Automobile Magazine's 2008 Automobile of the Year is the Audi R8. Perhaps you could see this one coming, since the R8 has absolutely captivated the automotive world this past year. We'll admit to being more than a little turned on from the first time we saw it, at the 2006 Paris auto show. Technical editor Don Sherman's report after his initial drive of the R8 in the Nevada desert last winter [Automobile Magazine, April 2007] confirmed our high expectations. When an R8 arrived in Ann Arbor in the spring, it set the whole office abuzz, such that we barely gave the car a chance to cool down over its four-day visit [July 2007].
But the R8 was perhaps most impressive during our Automobile of the Year test drive over the deepest backcountry byways of southeastern Ohio. By turns thrilling, poised, comfortable, fast, fluid, composed, and enormously capable, the R8 absolutely captivated everyone who got behind its flat-bottomed steering wheel. On that drive, the R8 proved itself to be a great real-world sports car, in the vein of the Porsche 911 Turbo. At the same time, it's also an otherworldly exotic, with every bit as much presence as a Ferrari.
That's a pretty heady accomplishment for any automaker, particularly one entering the sports car arena for the first time. At this point you might ask, "Didn't Audi get a leg up from the Lamborghini Gallardo?" Yes, but perhaps not as much as you think. Obviously, both cars use a mid-mounted engine, all-wheel drive, and a spaceframe architecture on which are hung aluminum and composite body panels. But although they use similar blueprints, for the most part, they don't share components. There are two significant exceptions. The all-wheel-drive systems are largely the same, yet it's important to remember that the Gallardo was developed after Audi purchased Lamborghini, and so its AWD hardware is as much a product of Ingolstadt as it is Sant'Agata. The R8 does, however, take from Lamborghini its R tronic (Lamborghini's E-gear) paddleshift sequential manual transmission. But, frankly, the R tronic gearbox is the R8's least satisfying element, neither as quick nor as smooth as the similar gearbox from Ferrari. Our initial drive of the R8 was in an R tronic example, but the cars we drove in the spring and in Ohio, by contrast, had the much more enjoyable manual transmission. Its classic, gated shifter might not make for the fastest gear changes, but it makes each one an occasion.
The R8's engine, a 420-hp, 4.2-liter V-8, is pure Audi, of course--we've already seen it in the RS4. Here fortified with dry-sump lubrication, it sends the R8 rocketing forward in a surge of acceleration, sending a loud, cracking song across the countryside--it's a traditional Italian supercar noise, only tempered by bass and stainless steel. The direct-injected V-8 also looks pretty darned good--no wonder Audi puts it on display under glass, even lighting the engine compartment.
The interior is also characteristic Audi, which is another way of saying that it's stylish, comfortable, and beautifully put together. The exterior design speaks for itself, but we found that just walking up to the R8 gets your heart beating faster--and the effect it has on bystanders is electric. [For more on the R8's looks, click the link below for our Design of the Year.]
The disappointing truth about the crowd-wowing exotics, however, is that these rocket ships can be pretty one-dimensional. The Audi, on the other hand, impressed us with its depth of abilities, whatever the speed, whatever the road, whatever the weather. This isn't just straight-line speed but rapid, over-the-road travel, in which deep reserves of power are buttressed by generous suspension travel, excellent damping, laserlike directional stability, an athlete's balance, and the sure-footedness of all-wheel drive (here with a default torque bias of 90 percent to the rear wheels).
The mid-engine R8 certainly takes Audi into a whole new league of driving dynamics. Even more significant, however, this car is also indicative of the company's broader achievement. The R8 emphatically caps Audi's long, steep ascent from near irrelevance. Back in the early 1990s, in the wake of the sudden-acceleration fiasco with 60 Minutes and the Audi 5000, the brand was on life support in the United States. Its renaissance, which started with the original A4 in 1996, has been entirely product-led. With each model changeover, Audi re-invigorated its sedan lineup, then established itself as a design leader with the addition of the sporty TT coupe/roadster, and finally branched out into crossovers with the Q7. The company also has reignited its motorsports program, garnering a string of endurance-racing victories. Audi has come a long way from its virtual obscurity of the early '90s.
Audi signaled its intention to build an ultra-high-performance, mid-engine sports car with its Le Mans Quattro concept back in 2003. That car proved to be a dead ringer for today's R8, and yet how many people took it seriously at the time? It's safe to say that no one would make that mistake today. The R8 is not only a thrilling new sports car, but it's a rolling testament to a company that's stronger than it's ever been, one that's entering its golden age right now.