"What's your favorite car?" I've been asked this a jillion times in my life, mostly since I became an auto journalist. My stock answer at social gatherings has been the 1995 Buick Roadmaster station wagon. I've always found that car strangely compelling, honestly, but mostly I've learned that the reply evokes stunned silence and allows me to avoid a question I've never been able to answer. I've driven too many models of too many vehicle types to pick just one; I'm at a cocktail party and this conversation feels a lot like work. The Roadmaster has reliably allowed me to move on to less complicated topics, like politics and religion.
All that has changed. For the first time in my life, I have a single favorite car: the Audi R8.
Since the R8's debut, there have been critics for whom the 4.2-liter V-8's 420 horsepower and zero to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds just wasn't enough. Now, the V-10's 525 hp delivers a zero-to-60 time of 3.7 seconds, and that puts it in line with other supercars. Speaking of supercars, the V-10 isn't the 4.2-liter V-8 with a couple of additional cylinders. It's actually shared with the Gallardo from Lamborghini — which Volkswagen also owns — and, in less-powerful forms, with the Audi S6 and S8. Early hopes of further differentiation from the Gallardo were dashed during development when a prototype R8 fitted with Audi's twin-turbo 5.0-liter V-10 burst into flames. The thermal challenge couldn't be overcome.
No great loss. The 5.2-liter is a potent engine, and though its torque peak is a mere 391 pounds-feet at 6,500 rpm, there's enough grunt to get you going without much delay, and the standard Quattro all-wheel drive makes sure the power goes to the pavement during straight-line acceleration. The torque peak is definitely far up the rev range, especially for a 10-pack of cylinders, but possibly not as high as you'd think: The engine redlines at 8,700 rpm, so 6,500 rpm is relatively accessible and there's a decent torque band to work with.
Thankfully, our test car had the manual transmission, which showed off the engine's lightning-fast throttle response — something that's all too rare with today's by-wire throttles. When you blip the throttle to downshift, the tach jumps as quickly as it did with the late, lamented cable-operated butterfly. At last, this improvement is starting to look like an improvement.
The V-10 dumps rpm as quickly as it builds them — much faster than most engines, due to a low-mass flywheel and a very high compression ratio. Direct injection allows for 12.5-to-1 compression, which slows the pistons down precipitously as soon as the gas is cut. It reminded me of racing engines. I learned to back off only a bit on the throttle with each upshift to keep the revs matched during normal driving. Otherwise I'd be shifting with frantic speed when not accelerating frantically.
The gated shifter is a joy to behold, and it's satisfying to use. I don't believe it's the best design for quick shifts, honestly; it's too easy to catch the edge of one of the teeth when, say, moving from 2nd to 3rd or 4th to 5th. But I'll gladly tolerate this quirk in exchange for the clicking sound of the stick moving through the gates. It never got old.
Apart from the increased acceleration, the V-10 does little to change the car's character. The curb weight increases from 3,605 pounds with the V-8 to 3,715 with the V-10, and the front/rear weight distribution remains the same at 44/56, according to Audi. Quattro sends 65 percent of the torque to the rear wheels and can increase it to 90 percent when needed. Despite the tail-heaviness and rear torque bias, the car goes into a corner with understeer. In time, I found that the best approach is to head in slower and give it gas to get the rear in the game and establish a balance. Then you can pour it on, and the R8 digs in and corners like a cat on a rug.
There's a single button near the shifter that switches the standard adaptive suspension to a Sport setting, which noticeably firms up the ride. Another button switches the electronic stability system to a more liberal Sport mode — allowing more sliding and wheelspin — or can turn it off entirely.
There are otherwise no adjustments. There's no means of changing the accelerator pedal's responsiveness, a feature I find unnecessary. And while I admit I sometimes appreciate keyless access, which lets you leave the keyfob in your pocket and control the door locks and ignition using buttons, I respect the R8's old-fashioned key, which you put in a slot and turn. The switchblade design is smaller than most keyless fobs.
