Attention, Porsche 911 Turbo, Lamborghini LP560-4, Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG: Here comes your nemesis.
This Audi probably would have never happened had Porsche gained control of the Volkswagen Group five years earlier. But now the Audi R8 5.2 is out, larger than life and even better than expected. True, the Gallardo is sharper. The SL63 AMG is wilder. And the 911 Turbo is all that in a more compact package. But in terms of total dynamic balance; anyone-can-do-it, A-to-B ground-covering ability; and that all-important blend of confidence, compliance, and comfort, the 5.2-liter V-10-powered R8 is the new leader of the pack.
That's the inescapable conclusion after a memorable day in which even losing my driver's license ten times over would not have dimmed the sparkle in my eyes. In the morning, I left Marbella, Spain, for the remote, privately owned Ascari racetrack in a Suzuka gray R8 with a three-pedal transmission and magnetic dampers (standard in the U.S.). After lunch, I chased the warm winter sun through the rolling hills of the Costa del Sol in a brilliant red coupe that featured the R tronic automated-manual transmission and the conventional chassis setup. My pick? The manual version, even though it is a little less aggressive on the track and a little thirstier overall.
When we first tried the R8 a couple years ago, the last things it seemed to need were two more cylinders and 100 extra horses. Which only goes to prove that even the finest sports car can always do with more power. In the case of the R8 5.2, the 420-hp, 4.2-liter V-8 was replaced by a 525-hp, 5.2-liter V-10. Redlined at 8700 instead of 8000 rpm, the engine dishes up 391 instead of 317 lb-ft of torque. Although the torque curve peaks at a tall 6500 rpm, more than 350 lb-ft are on tap all the way from 3500 to 7500 rpm. Perfectly spaced and mated to a creamy yet meaty clutch, the six-speed gearbox combines short throws with sensuous connectivity and the classic aluminum gates. The R tronic works very well in paddleshift operation and in superquick sport mode, but when the lever is stuck in Drive, the transmission responds jerkily and somewhat reluctantly to impatient throttle orders.
The ten-cylinder R8 is a seriously fast driving machine that does not rely on any kind of artificial aspiration to beam itself toward the horizon. First gear expires a trifle early at 49 mph, but second stretches to 79 mph, third maxes out at 111 mph, and fourth is good for 142 mph. Fifth should run out of revs at 172 mph, but we found no road that was long or straight enough to prove it. The claimed top speed is 196 mph, which means that the R8 5.2 is a little faster than the 911 Turbo and the top-spec SL63 AMG, yet a little slower than the closely related 552-hp Gallardo, not to mention the $107,000 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1. The acceleration time quoted for the 0-to-62-mph sprint is 3.9 seconds, which puts the fastest-ever production Audi on par with the Porsche and the $302,000 SL65 AMG Black Series. Thanks to Quattro all-wheel drive, a 15/85 front/rear torque bias, a limited-slip rear differential, 44/56 percent weight distribution, and substantial nineteen-inch Pirelli tires, grip is never an issue on dry pavement.
Of course, you can switch off stability control, but in view of the massive maximum cornering forces (1.2 g, according to Audi), it takes a braver man and preferably a wider circuit to perform the art of power oversteer. Instead, it is worth dialing in ESP Sport, a useful in-between setting that permits all the basic dance steps except those that typically end in tears. Equipped with polished two-tone Y-spoke wheels and a set of extrawide tires (235/35YR-19 in the front, 305/30YR-19 in the back), our test car provided the kind of roadholding one normally associates only with warmed-up slicks.
Tipping the scales at 3571 pounds with the six-speed manual, the new Audi is 132 pounds heavier than its V-8-powered brother, 77 pounds heavier than a 911 Turbo, and 50 pounds more than the latest Gallardo. Weighing down the Audi are its longer wheelbase (104.3 versus 100.8 inches for the Lambo), its less radical materials, and its more generous equipment. While the Gallardo LP560-4 is a tight fit, the R8 offers more head- and legroom as well as a second luggage bay behind the seats, which expands cargo volume to 6.7 cubic feet. Like the R8 4.2, the R8 5.2 gets a flat-bottomed steering wheel, but in the V-10 model it can be rimmed with a suedelike material. Exterior upgrades over the V-8 version include flared sideblades, extended sills, a larger rear diffuser, standard LED headlamps (an industry first but of no obvious benefit at night), different wheel designs, polished black front and rear air vents, and more chrome for the single-frame grille.
