Car reviews - Audi - R8 - 4.2 FSI quattro coupe
Exquisite styling and detailing, gorgeous interior, everyday usability, V8’s performance, handling balance, superb road-holding, relative value for money
Room for improvement
Costly options, R-Tronic can still be a little jerky around town, not much luggage space
5 Oct 2007
BACK in 1989, Honda changed the supercar world forever with the NSX.
Featuring all-aluminium construction and a long, low two-seater body, the mid-engined, rear-wheel drive sports car from Japan showed up with a special 3.0-litre V6 that revved to high heaven.
The NSX also showed up the established Italian, German and English sports car makers with its excellent ergonomics, light and easy controls, and utter reliability. It made the contemporary Ferrari F348 look decidedly compromised.
Sales never met expectations and Honda hasn’t yet been able to replace it, but the Audi R8 is set to be the NSX’s spiritual successor as the everyday supercar.
Late last year, we had the privilege of putting an R8 through its paces on a racetrack. Driving at Phillip Island, our tester and part-time rally and race ace James Stanford called the Audi “...a track-ready weapon that is at home barrelling around the sea-side circuit,” adding that it had “incredible balance... is remarkably composed” and with brakes that are “simply stunning.”
Needless to say, Mr Stanford’s expectations were well exceeded.
But what is the R8 like away from the track? Does it meet our everyday supercar ideals as effortlessly as the NSX?
A memorable week behind the wheel of one certainly answered that question.
Apart from when you just sit and stare at the gorgeous lines, most of your time with the R8 will be spent inside it, making the interior the obvious starting point for a vehicle vying for everyday supercar status.
Entry and egress is easy – a poignant nod to the pioneering efforts of the NSX – with doors that open wide and apertures large enough to accommodate even big blokes.
The R8’s interior is a futuristic take on the current Audi cabin styling themes, with lovely soft-feel surfaces, gorgeous teardrop instrumentation set within a 986 Porsche Boxster-style hooded binnacle, and simply brilliant ergonomics.
Sited within a spacious 2650mm wheelbase that is some 90mm longer than the Lamborghini Gallardo that the R8 is derived from, it is as if Audi took an A6 interior and moulded it to suit the supercar, coming up with a roomy and avantgarde take that makes rivals’ efforts such as the Porsche 911 seem ordinary and dated.
Top marks go to the GPS screen, with its easy interface, and brilliantly logical MMI controls sited directly below.
The screen also serves as a very handy set of electronic rear eyes for when you are reversing. Not that it is too hard to see out of the R8, with a sizeable back window and big exterior mirrors installed. Echoes of NSX again? We certainly think so.
About the only jarring note is the faddish flat-bottomed steering wheel – which may look fittingly F1 but it detracts from the wheel-turning experience.
We cannot praise the seats enough. They support and envelope in a way that makes travelling in the R8 comfortable and relaxing. And they move back far enough for the car never to feel cramped or claustrophobic.
Audi says there is 90 litres of space behind the seats to augment the 100 litres available beneath the bonnet. Overnight bags and other small items fit in both areas, but there just isn’t the cargo carrying capacity of, say, a Porsche 911, undermining the R8’s everyday supercar aspirations.
Being a German car-maker, Audi has thought of this already and so offers a specially designed five-piece luggage set that fits snugly for the outrageous sum of $11,600. That amount can also buy you a 1996 Audi A4 Avant 1.8 – with a bit of haggling of course.
Beyond the seats is a bulkhead that does too good a job in cocooning you from the fabulous sounds (as well as the heat) of the 4.2-litre FSI V8 also found in the mighty RS4.
It isn’t exactly the same unit as found in Audi’s M3-beating sports sedan though, with dry-sump lubrication so the engine can be installed as low as possible for a lower centre of gravity – in a mechanical act of simpatico with the low-slung occupants inside.
As one of the world’s great V8s, it revs with a willingness of a Honda VTEC four, all the way to an incredibly high 8500rpm cut-out, while providing a beautifully linear power delivery right from the outset.
This is another nod to the NSX, because although the R8 does not feel ballistically fast, it reels in the road with frightening ease. Audi says 100km/h can be hit in 4.6 seconds on the way to a 301km/h top speed.
That old chestnut of the chassis seeming like it could use more power is certainly true for the Audi, because there isn’t any tyre-shredding hysteria or a feeling of too much power when you plant the foot, just a forceful thrust forward.
But while we’re dealing out clichés, cop this: Like an automotive Jeckyl and Hyde, push in the Sport button and switch off the stability control nannies and this car turns into a tyre-smoking sideways squealer if you want it to be.
Yep, in the dry the driver can easily catch the car as it swings into an oversteer attitude just before the Torsen differential quattro 4WD system composes the car, but as Audi’s engineers have devised the front wheels to only deal with between 10 and 35 per cent of the torque output available, there is plenty of wayward fun to be had too.
Our car was fitted with the R-Tronic sequential manual gearbox, which indeed does take time and concentration to become accustomed to.
But invest in getting to know this transmission, and it transcends from annoying around-town jolter to slickly smooth and superbly swift cog-swapper of the first order.
We reckon it’s the best of the species we’ve currently tried. We also much preferred to use the intuitive steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters to the slightly out-of-reach-for-total-comfort floor-mounted Tiptronic lever.
Slot it into automatic ‘A’ mode and R-Tronic even becomes acceptable around town, and you can change it to and from auto any time the urge takes you.
And – especially in sport mode – it has the smarts to almost keep up with a 911 Turbo we had on hand just for fun.
Yet we are inclined to recommend the as-yet untested six-speed manual gearbox more, despite our warming up to the R-Tronic – simply because the rest of the car is so damned well set up.
Have we mentioned how fluidly the R8 takes corners, sitting firmly and flatly to the road surface as it powers through with virtually no bodyroll, its sharp (but not razor-sharp) steering taking you immediately where you want to go?
Audi has fitted a rear limited-slip differential to make all this happen as sweetly as possible, but there is also no doubt that the stiffness of the aluminium space-frame and 44:56 rear-biased weight distribution, combined with the partly forged aluminium double wishbone front and rear suspension set-up, also go a long way to make the R8 into a sensationally tactile and interactive handling device.
And, as Mr Stanford so eloquently remarked while hurtling at up to 250km/h down at Phillip Island, eight-piston callipers up front lock onto massive 380mm diameter discs, while four-piston callipers and 356mm discs take care of rear braking. On the road, this car feels like an incredibly confident stopper.
Outrageously, the R8’s ride is probably among the best Audi offers. It is firm, but not choppy or hard or crashy – even when the magnetic ride button is activated.
Ah, Magnetic Ride. You’ll find something similar in the latest Audi TT, and on several HSV E-Series vehicles as well. Basically, varying currents are applied to electro magnets in the dampers, making the fluid inside change viscosity in micro seconds for firmer damping action when needed, and a softer setting when the R8 is used to just potter around.
And there, in a nutshell, lies the essence of the R8: Pottering around. It’s the term motoring journalists used most often when describing the amazing range of the NSX: “You can drive it around town like a Civic” is one that springs to mind, and the same is true for this Audi.
The R8 isn’t perfect, but it is stunning to look at, exhilarating to drive and inviting to be in – even after hours behind the wheel.
That it possesses Ferrari-esque beauty, performs like a Lamborghini and costs as much as your basic four-wheel drive Porsche 911 underscores that other NSX virtue that makes the R8 one of our favourite all-time sports cars... sheer and unadulterated value for money.
Honda, the bar has been raised through the roof.
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