96 Hours with the Audi R8

June 22, 2007
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The truth, dear reader, will make you cry. Car magazines, as you imagine, have rotating fleets of shiny new press cars--BMWs and Mercedes-Benz AMGs and Corvette Z06s and Lotus Elises galore. You might also imagine that we spend every waking moment driving them hither and yon, revving engines, burning rubber, and flying under the radar of the Ann Arbor police, who have little to do but ticket speeders and issue summonses to drunken college students for peeing in public. Well, we do all of those things (the speeding and the revving, not the peeing), but generally not between nine and five, other than occasional lunch forays. The truth is, most of the time we're too busy sitting in front of our iMacs, editing the magazine, to drive. And the cars sit in our adjacent parking structure, waiting patiently for our after-hours attention.
Clearly, that fate would not do for the Audi R8, the new, mid-engine exotic that so deliciously synthesizes German precision with Italian soul (it shares a few parts with the Lamborghini Gallardo.) The Audi arrived on a Monday, giving us only ninety-six precious hours to show it off to friends, flaunt its flanks in the finest neighborhoods, and drive the bejeezus out of it. There was talk of running the R8 continuously, but sleep seemed wise, lest we ball it up in a ditch at four a.m. We knew one thing: the R8 would not spend a single daytime minute in our parking garage. Let's set the trip odometer to zero and see where the R8 takes us.
A GEARBOX IS WAITING FOR ME IN PITTSBURGH
It's spring in Ann Arbor. I know this because the snow has melted, the daffodils are in full bloom, and there's a puddle of transmission fluid under my twenty-year-old Volkswagen Scirocco. Even though I always shelter my old friend in a heated garage, something major breaks on it every spring. German cars hate to sit.
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This Audi R8's arrival presented me with the perfect excuse to take it on a twelve-hour round-trip journey to pick up a donor transmission from my friends' shop in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. After all, if we let the R8 sit in the garage all day, it might break, too. (Or not. But that's my justification for swiping the keys the moment the car arrived on Monday at eleven a.m., and I'm sticking to it.)
The R8 looks like the offspring of a Bugatti Veyron and an Audi TT, and judging by the number of cell-phone cameras that were aimed its way along the Ohio Turnpike, that's a good thing. Even better, the R8 drives as spectacularly as it looks.
The only hint of Audi-typical isolation is in the steering--it's millimeter precise but gives practically no feedback. Everything else about the R8 makes it a true sports car: its V-8 sounds ferocious, it can light up all four Pirellis, and its suspension allows no excess body motions.
The R8 is a true Porsche 911 fighter. I know this because I own a 911, too. It, however, is sitting in my garage, leaking. Never let a German car sit, I tell you. Jason Cammisa
WINDY CITY LUNCH
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It's 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday and I'm shivering at the end of my driveway, waiting for associate art director Nicole Lazarus to arrive in the R8, which came to rest at Jason Cammisa's house only a few hours ago, when he returned from his run to Pittsburgh. The shriek of the R8's 420-hp V-8 finally rends the morning air, and the silvery shark rushes toward me. Nicole opens the door, jumps out, and pronounces the R8 "the coolest car I've ever driven!" In my excitement and haste, I leap into the R8 and come within inches of backing it into a pile of landscaping rocks. While sitting in the driveway letting my blood pressure recede and thanking my lucky stars, I take a gander at the R8's cabin. Strangely but endearingly, the driver's interior door handle differs from the passenger's, to accommodate additional window controls. But, somehow, when Audi does asymmetry, it still ends up looking symmetrical.
We're headed from Ann Arbor to Chicago for lunch, the realization of a longtime notion of mine that heretofore has met with indifference from my colleagues. The way I figure it, we have a car that is beyond fabulous, so we need to go to the greatest city within reach--Chicago, hands down--and have a fabulous lunch in a swank place. Peninsula Hotel, Magnificent Mile, city of broad shoulders, here we come.
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Westbound I-94 is crawling with cops, so I set the cruise at 80 mph, ask Nicole to break open the chocolate and the Evian, and turn up the radio to mask the annoying wind noise coming off the trailing edge of the driver's door. (It's an early production car.) The seats are comfortable and the ride is reasonably supple, but the dead pedal needs more space in the footwell. Thick fog gives way to sun and clear skies as we reach Saint Joseph, so we stop to bathe the R8 at a hand car wash. We cross into Indiana well before eleven o'clock, and soon enough we're running through the gears, gunning out of the Indiana Toll Road tollbooth.
