"So that's what it's for!" The purpose of the bright metal "blade" on the side of the Audi R8 was suddenly revealed as seven All-Stars candidates flowed along a twisting, climbing, and descending road in Ohio. From the last car in the cortege, I caught tantalizing glimpses of the blade--and only the blade--from half a mile away. Seeing it flashing through the light woods bordering our route was as dramatic as seeing a shark's fin in surging waves at sea. And drama is a large part of the R8. How better to express it than with an unmistakable design feature shared with no other car? At least, not yet. Asia awaits.
What we look for in a Design of the Year is excellence in every aspect of a car: innovation, style, beauty, engineering, dynamics, heritage, and public approbation. Rarely do we find a single car that is outstanding in every way, but this year, there was a vehicle that checked almost all of the boxes for us: the R8. An aluminum body and a spaceframe chassis shared in principle with the Lamborghini Gallardo, a dry-sump engine that shares technology with the V-8s that won Le Mans six times (counting the 2003 Bentley victory using an Audi powertrain), and all-wheel drive are impressive enough, but the staggering performance of a mechanical package that can be mastered by drivers who are not blessed with superhuman reflexes is even better.
To some, the fact that the R8 is easy to drive, whether hard and fast or slowly and smoothly, is anathema. They love the idea of twitchy, all-but-impossible-to-master cars, thinking that owning one imputes mastery to them. We prefer the sophistication of cars such as the Lancia Aurelia GT, perfect for an evening out but which could, and did, win the Targa Florio. The R8 is definitely in that mold, and we honor the designers and the engineers who have so perfectly realized a truly civilized grand touring coupe. The car is low, but the big doors, low sills, and arched side-window profile combine to make getting in and out really easy. And once you're in the spacious cabin, there is as much a feeling of being in a luxury sedan as in a 180-mph road rocket.
Carsten Monnerjan, who was responsible for the R8's interior under Walter de'Silva's overall design direction, has created a highly focused environment for the driver but a relaxed, more open space for the passenger in the R8's asymmetrical cockpit. The cabin is noticeably wider than that of a Porsche 911 and is far more comfortable than those of other cars with equal performance.
As with virtually all mid-engine cars, the layout forces compromises. There are two backlights, one immediately behind the heads of the occupants, the other following the surface of the top. This is not ideal for night driving, when the image reaching the driver's eyes from the center rearview mirror contacts no fewer than five glass surfaces. In the rain, at night, distortion is inevitable. Seeing the top of the engine is another dramatic pleasure for anyone walking up to the car, and we found ourselves enjoying it every time we approached the R8.
The one missing check mark is for beauty. This is a superbly good-looking car, massive and solid-looking, but it misses the exquisite purity of form most often found in Italian cars. The three large openings in the front end are impressive and no doubt necessary for air circulation, but they do dampen one's aesthetic ardor, as do the curious LED daytime running lights inside the headlamp module. One of the options for the R8 that will tell you a lot about the person who buys the car is his or her choice of finish for the side blades: silver, like those on the car we drove in Ohio; carbon fiber, as seen on the car pictured (but not available, alas, in the United States for 2008); and just plain body color. The last might help hide you from highway revenue agents, but to us, the only way to go for an R8 is shiny, shark-fin dramatic.