Audi previously impressed us with its handling technology in the Audi TT, but even that car feels a little staid when compared with the 2008 Audi R8. The R8 holds the pavement as only a low-slung car with all-wheel-drive and massive tires can. Then Audi throws in its magnetic damping technology to keep the suspension tuned for whatever kind of road you are driving on and puts the engine in the middle to balance the car. All of this combines to let us take the R8 around corners at speeds we wouldn't think possible.
For cabin tech, the R8 is well equipped with Audi's standard navigation, Bluetooth, and stereo module, all controlled through its multimedia interface. Although there is a lot to like about these components, we still have our usual litany of complaints for Audi, from its difficult destination entry to some quirks with the audio system. As we've seen a few cars with hard drive-based navigation systems, DVD-based navigation, used in the Audi R8, seems slow.
Test the tech: R8 and M3
We must have cured lepers in a previous life because our karma was working overtime, as evidenced by the 2008 Audi R8 and the 2008 BMW M3 Coupe arriving in our garage the same week. Although we felt a head-to-head competition between these two cars wouldn't be appropriate, we decided to take them both on a sport drive over some excellent twisty roads north of San Francisco. We had two drivers swapping cars and noting the differences. As a bonus, we had taken the 2008 Porsche 911 Carrera 4S Cabriolet over this same route the week before, giving us a further point of comparison.
For the first part of our run, we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge and turned off the freeway at Lucas Valley Road, which afforded us some easy turns, and time to get used to the cars. The trip out of the city was made difficult by the R8's R tronic transmission, a sequential manual gearbox with an automatic mode rebranded from Lamborghini's e-gear transmission. In fact, the R8 is based on the Lamborghini Gallardo platform, getting the same chassis and sharing 15 percent of its parts.
With the R tronic in automatic mode, there are huge power drops between the first three gears, causing serious lurching. Pushing the Sport button below the gearshift, which changes the shift points, mitigates this behavior and manually shifting the transmission can virtually eliminate the lurching. Overall, the R8 isn't fun to drive in traffic or at low speeds. On the other hand, the BMW M3, with its six-speed manual transmission, was perfectly comfortable to drive in congested areas, and made it easy to creep along at 5 mph when necessary. Fortunately, the R8 can also be purchased with a six-speed manual transmission.
Driving further north, we got onto long, winding roads with very few signs of civilization. At speed, the behavior of the R8's transmission smoothed out considerably, and the advantages of its fast shifts became apparent. We had left the automatic mode long ago in favor of the manual shifting, which could be accomplished by a tap on the steering wheel paddles or pushing the big metal shifter up or down. Attacking a corner, we would shift down to second or third gear, then put on the power, and the R8 followed our line through the curve almost perfectly. We noticed a little understeer coming in to the corners, forcing us to turn the wheel a little more than we would expect in a car like this. Also, we were a little surprised at the wheel-mounted paddle shifters, which looked similar to what we saw in the Volkswagen R32 and the Acura TL-S. We would expect them to be anchored to the steering column in a real high-performance car, so their position doesn't change while cornering.
Unfortunately for the BMW, the Audi R8 made the M3's handling feel cumbersome. After feeling the R8 grip the corners and follow through perfectly, the M3 felt big and unwieldy, partly because of the higher center of gravity and seating position. Where the R8 stayed perfectly flat as g-forces tried to pull it out, the M3 felt as if it had body roll, and would definitely lean out in the corners. Compared with most other cars, the M3 would impress us with its cornering, but the R8 is just that good. Of course, the M3 also behaves like a rear-wheel-drive car, with the road holding electronics letting the back end step out just a bit on the corners. Once we got used to this controlled slip, we could use it to take the corners and get the car pointed in the right direction. Driving both of these cars was a perfect illustration of the differences between rear-wheel versus all-wheel-drive handling.
Both cars offered 420 horsepower to get us going, with the R8 putting out 317 foot-pounds of torque versus the M3's 295 foot-pounds. With both cars, we felt a big push of acceleration in any gear when we hit the gas. But where the BMW could run all day in third gear, the R8 required us to shift more. On the straighter sections of the roads we drove, the BMW made no complaint as we ran it faster than 70 mph in third gear, while the R8 felt as if it needed an upshift to fourth gear about 60 mph. The manual transmission version of the R8 probably won't perform any different, as the gear ratios for each transmission choice are exactly the same.
After this drive, we concluded that, while we liked the handling of the Audi R8 better than that of the BMW M3, the Bimmer proved a better car for multipurpose use, a fact made clearer by the lack of a back seat and the minimal storage space in the Audi R8. Behind the wheel, the Audi R8 felt more like a high-performance car than the BMW. The R8 was the one that got all the attention from other people, while the M3 was almost completely ignored.
In the cabin
While we've seen clear attention to detail in the cockpits of other cars that list for more than $100,000, the interior of the R8 feels more like an afterthought. Everything is basic black, with no fancy stitching or accents made from exotic materials. All instruments are focused on the driver, and the small sport steering wheel has a flattened bottom. The seats are fully power adjustable, and reasonably comfortable, but this cabin doesn't pamper the driver.
The major cabin tech, including the navigation system, Bluetooth cell phone integration, and a six-disc changer, are all options in the R8, surprising in a car at this price level. Audi's MMI controller sits below the LCD, while the onscreen interface uses Audi's standard color scheme, with blue for navigation, amber for audio, and green for phone operations. There is also a voice command system.
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.