The Audi R8 doesn't roll, drive or coast so much as it stalks, and when it stalks toward you, it awakens the senses. It stirs the emotions. It evokes questions, the most likely of which is, "I wonder how that thing drives in snow?"
OK, maybe that's not the most likely question, but we received our test R8 in February. Anyone who's been in Chicago in February will concur that it's a wonderful place not to be, and that's in a good year. This year, on the other hand, has delivered the most relentless winter of my lifetime, when morning after morning brings a steaming platter of fresh snow swimming in a broth of slush, served up with a bottomless cup of frigid and a side of interminable gloom. And all of that is capped with a drive to work across a landscape pocked by enough Yaris-sized potholes to make the moon's surface look like a salt flat.
Environmentalists will be thrilled to know that the glaciers retreating from the Arctic have reestablished themselves on my driveway. One of these mornings I'm sure to glance out the window and see a polar bear scout surveying the scene and appearing — to the extent that a bear can — optimistic. I wasn't happy about receiving a supercar in these conditions, but it's my unofficial rule that when someone offers me a supercar, I take it. My first step was a literal hack at giving the car a place to sit, and I'm pleased to report that hypothermia leaves one with at least enough sense to give up after breaking a sledgehammer on one's driveway.
As it turns out, though, my efforts and all the associated concerns turned out to be moot, because the R8 laughed in the face of snow and ice. A brilliant track car, the R8 was also a joy to drive on the street, in conditions both ordinary and extraordinary. This specimen of German engineering blew my lederhosen off. All three pairs.
An Unlikely Snowmobile
Audi had the sense to fit our test car with winter boots: Pirelli Sottozero winter performance tires, sized 235/35R19 in front and 295/30R19 in the rear, which are the same size as the standard summer tires. I've long sung the praises of winter tires, and apparently when you put four of them on a car with Quattro all-wheel drive and an electronic stability system, the 420 horsepower and 317 pounds-feet of torque are a non-issue. The R8 moved through snow and ice so adeptly it was completely without drama, almost mundane. The ability to turn off the traction control without disarming the stability system is helpful because it allows some of the wheelspin that's advantageous on loose snow or sand.
To be clear, I'm not recommending the R8 as a four-season car. For one thing, its ground clearance is low, and though the tires are designed for winter, the short sidewalls put the 19-inch wheels in jeopardy. The intensity of dodging potholes had me exhausted by the time I reached the office. Even if you're able to minus-size to 18-inch wheels, you'd still be talking about 40-series or lower-profile tires.
All the same, it's significant that within the past few weeks alone we've left lesser cars parked because they gave us no confidence driving in similar conditions. As for supercars and supercar wannabes, most don't even accept winter tires, or, in some cases, all-season tires. You have to admit, it's an impressive attribute for the R8. In the case of unexpected snow — perhaps while driving through the mountains — it's the difference between getting home and getting stranded.
Built to Go
Fortunately the weather varied over our week with the R8, so I got the full experience with it, and it's no less impressive in warmer, dry conditions. Our six-speed manual's clutch was light and operable by anyone who can drive a stick. I'm surprised gated shifters haven't filtered down to more affordable luxury cars. I saw no real advantage to having the gear positions defined by a visible slotted plate, but it remains a novelty — one that brings a mystique, a feeling of exclusivity, and that's what luxury is about. The gate can impede 3rd-to-2nd-gear downshifts a bit, but I saw no problem with it outside of track driving, and in short order I forgot about the gate altogether but for the occasional click of the lever striking the aluminum plate.
For an additional $9,000, you can get a six-speed automatic in the form of the R tronic automated manual, which has fully automatic and sport modes as well as stick- or paddle-activated sequential shifting. Though I haven't operated it, I'm dubious of R tronic because it is a single-clutch system, not to be confused with S tronic (formerly known as DSG, Direct Shift Gearbox) — a dual-clutch automated manual that has been excellent in every Audi and VW we've tested it in. The R tronic unit hails from Lamborghini (which Audi owns), and its 0-60 time is said to match the manual transmission's, but when I experienced this system in a Gallardo, it delivered ponderous upshifts in normal driving. The single-clutch design — which perturbs drivers across the world in some BMWs and Smart cars — just can't be as satisfying as the dual clutch has proved to be in Audis and other models, including the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution.
Overall, the direct-injection V-8 has enough grunt at low rpm to get you moving, but its 307 pounds-feet isn't the appeal. It's the onrush of horsepower as the tach needle climbs up to its impressive 8,000 rpm redline. In the grand scheme of things, the R8's 0-60 time of about 4.4 seconds isn't lightning fast — it's comparable to the Evolution (less than $34,000) and a good second behind the Nissan GT-R (around $70,000). This is one of the reasons some people argue that the R8 isn't a supercar. (Yeah, yeah, whatev.) But it can press you into your seat with the best of them, and it posts a quarter-mile time of 13.1 seconds at 112 mph, according to our friends at MotorWeek. Audi says the top speed is 187 mph.