With the transition from Eastern to Central time zones, it's only 10:45 a.m. when we crest the Chicago Skyway bridge, and the city's skyline, anchored by the Sears Tower on the left and the John Hancock Center on the right, unfolds before us. It's a view I've seen a hundred times, in dozens of different cars, and one that I never tire of. The R8 noses up Stony Island Avenue to Lake Shore Drive to Columbus Circle, and within minutes we're amid the throngs on Michigan Avenue, where we blip the throttle to part the streams of office workers, shoppers, and kids on spring break. Dawn, the woman training the horses for the tourist carriages that hang out near the old Water Tower, sticks her head into the passenger's window of the idling R8, so I offer her a ride. "Wow, what is this?" she asks. "I bet it's fast. I went 120 mph once in my Grand Am GT."
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Our arrival at the Peninsula's valet lane is suitably grand, and an elevator whisks us up to the fourth floor and the Shanghai Terrace restaurant (Avenues, the really swank on-site eatery, wasn't open for lunch, or editor-in-chief Gavin Conway would still be choking on the bill). As he twirls a stem of Laurent-Perrier champagne, my friend Paul Clark, a firefighter who just came off shift, remarks on his circuitous journey that morning from his fire company's impoverished west-side location to his middle-class north-side neighborhood to this gilded epicenter of wealth and privilege.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's not Chicago's Gold Coast but rather the South Side where the R8 gets its most enthusiastic reviews. "Hey," asks another customer as we pull up to the pumps at a BP station on Stony Island Avenue before heading home. "Ain't you a movie star?" "Nope, I'm afraid we're not Hollywood royalty," I reply. But in the Audi R8, we sure felt like the king and queen of Chicago for the day. Joe Dematio
TAIL OF THE DRAGON
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Joe DeMatio and Nicole Lazarus showed up in my driveway, fat and happy, at 8:42 on Tuesday evening. (How it takes thirteen hours to drive to Chicago for lunch is beyond me, but there you have it.) I snatched the keys to the R8, left four black streaks on Ann Arbor's main drag, and headed to what is quite possibly the single most iconic sports car road in the continental United States. I drove all eleven miles and 318 corners of it, and then I drove home.
U.S. 129 is one of those singular stretches of pavement that has somehow managed to survive the endless march of progress and media exposure unscathed. The road exists as an underground mecca in spite of years of magazine and television press; in sports car and motorcycle circles, it's still spoken of in cultish, hushed tones: You have to see it to believe it, they say. Have you been on the Dragon?
You read that right. It may seem a tad corny, but this road has an unofficial name: Tail of the Dragon. And from the moment you roll onto its most famous stretch, just south of Knoxville, you understand why--318 corners in eleven miles equates to roughly twenty-nine corners per mile, or an average of just 182 feet between apexes. The heavily cambered, nearly guardrail-free mountain pavement immediately takes on a very real, very demanding personality.
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Not that the R8 was bothered. It happily scrubbed its front tires on the faster stuff and kicked out its ass end on the slower bits, all the while thundering through the sine-curved landscape like a machine possessed. On rain-dampened asphalt, I roared along far below the big Audi's cornering limits, carrying truly ridiculous speed with little effort or involvement. (And, to be honest, only a vague notion as to what the front end was doing, so feedback-free was the steering.) I ran the Dragon from start to finish. And then I did it again. And again. Then I stopped for fuel, bought photographer Regis Lefebure some Dramamine (which he promptly proceeded to throw up), and did it again. It was fantastic.
Take the downshifts--the downshifts were probably my favorite part. I became so enamored of the R8's gear drops that I even took to filming them with my camera phone, great big whoompa! whoompa! explosions that shook the car with every twitch of my right foot. I'd jam the phone into the steering wheel, hit record, and blast down through that gearbox like a man afire. A well-timed and double-clutched third-to-second drop could bring all the traffic in an intersection to a screeching halt and blow nearby pedestrians into the weeds. The footage found its way to the inboxes of almost everyone I know.
How do you quantify something like that? Easy: you can't. Quarter-mile numbers can't describe the sidewalk double-takes, and dyno charts don't do justice to the sensory overload. It's almost magical. This is why you dig out the cell phone. This is why you drive eight hours for fourteen and a half minutes of road.
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Lessons learned? After three or four runs on the Tail of the Dragon, you start to get a feel for the road's rhythm and remember where things go and when. After five, you force yourself to slow down, because the intersection-and-population-free blacktop is beginning to feel more and more like a closed circuit (and consequently less and less safe). By the sixth time, you start thinking about postponing the long drive home. And seven? The seventh run is when you realize that you really, really resent your boss, because she's the one who gets the R8 next--and that makes her the only real reason that you have to pack up and leave. Sam Smith
WHY WE LOVE THE GATED SHIFTER
It lurched into life in the cockpit of some early, stone-wheeled exotic, zooming Caveman Ug from rock to rock with a healthy clack and a clack and a clackety-clack-clack. It makes little sense in the modern world, that dumbed-down place where most cars could be driven and shifted smoothly by the family pet. It is the gated shift lever. Hear it roar.
