With colorful graphics, the navigation system's maps look pretty good, and it showed the accurate location of the car during our driving. But destination entry isn't very straightforward with this system. To enter a destination, you have to choose a menu area labeled Memory, an unlikely name, and then tediously choose letters from a rotary dial for city and street names. Besides entering an exact address, you can also choose a location from the map using a cross-hair system, also tedious, or choose from a limited database of points of interest. The navigation system's route guidance is similarly basic, with no advanced features such as text to speech or live traffic reporting.
We do like Audi's hands-free cell phone integration, which can be used either with a cradle or wirelessly, through Bluetooth, in the Audi R8. The system downloads the connected phone's contacts, making it easy to select an entry and call it while you are driving. You can also manually enter names and phone numbers into the car's address book, or save them from the points of interest database.
As with most recent Audis, we like the sound quality of the stereo, but don't care for the audio source choices. Our car came with an optional six-disc changer, mounted somewhat inconveniently behind the seats. This changer can't read MP3 CDs, a real rarity these days. Worse, there is no auxiliary audio input, and iPod integration isn't an option, as it is on other Audis. But it does offer two slots for SD cards, hidden behind the LCD, where you can load a few gigabytes worth of MP3 tracks. The interface for the cards is basic, just showing file names and folders.
Our Audi R8 came with the basic sound system, consisting of seven speakers and a 140 watt amplifier. We found the audio quality very good overall, with decent bass and well separated highs. We would really have preferred the optional Bang & Olufsen audio system, though, which uses a 465-watt, 10-channel amplifier and pumps music through 12 speakers. As with other options in the R8, we think that Audi should make them standard, considering the price of the car.
As part of the car's Premium package, it gets a reverse camera and sonar parking sensors, a very useful feature in this car, where the seating position makes it difficult to see the front and rear.
Under the hood
The beating heart of the Audi R8, its 4.2-liter direct injection eight-cylinder engine, sits under a glass panel behind the cabin. As mentioned above, this engine puts out 420 horsepower, at 7,800rpm, and 317 foot-pounds of torque, from 4,500rpm to 6,000rpm. Although the horsepower is significantly more than the torque, at this level of power and with a 3,600-pound curb weight, you don't feel shorted. With a hard foot on the gas the car will punch you in the back. Audi gives the R8 a top speed of 187 mph and only 4.4 seconds to 60 mph.
Handling, as mentioned above, is really superb. We noted some understeer coming into the corners, but the car follows through on the turns very well. We pushed it hard and didn't detect wheel slip, while the balanced nature of the car gave us confidence to push it even harder. Fortunately, Audi's magnetic damping system and Quattro all-wheel-drive are standard on the R8. The damping system applies magnetic fields to magnetized fluid in the shock absorbers to adjust the suspension based on the road feel and the driving style, so the car can stiffen up if it senses cornering, or soften if it feels a long road with few turns. The R8 includes a button marked with a shock absorber to bias the suspension toward sport driving.
We also discussed the transmission a bit earlier in this review. While we are glad we got to test the R tronic transmission, for everyday driving we would much prefer the six-speed manual, which should generally make the car more controllable. The R tronic transmission uses a big metal shifter. Push it to the right and it goes into neutral. Reverse is down from neutral, or you can push it to the left, toward the driver, to put it in automatic mode. As soon as you push the shifter up or down from this mode, or hit one of the paddle shifters, the transmission goes into manual mode. There is no Park setting, encouraging drivers to think of it as a manual transmission. Audi also includes a hill start feature as an option, very useful on the R8.
Now the bad news. The EPA rates the Audi R8 with fuel economy of 13 mpg in the city and 18 mpg on the highway, subjecting it to a gas guzzler tax. While we saw the mileage go up to 16 mpg during freeway driving, we also saw it drop down to 6 mpg in heavy traffic. Overall, we came in at 10.6 mpg for our combined city and freeway driving. It should be noted that we did most of our driving with the revs up about 4,500. For emissions, it earns the minimal LEV II rating from California's Air Resources Board.
A couple of other notable features of the R8 are the LED parking and tail lights and the adaptive spoiler. You can raise the spoiler by pushing a button, or just drive faster than 75 mph and watch it rise automatically. The LED parking lights are a unique feature, outlining the bottom of the head light casings.
Our 2008 Audi R8 with the R tronic transmission has a base price of $118,000. Our short list of expensive options included enhanced leather for $5,500, navigation for $2,000, and the Premium package, which includes parking help, hill hold, Bluetooth, and the six-disc changer, for $3,500. With its $995 destination charge, our total increases to $132,745. The base price of the R8 with the six speed manual is $109,000, which we think is a better place to start.
For our ratings, we give the R8 a near perfect score for performance, only docking it a point for its poor mileage and the low speed behavior of the R tronic transmission. It earns a top score for design because it is such an overwhelmingly head-turning car. As its cabin gadgets are generally above average, we give it a moderate score, with a few points docked for the mediocre navigation system and the minimal digital options on the stereo.