The key features aimed at enthusiasts are R tronic, magnetic ride dampers, and optional ceramic brakes, which probably won't be available in North America. It's just as well, because although the composite rotors have their merits, in real life they have more to do with image and resale value than performance. They need to be kept at working temperature to deliver-which they do with aplomb on the racetrack, where riveting, fade-free deceleration along with consistent pedal travel and pressure are the bonuses. On public roads, one rarely reaps the full benefit of the brakes, since the ceramic rotors can be noisy when they're cold and their performance, which ranges from casual to grabby, depends too much on your driving style.
On the highway, however, it often takes only a couple of highspeed stopping maneuvers to show the advantage of the system's extra strength and stamina. The magnetic dampers work a lot better in the R8 than, say, in the TT. They effectively reduce pitch, roll, and yaw; turn-in is more prompt; and the front axle in particular relays the kind of enhanced suppleness and malleability that we like so much in the Ferrari 430 Scuderia and the Nissan GT-R. Not surprisingly, the system works best in comfort mode.
Thanks to its dry-sump lubrication; its lowmounted, midship fuel tank; and its ground-hugbase ging body architecture, the R8 5.2 puts its center of gravity closer to the tarmac than most of its rivals. The enlarged rear spoiler extends at an even more adventurous angle; it deploys at 60 mph and automatically retracts again at 20 mph. With the tail deflector up, the drag coefficient deteriorates slightly, but front and rear axle loadings are improved. On Spanish highways, the directional stability was good even on rutted stuff and over slab-surfaced bridges, but the final verdict on life in the 125-to-200-mph bracket must wait until we can try the car in its unrestricted German habitat.
In Germany, the Audi R8 V-10 edition costs some $45,000 more than the V-8 model, but it is worth every penny because of the extra top-end grunt and that irresistible bottom-end urge, and because the 5.2-liter engine revs you into a different universe. It's like upgrading from business class to first, and Audi expects that eight out of ten customers will do just that.
In fact, the 525-hp variant arrives not a day too soon. After all, R8 production has recently dropped from a peak of twenty-five cars per working day to a current low of only two units. In total, 7900 vehicles have been completed in the Neckarsulm, Germany, facility. The 5.2, which is due at German dealerships in May and in the United States sometime in the first half of 2010, should end the slump. But like every drug that works, it carries certain side effects. Porsche will soon feel them, as orders for upmarket 911s are bound to suffer. And you don't need a crystal ball to predict that the Lamborghini Gallardo will be even harder hit. Although the soon-to-be launched LP560-4 Spyder may provide a brief rebound during the upcoming summer season, the open-top R8 due at the Frankfurt show in September will soon make life difficult again for its sister brand.
The R8 5.2 epitomizes a new level of fluidity in motion, of input and feedback, of competence and control. This is a proactive sports car, not a permanent provocation to mind and body. It can do Munich to Malaga, Spain, in two days with the cruise control set at 75 mph and the driver totally at ease. But it can also storm from the seaside resort of Marbella to the mountain city of Ronda and back in just under forty minutes, a pace that is so illegal that the Spanish police would question their radar-gun readings.
How is that possible? Because this Audi establishes a new middle ground between breakneck fast and play-it-safe moderate. That middle ground is challenging but not to the extreme, ambitious but not overly so, eye-opening but not to the point where death stares back at you. Like no other mid-engine sports car I can think of, the Bavarian coupe with the Italian soul makes you a better, smoother, and more complete driver.
TECHTONICS: Ten To Go
The R8's new 5.2-liter V-10 descends from the collaborative design effort between Audi and Lamborghini, which yielded a 493-hp, 5.0-liter V-10 for the 2004 Gallardo. The 90-degree V-angle, selected to facilitate the sharing of block machining tools with Audi V-8 engines, results in uneven firing intervals. Boosting the displacement to 5.2 liters, installing direct fuel injection, and raising the compression ratio to 12.5:1 in the R8 yields 391 lb-ft of torque at 6500 rpm and 525 hp at 8000 rpm. A similar 5.2-liter V-10 in the Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4 boasts slightly higher peak power and torque ratings.
- Don Sherman, Technical Editor
Base Price: $150,000 (est.)
Engine: DOHC 40-valve V-10
Displacement: 5.2 liters (318 cu in)
Horsepower: 525 hp @ 8000 rpm
Torque: 391 lb-ft @ 6500 rpm
Transmision type: 6-speed automated manual
Steering: Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
Suspension: Front Control arms, coil springs
Suspension: Rear Control arms, coil springs
Brakes: Vented carbon-ceramic discs, ABS
Tires: Pirelli PZero
Tire size f, r: 235/35YR-19, 305/30YR-19
L x W x H: 174.6 x 76.0 x 49.3 in
Wheelbase: 104.3 in
Track f/r 64.5/62.7 in
Weight 3582 lb*v0-62 mph 3.9 sec*
0-124 mph 12.0 sec*
Top speed 196 mph*
Fuel mileage 11/19 mpg (est.)