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Diving into Spring Mountain Motorsport Ranch’s tight turn 2, the Porsche 911 Carrera S nips under the Ferrari F430. A silver scimitar suddenly splits the red haze. Porsche and Ferrari are natural foes–always have been, always will be. But will the sports car elite drift wide to make room for an Audi R8 that’s only recently set its Pirellis on American pavement? We’re in Nevada to find out.
Like the meteorite that recently holed a New Jersey home, the R8 is heaven-sent. The four-rings brand has never done a sports car. Never mind the five Le Mans victories by the racing car with the same name; open-cockpit endurance racers are a touch hairy for a romantic driving weekend in wine country.
To identify the true inspiration behind Audi’s new $100,000 two-seater, you’ve got to set the Wayback Machine way back. Dust off your history books to find the 1938 Type 114 F-wagen named after its conspirators, Ferdinand and Ferry Porsche. After sending their Auto Union racers to grand prix victory circles during the Age of Titans (see sidebar), Porsche father and son penned their first sports car. The common thread from the grand prix racers through the Type 114 to today’s Audi R8 is an engine situated between the cockpit and the rear axle with a transmission cantilevered out the back. One world war later, the prescient Porsches homed in tighter with their V-8-powered Cisitalia Type 370 sports car proposal of 1947.
Why Porsche then went the rear-engine route is a story for another day. Still, anyone with a spare $100,000 would be foolish to miss the ways and wiles of today’s 911 Carrera S. We’ve included the Ferrari F430 in this clutch because it’s the platinum standard: a more intensely entertaining sports car doesn’t exist. Paying a premium and waiting patiently for a turn to own an F430 is the justifiable price of entry into the Ferrari fold.
The question is whether Audi’s R8 makes for suitably savory meat in this sports car sandwich. You won’t find that answer in power-to-weight calculations or learned design critiques. The only way to know for sure is to drive the dickens out of these rivals, which is precisely what we did for three days all over southern Nevada. As luck would have it–and we had our share–there’s no better place to wring out three hot sports cars.
The defining moments of our adventure occurred within the first two hours of my stint in the R8’s sport seat. After escaping Las Vegas congestion and enjoying a rapid pass around Mountain Springs Summit, I sped west on Nevada 160 to meet the Ferrari and the Porsche. As I ran out of hilly terrain, the desert valley swept forth like a boundless gaming table–an ideal place to exercise the R8’s six-piston, carbon-ceramic brakes. After a burst of acceleration to 165 mph, I mashed the brake pedal to experience fade-free stopping power that felt like running into a megasize marshmallow. The R8 dug its heels into the pavement and the seatbelts cinched my torso like a boa constrictor. There wasn’t a murmur of protest from the brakes, the tires, or the chassis.
As the speedometer needle whirled back to the civilian zone, I spotted a red speck swelling in the distance. Long before the Nevada state patrolman bounded like a Baja buggy across the rough median, I had documents in hand for the inevitable indictment. To my everlasting amazement, the first words out of the officer’s mouth were, “Why were you driving 100 miles per hour?”
Previous roadside meetings have taught me that there’s no suitable answer to that question. I responded with a sincere promise to maintain a closer watch on my speedometer. After a severe dressing down, lightning struck again: the officer handed back my documents with a stern warning but no citation.
Twenty miles along on Nevada 160, heading toward Pahrump, I turned onto a secondary road that beelines toward a distant mountain range. (The road’s identity will remain anonymous to safeguard future exploitation.) As promised, I kept a close eye on my speed, now monitored by a digital Vbox display stuck to the R8’s windshield. My colleagues, who’d arrived with the Ferrari and the Porsche, stood guard while I whistled by on eight performance-measuring passes, all of which produced 0-to-60-mph acceleration in the mid-four-second range. On the seventh pass, after a crisp launch, five perfect upshifts, and more than a minute of full-bore acceleration, the R8 earned its stripes by briefly touching 180 mph. Its ticket duly punched, the new Audi was now eligible to run head-to-head with the red crowd.
Our back-road test session proved that the R8’s full-time four-wheel drive is a fine way to slingshot 3450 pounds of curb weight into motion with only a hint of wheel spin–and that this bullet shoots straight even when the suspension is stroking furiously to maintain contact with undulating surfaces.
The well-organized cockpit is handy at hyperspeed. Slipping behind the R8’s wheel stirs hints of dj vu. The view forward is framed by windshield pillars inset over a wide lower body, as in the 911. The look back mimics the perspective in the F430, with an eyeful of the engine and roof buttresses but hardly any road in sight. While the 911 feels as comfortable as your favorite sweater and the Ferrari cockpit resembles the scene of a recent Formula 1 victory celebration, the R8’s interior is cool, calm, and contemporary. A long entry opening and a flattened steering wheel let you plug your butt into the seat without scuffing the door leather, a perennial Ferrari issue. Coordinated shades of black and gray accented by matte-finished metal and a carbon-fiber arch secure Audi’s lock on good interior taste. Visually, the knurled knobs, wide-eyed gauges, and metal-trimmed pedals are superb. Unfortunately, some of the controls that appear to be hewn from billet are cleverly disguised composite material. Tactile feedback suffers. Pivot shafts are looser and the detent clicks less satisfying than in the seminal TT that won Audi much acclaim for interior quality. The shift paddles are also injection-molded; while they’re nicely ribbed and precise in operation, caressing plastic is never a joy in this league. Two ergonomic flaws that warrant mention are sun visors that don’t hinge to the side and a row of switches susceptible to accidental operation by the heel of a hand leaving the shifter.
