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.
The Audi R8 and the BMW M3 square off next to Tomales Bay.
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.
A turn like this won't bother the R8 one bit.
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.
People whipped out cameras wherever we went in the R8.
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 cabin of the R8 doesn't spoil you.
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.
We found this interface tedious for inputting street and city names.
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.
As we've seen on other Audis, there are two SD card slots behind the LCD.
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.
An eight-cylinder engine under glass is on the menu with the Audi R8.
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.
Push the big metal shifter to the right and you are in neutral, to left and you're moving.
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.
White LEDs line the lower part of the headlight enclosure, giving the R8 a distinct appearance.
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.