Day to Day, Season to Season
As we've come to expect from performance cars, and especially more expensive ones, the R8 provides enough ride comfort for day-to-day livability without sacrificing handling, especially with the computer-controlled magneto-rheological suspension. You hear just enough engine sound from behind you, and the exhaust is discreet unless you accelerate vigorously. Unlike some high-powered sports cars, which are designed to blare when you hit a particular rpm level, the R8 5.2's exhaust makes its presence known any time you put it under load — quieter at low revs, louder at high. It makes for relatively quiet cruising at all speeds, plus the ability to hear the growl even without making a menace of yourself. Very nicely done.
In last year's R8 4.2 review, I marveled at how competent the car was on ice and snow (equipped with winter tires). If it weren't for the low ride height, which turns minor snow drifts into obstacles, it would be a full-fledged four-season car.
The R8 is low indeed. The wee Mazda MX-5 Miata retractable hardtop is a tenth of an inch taller at the roofline. Though the sills aren't too wide, getting in and out of the R8 is an effort. If you have bad knees, you'll be begging for a hand, or some kind of grab handle, of which there are none to be found.
Like most two-seaters, the R8 has enough legroom for adults, and there are standard eight-way power seats. Though I needed to inch the driver's seat forward to get full extension on the clutch pedal, I found the dead pedal (foot rest) on the left too high for comfort in normal driving. Not being able to extend my left leg caused fatigue after time. An adjustable dead pedal would be fantastic.
The seats themselves are great — supportive, comfortable and pretty good at holding you in place during aggressive driving. I do think some occupants will find the bottom cushions' side bolsters too tight. They were hugging my hips, and I'm relatively slim these days. Less prominent bolsters probably wouldn't hurt; though adjustable types might appeal to buyers, they tend to add weight, complexity and cost.
Visibility is actually quite good. Taller drivers might have to lower their heads to see high traffic signals, but I've seen worse in less stylish cars. (Camaro, I'm looking in your direction.) Because the rear window is immediately behind the seats, the view directly to the rear isn't bad; the problem is the C-pillar, which is also close to the occupants and obstructive. I don't think it's a huge problem when driving if you make prudent use of your mirrors; it causes problems mostly when backing up, into or out of a parking space. Fortunately, a backup camera and front and rear sonar sensors are standard in the 5.2.
Is Nothing Wrong With This Car?
Yes, the R8 has some shortcomings. Cargo capacity is a clear downside, at 3.5 cubic feet in the front trunk, roughly the size and shape of a rolling carry-on bag. With 5.3 cubic feet, even the Miata laughs at the R8. The Gallardo is at least a bit better than its cousin, with 3.9 cubic feet. The 2009 Ferrari F430 managed 8.8 cubic feet, and the new Ferrari California accommodates 8.5 cubic feet with the convertible top lowered and an impressive 12 cubic feet when the top's up. We moved the R8's seats forward and threw a bag of golf clubs back there, which worked, but anything you carry comes at the expense of legroom.
The backup camera's image is too dark — worse than average. On the upside, it has lines that move as you turn the steering wheel to show where the car will go, and superimposed on the image is a graphic of the car that shows the proximity of obstacles to the bumpers. These front and rear sonar sensors are also standard, and the front ones are mounted uncommonly low on the bumper so they detect even low curbs, helping to protect the vulnerable front splitter.
The navigation system, entertainment and other features are controlled through an older version of Audi's Multi Media Interface, which is less ergonomic than the latest from Mercedes and BMW.
Another weird quirk revealed itself as I drove in a downpour: The underside of the rear window fogged up, and the defogger utterly failed to fix the problem, creating a Venetian-blind effect. The engine compartment is enclosed between the large rear window and a short vertical one immediately behind the cabin. It's peculiar, because the rear glass gets hot enough to melt ice and snow, yet it turned into a greenhouse by pulling moist cooling air in on a warm day.
