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2008 Audi R8

Georg KacherwriterBarry Haydenphotographer

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.

The cockpit's design is an acquired taste. There's a lot going on in this somewhat overstyled workstation. Not everyone will love the prominent carbon-fiber (or piano black) arc that swings from the center console across to the driver-side door panel. The glossy bits tend to reflect in the windshield, the TT-inspired air-conditioning controls fight the gearshift for clearance, and the steering wheel's squared-off bottom is a dumb idea for a road car. But the big picture is right on: the six gauges are easy to read, the MMI controls are placed above the shifter, and the supportive seats adjust with uncommon generosity. There is soft leather and furry Alcantara from wall to wall, and the monochrome trim is highlighted by brushed-aluminum accents. Extra cash will buy sportier bucket seats, a noise-canceling Bang & Olufsen sound system, a clutch-pedal-free R tronic transmission (E Gear in Lambo speak), and a choice of elaborate leather treatments. When the car goes on sale next fall in the States, buyers also will have eight different paint schemes and four leather colors to choose from.

Eventually, it will likely be possible to spend even more money on a 500-hp, 5.2-liter V-10 engine and on the exciting, open-top body style that is about to be approved. For the next two years at least, production is limited to fifteen units a day, or about 3750 vehicles per year. What if there is demand for more? "Everyone involved obviously hopes that this model will be well received," Isgen says. "But there are no plans to crank up the output. Let the market clamor for more vehicles--it's good for resale value and for our brand image."

At 3440 pounds, the R8 weighs more than both the V-10-engined Gallardo and the Porsche 911 C4S. The Audi's 4.2-liter direct-injection V-8 engine musters 420 hp at7800 rpm and maximum torque of 317 lb-ft between 4500 and 6000 rpm. Floor the throttle, and it will (according to Audi) propel the coupe from 0 to 62 mph in 4.6 seconds, to 125 mph in 14.7 seconds, and on to a top speed of 185 mph in a little more than sixty seconds. Fuel consumption averages out to 17 mpg.

The high-revving V-8 is derived from the Audi RS4 engine, although it received revised intake and exhaust systems, dry-sump lubrication, and a bigger radiator for its new mission in the R8. The V-8 is amazingly civilized and refined. Its full-throttle voice is loud and clear and has an unmistakable tonality, but the part-throttle sound waves are no less engaging.

The R8 features an unequal-length control arm suspension front and rear. "This configuration gives us an edge in terms of ride comfort, and it reduces steering-related interference to an absolute minimum," explains Isgen, who is also in charge of Audi's sports car programs--a title that suggests the R8 will eventually get a sister model. "Compared with the Gallardo, this layout allows for longer wheel travel and a tighter turning circle. Optional Magnetic Ride allows you to dial in an extra dose of compliance at the one end and a little more firmness at the other." Our test car did without the trick dampers, but it was fitted with optional nineteen-inch aluminum wheels shod with Pirelli 235/35YR-19 tires in the front and 295/30YR-19 footwear in the back. The standard wheels are eighteen inchers.

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.