It's one of those amazing roads you can't help but come back to: a rhythmic mix of fast and slow sections, first wide open and then tree-lined on both sides, mostly smooth but dotted with patchwork surfaces here and there, a mild yet steady climb from the bottom of the valley to a high plateau of open fields and rolling pastures. Only five miles long, this challenging stretch of tarmac tells you more about a car than two weeks of bumper-to-bumper commuting. That's why we--the gunmetal gray preproduction Audi R8, chief project leader Dirk Isgen, a couple of minders from the factory, the photographer, and me--are here. Unfortunately, I won't be driving. What, you think there's no way of finding out how a car performs from the passenger seat? Well, let's give it a try.
Down in the village, Isgen executes a U-turn, and we speed up the magic mountain for the first time. Even though he changes gears at a relaxed 6000 rpm--some 2250 rpm shy of the redline--the two-seater feels light-footed, inspired, and very, very quick. Fourth gear seems to be fine for the quicker corners, and third is all it takes for the panoramic 90-degree stuff. No drama, no exultation, no pulling or pushing, absolutely no indication of zooming in on the limit, let alone overstepping it. Quite the contrary: the R8 corners with the precision of a pair of micrometers.
Three days after the car's debut at the Paris auto show and several months before the first official drive, we managed to steal the new Audi R8 for a real-life encounter on real roads. Where will this newcomer fit in the sports car universe? Is this a Lamborghini Gallardo in disguise? Is it a proper Porsche 911 rival? Is it another mid-engine monster, or is it an indifferent and androgynous plaything? Is it a properly involving driver's car, or is it just a blindingly fast but strangely anonymous weapon like Audi's defunct RS6? To our surprise, the Gallardo connection turns out to be much more blurred than we anticipated. "The Lamborghini was a good starting point for the R&D team," concedes Isgen. "But while it gave us a solid base to work from, the only common elements between the two cars are the transmission and the placement of the driveline. Everything else is new and quite different--body, suspension, interior, packaging, and character."
Measuring 174.4 inches long, 74.8 inches wide, and 49.2 inches tall, Audi's first mid-engine sports car is shorter than a 911 and as wide as a Gallardo. At 104.3 inches, the wheelbase of the R8 exceeds that of the related Lambo by 3.5 inches. As a result, the Audi offers more passenger space and--in addition to the 3.5-cubic-foot front trunk--a second luggage bay behind the seats. Despite the polarizing sideblades, the three-quarter rear visibility is also much better than expected.