To drive it is to mind-meld with a sophisticated being that can be an unholy freakin' animal.
James Cameron's film "Avatar" dreams a world where humans can telepathically plug into beautiful blue creatures of extraordinary power and speed, with glittery feline eyes and rock-hard butts.
Audi beat him to it.
The car is the 2010 Audi R8 5.2 FSI -- a billion-candlepower version of the R8 sports coupe with a Lamborghini V-10 engine wedged amidships. To drive one is to mind-meld with an off-world creature of magnificent grace and dramatic pace, a being that can by turns be tender and sophisticated or -- once you kick the loud pedal -- an unholy freakin' animal. The primal aurality of this car at 8,000 rpm will actually cause your DNA to devolve. Ugh. Mook-ah.
The Audi isn't simply quick (zero to 60 in 3.7 seconds) or fast (a quarter-mile in less than 12 seconds), though it easily qualifies as among the dozen fastest street-legals on planet Earth. It isn't only that it will cause your organs to slosh to one side of your rib cage like an untrussed load of pork bellies. It's that the whole package -- the death-grip Pirellis, the mid-engine layout, the all-wheel drive, the carbon-ceramic brakes, the milfoil layering of electronic safety systems, the preternatural balance of the thing -- so thoroughly augments and flatters the abilities of the humanoid behind the wheel. The man-machine interface is so supple, so syncretic, the bit stream from the four wheels through the seat and steering so vivid and real-time that at times I could taste the carbon fiber.
I got out of the Audi feeling 10 feet tall and ready to tame the nearest Toruk.
But let's unpack the name, shall we? This is essentially the same car as the much-adored 4.2-liter, 420-hp R8, with a little suspension tuning to account for the weight of the larger V-10 engine (curb weight: 3,726 pounds) and larger side intakes to shunt air into the caldron of horsepower behind the two seats. "FSI" stands for "fuel stratified injection," but the rest of the world calls it "direct injection" (of fuel into the cylinders, that is). This engine -- 10 cylinders, 5.2 liters of displacement, 40 dancing valves, variable induction geometry, with direct injection -- usually gets marquee billing in the Lamborghini Gallardo. Lamborghini and Audi are corporate cousins under the VW Group, though I wouldn't trust Lamborghini to deliver a pleasant driving experience any more than I'd trust Silvio Berlusconi to chaperon a high school dance.
In the Audi application, the engine is slightly dialed back -- which is to say, it feels like it's had the first of three rounds of rabies shots. It still foams at the mouth. The Audi's numbers are 525 hp (down from the Lambo's 552 hp) and 391 pound-feet of torque (down an insignificant 7 pound-feet from the Italian job). Buyers can choose the conventional six-speed manual gearbox -- as slick as a killing floor, perfectly weighted and jointed -- or the rather less lovable R-tronic automated manual gearbox, which is a $9,000 option.
The privilege of having two extra cylinders in the engine cradle costs $25,000, for a base price of $155,000. Our test car -- in Na'vi blue, though Audi calls it Sepang Blue to avoid paying Cameron any royalties -- was fully kitted with the luxury interior and R-tronic gearbox, bringing the out-the-door number to a wintry, breathtaking $172,250.
This sounds like a lot of money, because it is. And yet the R8 5.2 FSI has a way of recalibrating your cost-benefit expectations. This gestalt switch gets flipped as you see it from a distance, preferably in an empty parking lot, where it seems to enjoy the kind of epic, annunciation lighting that Cecil B. DeMille used to direct at Charlton Heston. The Gallardo is a child's vision of speed -- aggressive, wedgy, hard, but a victim of its own testosterone-addled ridiculousness. It wants to be drawn with a blue ballpoint on a school notebook. The R8, with either V-8 or V-10 under the rear hatch, brims with futurism, a chamfered, beveled cutting tool of high-speed atmosphere, heroically wide and supercar low.
This version of the R8 features a complete array of LED lighting instruments -- headlamps, signals, fogs and position lights. There's your Na'vi glittering eyes. You'd also have to credit the jewel-box setting of the engine inside a carbon-webbed engine cradle, inside the lighted, under-glass compartment, as one of the finest two or three cubic feet of auto design anywhere.
In other respects, this car is the same as the V-8-powered R8: The same exotic magnetic dampers, the same optional carbon-ceramic binders, the same leathery, luxe interior. More than that, the cars share the exact same foundational solidity, the aerospace hardness and absence of flex -- the steering column feels somehow connected to the Earth's iron core, for instance. Yes, sure, wherever Unobtanium comes from and whatever it is, this is its ultimate fettling of it. But it isn't a tooth chipper. The Audi's ride is mostly benevolent -- even in sport suspension mode. There's a fair amount of wheel travel so that it's not constantly knocking the stuffing out of you on rough roads.
It's just that when you summon the furies in the V-10, they come with more of a heated vengeance.
Burn my Hometree, will you?