The Latin word “audi” means “hark, listen.” Imagine the first Americans, who used to press ears to tundra to hear stampeding herds of Bison roaming the wide-open plains. Then imagine an automotive journalist in 2007, pressing ear to scorched pavement as a rip-snorting V8 powered supercar rumbles towards a wide open road. Finally, imagine an auto company who did not listen to naysayers during their crisis years, and developed a loyal, rabid following through the application of high technology that the company’s individual elements were famous for before the four rings of the Auto Union even formed. Audi was born from German companies Horch and Audi, DKW and Wanderer. Early Horch cars had coveted inline eight-cylinder engines. Early Audis featured one of the first production four-wheel hydraulic brake systems. The first DKWs were sophisticated, steam powered vehicles, and early Wanderers had a reputation for reliability and build quality.
In 1932, the four brands merged to form Auto Union AG, the predecessor to today’s Audi AG. Over the next several decades, Auto Union cars were proven race winners.
But it wasn’t until 1980 that today’s Audi AG really hit its stride. With the development of the quattro all-wheel drive system, Audi re-wrote racing and rally history. Audis were known as the German brand to have if you did not want to follow the Mercedes-Benz and BMW crowd.
Fast forward to 2007, and Audi is on a roll. Audi USA is headed by a man with an unparalleled passion for the brand, Johan de Nysschen. Under his leadership, Audi has remade its image as the “other” German brand. It now wants to be known as the German brand, and its current offerings show that it is indeed on that path. All of its vehicles are available with quattro. A high-tech aluminum spaceframe adorns its top-of-the-line A8/S8. RS4 and RS6 models are coveted. But “hark, listen,” a new form of thunder will be unleashed in January, 2008, the Audi R8.
The R8 pushes Audi into an arena in which it has never competed – the supercar category. It’s been called a “Porsche-killer” and a “threat to Lamborghini (an Audi corporate cousin) and Ferrari.” After seat time is this mid-engined masterpiece, those names are closer to reality than one might expect.
Based on the LeMans Quattro Concept, the R8 is easily the most exciting hardware Audi’s factory in Ingolstadt has ever produced.
The stats for the R8 are impressive: A 0-60 time of 4.5 seconds. A nearly 190 mph top speed.
It all starts with the R8’s underpinnings. The entire bodyshell of the R8 weighs just 463 pounds, and is comprised of extruded sections, aluminum panels and complex cast nodes, joined together by 325 feet of weld seams, 782 punch rivets and 382 self-tapping screws.
The mighty V8 is borrowed from the RS4. It features 420 horsepower, 317 pound-feet of torque, and dry sump lubrication for a low center of gravity. Styling is a huge hit. The R8 is shorter than Porsche’s 911 and sits wide like Cousin Gallardo. The front features Audi’s signature wide mouth grille, flanked by massive air intakes to cool the R8’s huge brakes, and sleek LED headlights. Along the sides, air intakes that feed the engine are pronounced. To the rear, the glass engine hatch, rear diffuser, and quad exhaust tips round out a performance look.
When asked to drive the R8, I was at first a bit unsure if I could complete the task. I’m 6’9” tall and weigh 270 pounds. Surely I would not be able to get behind the wheel of this low rider that stands just over four feet tall. To my amazement, the R8 is roomy and comfortable. I had sufficient head and leg room, and would not be troubled by a drive of six hours or more in the R8.
But the most amazing thing about this car is the fact that you can drive it everyday should you choose to do so. When driving in stop and go traffic, the R8 is a docile as a VW Jetta. It’s quiet, with no excessive engine noise permeating the cabin despite having a V8 engine right behind your ears. It’s livable, with ample width separating you and your passenger. It’s drivable, with a wonderfully light clutch pedal and a fabulous gated shifter that dares you to select the wrong gear, and it’s comfortable, with a supple suspension that tames roads with ease, then tightens mightily when you need to emulate your favorite LeMans driver.
Power delivery is seamless, and comes on strongly across a wide rpm range. Redline is 8250 rpm. The exhaust note is purposeful, preferring occupants to hear more of the 4.2 liter’s mellifluous song rather than a droning exhaust note. At speed, a spoiler rises to keep the R8’s rear firmly planted. A six-speed manual or R tronic sequential gearbox handle shifting duties. A console switch allows you to manually raise or lower the spoiler at lower speeds.
Inside you’ll find the typical VW/Audi full luxury experience. If you don’t know folks, Volkswagen and Audi interiors are among the best in the business. And the R8 continues the trend with a sweeping dash layout that flows into the doors, and billet aluminum shift knob and shift gate. A flat bottom steering wheel reminds you of the R8 racecars that dominated race circuits worldwide. The upper center console houses Audi’s MMI controller, and a DVD/navigation display screen. The lower rear console hides Audi’s mobile phone interface under a butter-soft leather cover. Bang & Olufsen sound coddles your ears. Above, an Alcantara headliner finishes the full luxe treatment. Other special touches include an aluminum fuel door emblazoned with the R8 logo, and LED ambient lighting inside the meticulously finished engine compartment.
I drove a pre-production prototype that had some gauge readouts in German. The sharp-eyed among you will notice the two toned side treatment versus the carbon fiber treatment shown at major auto shows nationwide.
Pricing for the R8 begins at $110,000. Only 300 examples will be imported during the first year. Though Audi strongly recommends against it, expect incredible dealer markups on this rare, worthy addition to the legends of the Auto Union.