It bothers Audi more than you know to be regarded as the also-ran brand when compared with the other premium German manufacturers -- Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Porsche. What's a company to do?

Arguably it was 1999 when Audi began the major makeover of its image, when the company entered not one, not two, but four cars in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world's toughest and certainly most publicized endurance race for sports cars.

That was my first time covering Le Mans, and I recall that Audi's entry was regarded with equal parts amusement and interest. The favorites were BMW, Mercedes and Toyota. BMW took the win, and Toyota was second. Two of the four Audis staggered home third and fourth, but it was more a testament to how fast Audi mechanics had learned to change transmissions than to the vehicles' speed and endurance.

As it turned out, the 1999 race was the most notable Le Mans in decades. The Mercedes entries, because of a miscalculation in aerodynamic design, were prone to catching air under the nose, lifting off like a Titan rocket and flipping end-over-end into the woods. It was spectacular -- and remains a YouTube favorite -- and it was humiliating for Mercedes. The company left Le Mans and still hasn't returned. At the same time, Toyota and BMW decided that they needed to spend their Le Mans money on Formula 1, and they left Le Mans and still haven't returned. Nissan and Porsche, also past overall winners, have not been back to challenge for the overall win.

So suddenly, Audi was king of Le Mans in particular, and sports-car endurance racing in general. The company refined its R8 sports car to the point where it was so fast and so dependable that since then, the question has not been if Audi would win but which Audi would win.

There was, however, a problem. Manufacturers typically race sports cars to generate interest in their road-going sports cars. But aside from its little turtle-shaped TT, Audi had no genuine sports car to sell.

Finally, finally, that has changed. The 2008 Audi R8 sports car, just now finding its way to dealers, is aimed directly at competitors such as the Ferrari F430 and Lamborghini Gallardo -- the R8 does, in fact, share some bits and pieces with the Lamborghini. It isn't a match for the brutal straight-line horsepower of cars such as the Chevrolet Corvette Z06 or Dodge Viper, but Audi's mid-engine R8 has the sophistication and finesse of the best Italian sports cars.

This is not to say it isn't fast, because it is. The R8's 4.2-liter V-8 engine is shared with the Audi RS4 -- that's the hot-rod version of the A4 -- and pumps out a silky-smooth 420 horsepower. The engine is mounted just behind the two seats, and just in front of the rear axle, and it's on display beneath a big rear window. It is, in fact, illuminated by some tiny LED lights, a very Audi-like feature.

There's a choice of transmissions, both six-speeds: A conventional manual, shifted between large slotted aluminum gates, and an automatic called the R tronic, which was on our test car. This is not just a plain six-speed automatic transmission -- Audi calls it a "sequential manual gearbox" that you can shift using little paddles on the steering wheel, but without a clutch. You can also let the transmission shift for itself, but it's happier -- and your passenger will be happier -- if you shift the transmission yourself.

That's because this sequential transmission, operating on its own, acts much like a manual transmission. Rather than the smooth gear changes we're used to with automatics, these sequentials -- and it's the same with a Ferrari or Lamborghini -- reduce engine rpm, pause and shift, making the car lurch a bit with every gear change. It's like driving with someone just learning how to operate a manual transmission.

Shift for yourself, though, using those steering-wheel paddles, and you quickly learn to modulate the throttle a bit, smoothing the shifts to the point where they are nearly imperceptible. Really, it's more fun than it sounds. It must be: Only a small percentage of A8s will be sold with the manual -- even with Ferraris and Lamborghinis, manual transmissions make up only about 10 percent of sales.

That said, there isn't much else to complain about. Some drivers have found the R8's steering to be numb and insensitive, but it felt fine to me. Handling is superb -- there's nothing like the balance a mid-engine layout provides -- and the big disc brakes are excellent. Typically Audi, the R8 is all-wheel-drive, and it takes some genuinely overenthusiastic driving to upset it, thanks in no small measure to its sticky Pirelli radial tires.

Inside, the R8 is also typically Audi: No one pays more attention to detail regarding interior trim, fit and design, almost always successfully combining looks and function. It is also worth mentioning that while interior room is reasonably tight -- which does not mean there isn't ample room for two people -- there isn't much room for their stuff, but the A8's trunk space is generous and surprisingly usable.

As you'd expect, this doesn't come cheap, unless you compare the R8 to the Ferrari and Lamborghini. Base price on the test car was $118,000, and assuming you can find one for that price, the R8 is a supercar bargain.

But on the test car, options added up quickly. A carbon-fiber-exterior package added $5,300 -- I'd actually prefer the car without that feature -- and even more carbon fiber inside added $2,200. Then there was an upgraded Bang & Olufsen sound system ($1,800, but save your money -- the engine sounds so great it tops any symphony), a navigation system ($2,000), a $3,500 "premium package" that added several smaller items such as an auto-dimming mirror and a helpful parking-sensor system, an "enhanced leather" package for $5,500, and $650 for "Jet Blue Metallic" paint. With shipping and a $2,100 federal "gas guzzler" tax (EPA rating is 13 miles per gallon city, 18 highway), the total price was $142,045.

That's still far less than the Lamborghini Gallardo and Ferrari F430, both of which list for about $200,000, and it's quite close to the price of the last Porsche 911 Turbo Coupe we tested, which listed for $142,510. The Porsche has a 60-horsepower advantage over the Audi R8, but the Audi's curbside appeal -- this is, after all, a car no one has seen -- gives it an edge over the familiar but undeniably stirring Porsche.

Early reports suggest that demand for the R8 is exceeding the supply. Given the fact that the racing Audi R8s have whetted our appetite for an Audi sports car for nine years, is anyone surprised?

Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smithcan be reached at scsmith@orlandosentinel.com.