First Drive: 2008 Audi R8 first drives audi
2008 Audi R8. Click image to enlarge

Review and photos by Michael La Fave

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Photo Gallery: 2008 Audi R8

Many a tree is going to die in order for the automotive world to sufficiently air out the threat that this car may (or may not) pose to Porsche. Much will be written about the Audi R8′s relationship with the Lamborghini Gallardo, and even more will spill forth from word processors about the upcoming V10 version of the car.

I’ll save you from having to look elsewhere for answers and simply say that the R8 is something very special and yes, I would choose it over an optioned-up Carrera 4S, its most direct AWD competitor. It doesn’t really share much with the Gallardo, and there’s no need to wait for the V10 version to own a bona fide supercar.

The Porsche 911′s greatest strength is simultaneously its greatest weakness: it is a car that can easily be driven every day. Do so, however, and the 911 can start to feel a bit ordinary, though it will always have the liveliest steering of any car on the road.

First Drive: 2008 Audi R8 first drives audi
First Drive: 2008 Audi R8 first drives audi
2008 Audi R8. Click image to enlarge

The R8, however, feels special enough that no amount of daily use will take the edge off its raucous thoroughbred V8, its whining transmission, its snick-snick six-speed manual transmission or its diabolically violent R-Tronic paddle-shift gearbox. Stephan Reil, the guy in charge of Quattro GMBH and the little outfit that engineered the R8, put it best when he said the six-speed gated shifter is better for the street, and the R-tronic is better for the track. The gated shifter is just so cool to use that it’s worth the price of admission alone.

It won’t matter either how many times you walk up to it in your garage; the R8 will always look sensational, and small touches like the engine compartment illumination when you unlock the doors make it more of an event than an automobile.

The spectacle, however, pales to driving the car. Twist the key and NASCAR’s own soundtrack erupts from behind the glass partition over your shoulders. Pick first gear, mash the throttle and revel in the first Quattro chassis that will wag its tail under power. You sit low, similar to an arcade driving simulation, which exacerbates the sensation of speed. The world reels in through the windshield like it’s on fast-forward, and the sound of the 420 hp V8 fills the cabin and tears through surrounding traffic.

First Drive: 2008 Audi R8 first drives audi
2008 Audi R8. Click image to enlarge

The chassis is the stuff of supercar legend. Its all-aluminum castings and extrusions wiggle and writhe past the dense mechanicals to form an incredibly rigid ingot-like structure. Road imperfections are dealt with a taut snap like a drum, yet the ride quality is remarkably comfortable. There’s an optional electro-magnetic suspension, but I preferred the standard setup for its linearity and consistent feel.

To start, Audi will offer only the standard steel brakes in Canada, but the ceramic units will no doubt follow as an option later on as they are de rigueur in this segment. The real issue here isn’t braking power – the standard brakes are strong enough to stop government overspending, let alone this lithe bullet – but reduced unsprung weight. As I blasted around the handling track at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the reduced weight of the composite stoppers was immediately evident in lighter, more precise and more responsive steering. That’s not to say the standard setup doesn’t deliver great steering feel too, but the steering feel and feedback with the ceramics is that much better.

First Drive: 2008 Audi R8 first drives audi
2008 Audi R8. Click image to enlarge

One thing that Canada does get standard that our U.S. neighbours have to pony up for is standard 19-inch wheels shod with massive, sticky 235/30 front and 295/30 rear meats. Like I mentioned though, you can snap the tail out with the throttle in a tight corner, but it’s easy to gather the car up with the super-quick steering.

The R8 was designed to be a GT car with the performance and looks of a supercar. Its long wheelbase means that this might be the sexiest car on Earth able to accommodate NBA stars. Many will lament that we can’t have Europe’s optional sport seats – it’s a legislative thing as they don’t have side airbags – but the truth is that there aren’t a lot of North Americans that would fit in them anyway. The seats we do get are similar to those in the NA-spec RS4 which means they hold most of us, and especially the demographic that can afford this car, plenty tightly. Optional luggage (in the same colour-coded leather to your selected interior) makes the most of the available trunk space up front and the space behind the seats. There’s even room for a modest set of clubs behind the front seats, but not at the same time as the luggage.

First Drive: 2008 Audi R8 first drives audi
2008 Audi R8. Click image to enlarge

Said interior leather is faultless and the materials are, as we have come to expect from Audi, second to none in the world of mass-production. Carbon accents are available (for the exterior and engine compartment too) but I really liked the black lacquer-like trim, not to mention the baseball glove-brown leather of my dark grey test car.

The R8 is undeniably fetching on the road with its gaping, sinister front and rear air intakes and piercing LED driving lights (full LED headlights should be legalized by the end of the year) but it is especially so from the rear when you are seated behind it in another car.

First Drive: 2008 Audi R8 first drives audi
First Drive: 2008 Audi R8 first drives audi
2008 Audi R8. Click image to enlarge

The body tucks up tightly between the massive rear haunches against the bottom of the engine. The effective is of an impossibly shallow cabin, with massive outrigger rear tires clawing at the earth. It’s so damn sexy it hurts. This is also the view you’re most likely to see unless you are packing some serious horsepower firepower.

The exterior’s “gotta have it” feature is the side blade that can be ordered in any colour you like, as well as in full carbon fibre. The fibre panels on my dark grey car added a bit of pizzazz without too much contrast. Alternately, I could have had them in silver, yellow, or whatever I wanted. North America is, however, the only market where you can order them in the same colour as the rest of the body. Although I didn’t see this particular combination, I have a feeling it might be the most attractive of them all.

The 911 can retain its crown as the best all-rounder, but if you’re looking for something truly special – and more exclusive – you better get your butt down to your local Quonset-hut/Audi retailer ASAP. With only 4,000 a year being produced for the whole planet, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re already sold out.


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