An Unlikely Moon Rover
The R8's ride was another pleasant surprise, comfortable beyond anyone's expectations for a car like this ... and actually pretty livable in the overall sense. Standard are double wishbones, front and rear, with an adaptive suspension that does a heck of a job controlling body roll without an apparent tradeoff in ride quality. Audi Magnetic Ride uses the principle seen earlier on GM and Acura models before it came to the Audi TT in 2008. Touted for its speed in reacting to conditions and its wide range of firmness, the technology delivers more in the R8 than I've seen in other cars, with a dramatic difference between the normal and sport settings. I can't imagine a need for the sport setting off the track, even on roads not ravaged by winter.
The R8 handles like a champ, delivering clawlike grip even with winter tires on dry roads coated with the powdery residue of dissolved road salt. When it starts to lose traction, it does so gradually, and it always felt under control to me, even with the stability system defeated.
You'll often see a 50/50 percent weight distribution (front/rear) characterized as perfect, but the more vehicles I drive, the more I recognize that deviations may be more appropriate for the car in question. It's typical for midengine cars to have more weight in the rear, yet the midengine placement is revered for its effect on dynamics. Audi cites the R8's distribution as 44/56, and though you might expect this to result in wanton tail-wagging (oh, dear), there's a slight understeer tendency when you nose into a corner. This makes the car safer and even more conducive to street driving. Even so, the body can be rotated in a sweeping turn without inducing snap oversteer. Precise steering and rear-biased Quattro make it difficult to get yourself in trouble. It's a pleasure, if not a challenge, to drive.
Headroom From Nowhere
On the growing list of things that make the R8 more livable than many cars is its headroom: At 38 inches, it's more than you get in an Audi TT, and with better visibility all around. It's a full inch or more greater than competitors', past and current, including the Aston Martin V8 Vantage, Ford GT, Lamborghini Gallardo and Murcielago, and Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren. It edges out the Ferrari F430 by a hair ... or a haircut, perhaps. All of these cars have inches more legroom than the R8's 41.1 inches, but at my height — 6 feet — I found it perfectly agreeable. (Considering that the Toyota Camry and Chevrolet Suburban give 41.7 and 41.3 inches of driver legroom, respectively, it's hard to indict the R8 even in the face of its long-legged competitors.)
Though the view to the rear isn't great, I didn't have much trouble with it on the road. When parking, however, it's an issue, so I was happy to have the optional Audi Parking System, which has both front and rear sonar sensors and a backup camera. The backup monitor displays lines that curve left and right as you turn the steering wheel, showing where the car's fenders will be as you roll backward. The sonar system is like most, in that it beeps with increasing frequency as you near an obstacle, but this one's notable because of where its sensors are located. Even though the front bumper extension is low enough to grind against a parking block or curb, the sensors are at the lowest and most vulnerable point, so you're sure to know when damage is nigh.
Styled to Distract
The weather did less to hinder my progress than did reactions from neighboring cars and onlookers. I don't remember the last time a test car got so much attention — quite an accomplishment at a time of year when pedestrians are looking straight down, wary of ice, or perhaps just beaten into frostbitten misery. I'm impressed that people recognize the R8 as something entirely new; it garnered more unabashed rubbernecking and mouth-breathing than the Italian competition does. (I should allow the possibility that people were just curious what kind of jackass drives a car like this in winter.)
We weren't crazy about our car's color scheme, honestly. The Mugello Blue Pearl Effect paint ($650 extra) wasn't a problem itself, but it didn't set off the sideblade, whose optional carbon fiber gives a charcoal color when viewed from a distance. The standard treatment, a darker Night Blue sideblade, would have worked better — and cost less. The optional Carbon Exterior Package is best left to the lighter colors, or even the black.
R8 in the Market
There are things I don't like about the R8, but they're relatively minor. There's something very cheap about the look and sound of the heated-seat switches, which is especially out of place in an Audi. Also, the standard stereo is simply dreadful. I don't care how many watts, speakers or adjustments it has, it's helpless. I haven't heard the optional Bang & Olufsen premium system, but it has to be worth the additional investment ... though whether it's worth $1,800 depends on how important a good stereo is to you. That raises another frequent complaint: that the R8 has expensive options. I disagree — maybe because my emphasis is on the functional more than the aesthetic. The navigation system is $2,000, which is typical. Many options on my test car were cosmetic: blue paint ($650), the aforementioned Carbon Exterior Package ($5,300), Carbon Interior Trim ($2,200) and the Enhanced Leather Package ($5,500).
I could have lived without all of these, especially because the standard issue isn't exactly low-rent. Compared to all of this, the Premium Package is reasonable at $3,500, as it includes the parking system with backup camera, auto-dimming side mirror, a six-CD changer, HomeLink, Bluetooth connectivity, Hill Hold Assist and additional cabin storage. I've seen more expensive packages on much less expensive cars — often forcing you to pay for features you don't want in order to get the ones you do. To that point, a lot of the R8's options are offered a la carte, including some not on my test car: An Alcantara Headliner ($1,300), an accent-color sideblade ($1,000) and a Leather Elements package that gives premium leather seats and accents for $2,000 if you don't want to go for the full Enhanced Leather Package.
All told, our car was $131,245, but the R8 can be had for $109,000, plus the unavoidable $2,100 gas guzzler tax and $1,000 destination charge. That includes everything that makes the R8 special: stunning styling, an intoxicating drivetrain and a chassis that's as home on real roads as it is on the track. That's the heart and soul of this car, and to my way of thinking, it's a steal.
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