Anachronistic affectation? Of course. These days, externally gated cog-swappers are as necessary as gas-fired headlights or begoggled riding mechanics. And there's no arguing that they're an impediment to the shift smoothness of Sally Simple or Peter Pedestrian. But therein lies the glory: They require work. They require skill. Get it right, and you're rewarded with a seamless downshift and that immensely satisfying metal-on-metal clack; get it wrong, and you're stuck with little more than a fistful of neutrals and the overwhelming feeling that your entire life is a failure. A gated lever can make or break a man, and it's one of the countless reasons that we love the Audi R8. SS
DRIVING MISS AUDREY
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My dad was the editor of Automotive News, so as kids, we were very used to having press cars pull up to our house each night. I didn't think my mom, Audrey, was impressed by all that glamorous sheetmetal in her driveway; in fact, she didn't learn how to drive until I was in fourth grade and she was forty. (And once she got her license, she favored pickup trucks.) Little did I know, but by then, she'd had ten pregnancies and she needed an escape vehicle. She was intensely interested in those cars.
At eighty-three, Audrey still loves cars and, although she no longer drives, still loves to ride. I mean, she loves to ride. This may be because she is in assisted living and needs to get the hell out of there just about as often as she ran away from all of us at home to the peace and quiet of her sister Red's house in northern Michigan.
She doesn't care if that ride comes in a car, in a pickup truck, in an SUV so tall she needs a stepladder for entry, or on the back of an ATV. But she is most appreciative and clucky if her chariot is flashy. So you can see what I was offering here. First, a ride in the middle of the day, in the middle of a work week. Second, a ride in a car instead of an unwieldy sport-utility vehicle. Third, a ride in a car that looked like a spaceship. Fourth, a hot dog for a snack at Todoroff's, which looks like a docking station for that spaceship.
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If only that crazy Sam Smith would arrive with the R8 from his dash to Tennessee. He was supposed to hit Ann Arbor just after noon, but if I was the one running the Tail of the Dragon in the R8, I might consider a second pass or three. Where was that little bugger? Bad enough that my entire time in the hottest car to hit town in ages would be spent on the freeway and the surface streets of Jackson "We Like It Here!" Michigan.
He came, I saw, and all was forgiven from the minute I slid in and spied that shift gate. It is the most evocative icon of my twenty-six year struggle to be the best driver I could be. Paddle shifters, my ass. Real women want to row that stick through the unforgiving, thoroughly rewarding metal slots. I'm coming, Mom!
The simple joys of life: A beautiful car--she threw both hands into the air and smiled joyously when I pointed to her ride by the curb. The love of a mother--"Your father always said you were the best driver of the bunch," she said, as I snicked through the gates and roared down Parnall Road. A hot dog from Todoroff's--actually, as spotless as it was inside and as nice as the staff is, Todoroff's needs to fatten up its dogs a bit. No complaints from my mother, though.
I had Mom sit behind the wheel so she could feel a bit more of the magic we all felt to be in the R8's cockpit. It was the first time in five years she'd been behind a steering wheel, having relinquished her beloved VW New Beetle to my brother Tom. I thought she would enjoy it, but I was wrong. She slid in, put one hand on the shifter's fat ball, smiled, and said, "I want to get out. I don't want to sit here anymore."
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It had taken Mom a long time to get up the nerve to learn how to drive a car so that she could drive away from her troubles, but she no longer has that option. So I drove her around little old Jackson a bit longer than maybe I should have, knowing that Jason Cammisa was waiting patiently back in Ann Arbor to take Audi's new superstar to meet a bunch of its fans. But my extra Mom time was just as important as Sam Smith having one more go at the Tail of the Dragon, I think.
She settled back and enjoyed this rare ride in the middle of the day, in the middle of a work week, in a spaceship. Jean Jennings
THE AUDI GUYS
Photographs of a magnificent vista captured with a point-and-shoot camera are often disappointing. You show the pictures to friends while telling them about the most gorgeous panorama you've ever seen. Meanwhile, they're staring at the photos with glassed-over eyes, yawning.
The same phenomenon applies to pictures of some cars. Yes, we know the R8 looks beautiful in these pages--our professional photographers ensured that. But the first time you see an R8 on the street, you'll herniate four discs in your neck when you twist your head to get a better glimpse of it.
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The R8 is simply one of those cars you have to see in person to truly appreciate. So when an unexpected snowstorm ruined our plans to take the R8 to the racetrack on its last night with us, we decided to give local Audi aficionados the opportunity to check it out in person.
With only one day's notice, more than twenty die-hard Audi fans braved the unseasonably cold temperatures and high winds on top of a parking structure in downtown Ann Arbor to ogle the R8. And what do you think was the first thing they did when they saw the silver Audi? They all pulled out their point-and-shoot cameras.
The chatter that we heard between shutter clicks was all positive, even from the hardest-core enthusiasts, who tend to be most apprehensive about new models. Sure, this car is gorgeous, but the real beauty of the R8 is that its beauty isn't just skin deep. Jason Cammisa

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