. It worked, but for the $132,745 price of our tester, we want a car that accommodates us, rather than the other way around. Then again, we would've opted for the (no-cost) manual in the first place.

However, once underway and past second gear, all is (almost) forgiven. Keep the transmission in automatic mode and the R8 slots and shuffles through traffic without a care in the world. Sure, swapping through the cogs under your own power might be preferred, but we were constantly amazed at how well the R8 would deal with our daily jaunts around town and on the freeway. It's perfectly content with commuter duty, acting more like a grand-touring version of the A8 rather than a high-strung super coupe. We even made a trek to San Francisco, and aside from a lady bounding out of a store, running across the street and almost getting clipped by a cab so she could take a few photos of our black-on-black whip, the entire trip proved to be drama-free.

But drama – the good sort – was on the horizon.

It took us nearly a month before it arrived to pick the perfect collection of roads on which to manhandle the R8. We narrowed it down to three: two with which we were intimately familiar and one that we hadn't driven for a decade. Our photographer and I crammed the R8's trunk with all the necessary camera gear (a few bags of varying size will bring it to capacity quickly) and took off for the day. What ensued completely warped our perception of physics' limitations.

The first left-hand bend came up quicker than expected – easy to do with over 400 horses on tap – and with two quick shifts dropping us from fourth to second gear, we pegged the brakes right up to the ABS threshold. Both our bodies were heaved into the seatbelts with more force we'd ever experienced in a vehicle destined for public roads. The clampers work, but the button below the shifter was more impressive.

With the "Sport" mode engaged, the throttle sharpens, the shifts quicken and the exhaust note turns from demure to disturbed. The steering tightens up on corner entry and curves are dispatched with mind-altering efficiency. The R8's hunkered-down demeanor is increased ten-fold and the grip – my God – it never lets up. Nailing the throttle mid-corner is akin to setting a tractor beam from apex to exit, and only once did we feel like things had the potential to get slippery without our explicit consent. We did give in to our better worse demons and disabled the traction control, but getting the R8 out of sorts – even on purpose – is a lesson in brutal futility. You can bring the back end out on corner exit, but to get anything resembling a serious slide would take a massive set of ham fists and an undeterred desire to meet your maker.

After full two hours of flogging, the brakes never faded, the engine's note never ceased to thrill and, more importantly, we never felt fatigued. It's like dancing with your spouse, only she (or he) is a 20-year veteran of ballet and has plenty left to teach. We desperately wanted to learn more.

So on our final night with the R8, we set out to spend some quality time with our new best friend. The roads were still damp from a light rain and with the LEDs blazing a trail ahead of us, we were overwhelmed by the sensation of being tasked with a mission. We were the Dark Knight and corners awaited their execution. We returned home several hours later than expected with an unshakable grin, content with the knowledge that for $130k we could man the engaging helm of a top-of-the-line 911 Carrera 4S or fulfill our fantasies behind the wheel of an Aston Martin V8 Vantage. But neither would excite us, reward us, nor compliment us as much as an Audi R8 equipped with a gated shifter. We haven't slept as soundly since.

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Autoblog reviews the Audi R8

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Photos Copyright ©2008 Brad Wood / Weblogs, Inc.

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