2008 Audi R8

Barry Hayden

Unlike the 911, the Gallardo, and the Ferrari F430, the R8 is not black-and-white hard-core in its responses to driver inputs. For example, at 3.25 turns lock-to-lock, the steering requires a bit more work than the quicker setups preferred by the competition. "On the other hand," claims Ulrich Hackenberg, chief technical engineer at Audi, "our car is easier to drive at very high speeds." On the second run through the roller-coaster zig-zags, the coupe behaves true to its master's words. Even where the road has ragged outer edges curling toward the apex like ripples on a lake shore, the front suspension feels creamy, smooth, and totally unperturbed. There is no tugging at the steering wheel, almost no slip-angle variation over the rough stuff, no yawing away from the action. The R8 simply follows the line, staying flat and hugging the ground, valiantly defying g-forces, and remaining astonishingly neutral.

On the return trip down the hill, the brakes get a chance to show off, too. "The stopping distance from 62 to 0 mph is a best-in-class 112 feet," claims Hackenberg.

The R8's four-wheel drive mimics the hardware and layout that Lamborghini has used for years. Drive to the rear is permanently connected. In the event of slippage in back, a viscous coupling delivers up to 35 percent of the available torque to the front wheels. "Switch off ESP, and power oversteer is the name of the game," Hackenberg promises. "But even with the rear tires smoking, the car always remains benign and controllable."

The six cogs of the manual transmission are evenly spaced, so first is more than just a takeoff ratio, third is perfect for brisk passing maneuvers, and sixth is a proper driving gear that can carry you past 180 mph. Like the clutch, the shifter is unexpectedly light. It makes all the classic clickety-click noises as it moves through the open metal gate in short and determined throws, but it isn't as stiff and heavy as the lever in the Gallardo. How come? The Audi engineers upgraded the linkage with a Teflon-plated guide panel. With a manual gearbox as speedy and accurate as this, the extra-cost R tronic transmission makes sense only for those who plan to use the R8 as a track-day special.

Although the R8's drag coefficient is rated at an unexciting 0.35, the designers under Walter de'Silva are particularly proud of the downforce this body will create. Assisted by a relatively subtle automatically extending tail spoiler, there's aerodynamic downforce on both axles at speed. As a result, typical vices such as front-end pitch, delayed steering response, lift-off vagueness, and sensitivity to crosswinds are all conspicuous by their absence.

One last time, we fly up the hill, swing around, and dive down again. Legs drilled into the footwell, back pressed into the seat, right hand clamping the grab handle, I relish the repeat performance. Even without direct access to the steering and the pedals, I can sense the strong grip and the sticky roadholding, the promptness of the turn-ins, and the emphatic unwinding whenever the next straight beckons.

By now, the dialogue between engine and brakes and the interjection of clutch and transmission feel completely natural, even from the passenger seat. But this routine is beginning to feel a little too virtual. I'm ready for the real thing.

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