The R tronic sequential gearbox is the only component Audi sourced from the Lamborghini Gallardo for use in the R8. New Bosch electronic controls (replacing the Gallardo’s Magneti Marelli modules) operate the clutch and shift the gears on cue. Like Ferrari’s illustrious F1 system, a choice of automatic and manual shift modes compensates for the lack of a clutch pedal. Unfortunately, the R8’s transmission, especially in automatic mode, feels like an older, cruder version of the F430’s sweet sequential manual.
Dip into the R8’s throttle while cruising, and your speed sags before a lower gear and the expected surge ahead are delivered. The R tronic’s auto-mode gearchange gaffes are a pity, because the box works superbly in manual mode. Redline shifts are quick and clean, and the wheel-mounted paddles are more readily accessible in the heat of battle than the F430’s column-mounted shifters.
An additional gripe that applies to both the R tronic and the R8’s conventional manual transmission concerns sixth gear: this ratio delivers maximum terminal velocity instead of quiet cruising. At 75 mph in top gear, the tach registers a busy 3200 rpm (versus 3000 rpm in the Porsche and 3400 in the high-metabolism Ferrari). The resulting engine hum blots out some of the finer notes wafting out of the R8’s twelve-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system.
It’s a good thing that the Audi’s motor music is suitable for most occasions. Resembling an IndyCar’s V-8 with tall intake stacks, a flat (dry-sumped) bottom, and racy red ignition coils, the R8’s 4.2-liter engine whips up 420 hp at an ear-tingling 7800 rpm. Credit the prodigious output to an abundance of advanced technology, including direct fuel injection, variable valve timing on both intake and exhaust tracts, tubular exhaust headers, and a huge dual-mode muffler.
Lustier than the cylinder-deprived 911 but never as heady as the F430’s nominally larger and more potent V-8, the R8’s engine is an equipoise of torque and decorum. In other words, cockpit insiders are well-insulated from the dirty din of energy conversion. It’s innocent bystanders who receive the truly evocative serenade described by road test coordinator Marc Noordeloos as deeper and more manly sounding than the Ferrari’s aria. “The mix of American muscle and European technology in the R8’s exhaust reminds me slightly of Audi’s Le Mans racer I heard three years ago in France,” he observes.
One of the innocent bystanders was Ray “Wulfy” Wulfenstein, the owner of the Best Western hotel where we lodged in Pahrump. The sixty-nine-year-old, fifteen-time grand-father not only owns a 1989 Testarossa but also raced to respectable finishes at Daytona International Speedway in 1970 and ’72. So when we needed an extra driver for photography, we didn’t hesitate to call on him. For fulfilling our picky photographer’s instructions to the letter and for never setting a wheel wrong, Wulfy earned Automobile Magazine’s merit badge for courage in the face of excess horsepower.
Attacking Cathedral Canyon, which straddles the Nevada/California border, we focused our studies on sub-100-mph handling. All three machines slide their front tires first when hammered into a tight bend. What a thoughtful driver should do to amend the situation varies from car to car. Pitching the Porsche helps by inducing a boxing match between front and rear traction–first one end sticks while the other slides, and then vice versa. Switching the F430’s manettino full clockwise (one notch past the Race position) enables the sideways-on-cue mode, where understeer is never an issue. The R8 feels heavier on its feet, and its all-wheel drive requires more patience. Tromping on the throttle midbend exacerbates understeer, even with stability control disabled, because the front tires convey 15 to 35 percent of the total torque produced. Hurling the Audi into corners with the brakes still lightly applied, a technique track heroes call trail braking, worked best for us. That helps stick the front axle while also encouraging the tail to slide wide–but not so wide that a touch of throttle or a dab of countersteer won’t fail to gather up excess exuberance.
Transiting from one photo location to the next, we had ample opportunity to compare steering sensitivity and feel. Here, the R8 loses ground to the red team. The 911 is cat-quick on its feet and highly sensitive to what lies beneath its front tires. The F430 also tells compelling stories through its steering wheel. While there’s no dead zone in the R8, messages conveyed through its leather-clad rim are muted. The aforementioned torque split filters communication from the road. What the R8 needs is a manettino that switches Audi’s Quattro system into a duo (rear-wheel-drive only) mode for special occasions.
Toting up the R8’s many assets and few liabilities yields a highly positive bottom line. Audi is to be commended for diving into the deep end of the sports car pool and swimming strongly among sharks possessed of seriously sharp teeth. Ferdinand Porsche would be very proud of how well his V-8-powered, mid-engine sports car idea has panned out. What the R8 lacks in Ferrari intensity, it makes up in kick-back comfort and all-season versatility. Compared with the 911 Carrera S–the sports car world’s Coca-Cola–the R8 is a brash crusader rushing in with sideblades flashing. Those who dare to take the Audi taste test will come away well refreshed.