Audi R8: German precision meets Latin flair

Image: Audi R8
The Audi R8, which our reviewer says is an exotic supercar with a race-ready, direct-injected V-10 engine.Audi

Drivers who appreciate the incredible experience of piloting the Audi R8 with its optional 525-horsepower V-10 engine that revs to an eardrum-stimulating 8,700 rpm may find themselves seeking an indulgence from the priests of the new green religion.

The new dogma decrees that transportation is a painfully necessary activity that's  required for functional purposes and not for fun. Sort of like the view of sex taken by some of the older churches.

Unreformed sensualists (and those who can afford the $150,200 base price) will enjoy the opportunity to immerse themselves in the R8 and its race-ready direct-injected V-10 engine, however. The notion of an exotic mid-engined supercar from Germany may be surprising to those who associate such things with Italy.

But Audi's parent company Volkswagen bought Lamborghini a few years back, and the result has been a fusion of Latin brio with Teutonic precision whose success few honest observers can claim to have predicted.

The R8 is a close cousin of the Lamborghini Gallardo, sharing its basic platform, suspension and power train but with a unique, more refined and Germanic body style.

Refinement is also the key differentiator under the skin. While the Lamborghini makes no apologies to anyone who seeks some comfort at the potential price of some compromised performance, the R8 dials the Lambo's intensity back from 11 to a more palatable 9.5.

It's still fast, still impressive, but nearly as ready for a long-distance road trip as for a track session. An area of significant difference between the two cars is the Audi's extra 3.5 inches of length between the front and rear wheels, giving the driver some much-needed legroom on the left side.

The R8's left front wheelwell intrudes on the driver's footwell badly enough that the left leg tends to cramp from lack of space after some saddle time. But such trips can at least be undertaken in the Audi, while a long drive in the Gallardo could be viewed as penance.

One false note in the R8’s technical specifications is the presence of a six-disc Victrola as the music source for the Bang & Olufsen stereo. OK, it is a CD changer, not a Victrola, but CDs are just about as relevant as acetate 78s to most of today’s drivers.

The company offers an iPod connector as an alternative for 2010, and 48 percent of the cars ordered are specified for this. With an average age of 51 for an R8 driver, it would appear that drivers under 50 are choosing the contemporary music format, while the older buyers prefer to carry their music on discs.

As with any such car, the experience of spirited driving is memorable, with instantaneously responsive steering, trackworthy brakes and a rich, sonorous engine note as the car accelerates and decelerates through twisty curves. The crisp response of the engine to the gas pedal hints at a very light flywheel, so the engine changes speed with the driver's thought.

Too many cars lately have electronic throttles programmed to be sluggish in response to input for the benefit of clean emissions and fuel economy. But the direct-injected Audi V-10 suffers no ill effects under rapidly changing throttle conditions. The fuel is squirted directly into the cylinders in response to actual power requirements, so there is no unburned fuel in the exhaust after a quick throttle blip.

The R8 reminds enthusiasts what first attracted them to fast cars, an increasingly rare quality in this age of sanitized-for-your-protection transportation modules — even some darn fast modules.

The car features Audi’s signature quattro all-wheel-drive technology, a configuration that is not conducive to precise steering at vigorous cornering speeds.

Audi addresses this by funneling between 70 and 85 percent of engine power to the rear wheels, depending on the circumstances. These leaves the front wheels in the appropriate role of supporting cast when it comes to transmitting power, leaving those tires free to focus on cornering grip.

Engine sounds great
That the engine sounds great probably surprises only car nuts who have noticed with dismay that 10 cylinders do not always produce melodic exhaust sounds. The V-10 Dodge Viper is particularly susceptible to driving conditions that evoke its inner UPS truck. The Audi engineers obviously stayed after school to put in some extra effort on the R8's muffler design to disguise the typical sound of a decade of cylinders.

Despite its rakishly menacing looks, the R8 wears sheetmetal that obviously has been honed by the wind tunnel to shed aerodynamic drag. Despite its functionality — the R8's body produces the most stability-enhancing downforce at speed of any street car, according to Audi — it still causes some people to almost involuntarily whip out their phones to shoot video for their friends.

Fuel stops are an ordeal, not because of particularly terrible gas mileage (the R8 is rated at 12 mpg city and 20 mpg highway, and we saw the EPA combined number of 15 mpg in mixed driving) but because of the impromptu paparrazi. Up close and in person they marvel at the R8 glass rear engine cover, which highlights the glittering aluminum V-10 masterpiece like this year’s must-have toy in the window of Macy’s Herald Square.

Around front, if it is dark, bystanders marvel at the R8’s LED headlight arrays, standard with the V-10. Forget the old-fashioned notions of heating a wire filament to make light, or even the more recent xenon high-intensity discharge arc lights. The R8 harnesses the efficiency of semiconductors to light the road ahead, which the 24 LEDs do effectively, while giving the R8 a unique appearance that burnishes Audi’s high-tech credentials.

How to improve on the R8? Audi already has, with the introduction of this 5.2-liter V-10 variant, which boosts power by 105 hp compared to the base 4.2-liter V-8 engine. At the recent Los Angeles Auto Show, the company further extended the R8 product line, and the car’s appeal, with the introduction of an open-top convertible version that is likely to enjoy particular success in sunny Souther California.

What of the greens?
But what of the greens, and their disdain for gratuitous consumption? The smarter among them recognize that cars like the R8 are irrelevant to the environment because there aren’t many of them and those that are built aren’t driven a lot of miles.

Nevertheless, Audi is gearing up to address the issue. The company has enjoyed unparalleled success in sports car endurance racing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans races over the last decade, with wins in 2007 and 2008 by cars powered by efficient diesel engines.

Based on this heritage, Audi has shown a diesel-powered R8 prototype that used the race car’s V-12 engine. Any production version probably would use a V-10 more comparable in size to the gas engine in the test car, said Chas Murphy, R8 product manager for Audi of America Inc.

The company has not announced such a product but has announced plans to build an all-electric car called the e-tron. The e-tron looks exactly like the R8 but is powered by batteries rather than internal combustion. The car will be available in the next two or three years, said Murphy, providing Audi an indulgence for the “infernal” combustion of the R8.