Then there's the mileage. As with the V-8, the optional dual-clutch automatic transmission adds only 11 pounds to the R8 5.2. Regardless, it also ups the R8 5.2's mileage by 1 mpg in the city, to 13/20 mpg and 16 mpg combined. The six-speed manual is 12/20 and 15 mpg combined. Because of its higher combined mpg, the 5.2 automatic's gas-guzzler tax is "only" $2,100. The manual version suffers a $3,000 tax — but the R8 4.2's guzzler tax is $2,100 across the board even though its combined mileage is 15 mpg for both versions. (This is due to the EPA's methods, which I'd explain, but it would spin your head and crush whatever faith you might have in our government.) If you're unfamiliar with the world of high-performance cars, yes, this mileage does indeed suck. But it's also the norm among supercars, comparing to the Ferrari California and Lamborghini Gallardo.
As a low-volume sports car, the R8 hasn't been crash-tested. It comes with frontal airbags, side-impact head-and-chest airbags, and knee airbags. Other standard safety features include antilock brakes with discs at all four wheels, eight-piston calipers in front and four-piston ones at the rear.
Exterior & Styling
A few features distinguish the 5.2 from the 4.2, including chrome trim on the grille itself, not just surrounding it, and gloss-black-vaned vents under the headlights, which use LEDs exclusively (they're optional on the R8 4.2). The front air dam would be gloss black, too, but our car had optional carbon fiber here, as well as on the side mirrors, rear diffuser and side blades. The side blades are the accent-colored panels on the sides, which some observers like and others don't. In addition to the standard solid accent color and optional carbon fiber, buyers can order matching body-colored side blades through the Audi Exclusive program for a monochrome look.
The 5.2 model's blades are flared to gulp more induction and cooling air, and the rocker panels are more pronounced as well. Around back, the diffuser is larger than the 4.2's, and the dual exhaust pipes are oval rather than two pairs of round tailpipes. The clearest telltale sign of a 5.2 is the continuous gloss black panel that extends across the rear. The R8 4.2 has dark vents under the taillights only.
One of the R8's coolest aspects is revealed when you approach from the rear after dark and hit the remote unlock button. LEDs gradually illuminate the engine compartment, bathing the engine in a cool blue light. It's fantastic.
In my time with the R8, its gorgeous styling caused everything from admiration and exclamation to a fender bender and bodily harm. With the R8 parked in front of my house, I sat quietly with my laptop alongside a hedge, like a cop with speed radar, and heard numerous outbursts from people walking or cycling by, which wouldn't have been as notable if they hadn't been alone, exclaiming to no one. On the road, one young driver hit the brakes to gawk when pulling out of a gas station and was rear-ended. A boy on a bicycle whipped his head around, instantly shouted "Audi R8!" to his friend, and then hit a curb and fell off his seat. (We all know how painful that can be.) The R8 proved to be a bit of a hazard.
R8 in the Market
It's hard for people to accept that any car priced above $100,000 is a bargain, but everything's relative. The R8 4.2 starts at $114,200. More than $30,000 is a lot to pay for a couple additional cylinders, but at $146,000, the R8 5.2 is still cheap when you consider that Lamborghinis and Ferraris start close to $200K. Aston Martin starts at almost $121,000 with a V-8 and more than $187,000 with a V-12. The Bentley Continental GT starts at nearly $183,000.
If you want to compare other high-performance models, the 2010 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 costs $106,880 and looks like a Corvette. The Porsche 911 Turbo starts at $132,800 but looks like yet another 911. Ditto for AMG and V-12 versions of Mercedes' top models, which look a lot like their less affordable siblings but cost more than the R8s.
Our test car was optioned up to $170,350 "out the door," but aside from the destination charge and gas-guzzler tax, every option was cosmetic — a suedelike Alcantara ceiling liner and a slew of carbon-fiber trim, inside and out. That means just over $150,000 gets you the performance and the looks. With a V-8, it's cheaper still.
That leaves us with the issue of image. To believe there's no "look at me" component to the supercar-selection process is to deny human nature. Even Prius owners want to be recognized as such, and people who choose bland cars often do so specifically because they don't want to stick out. "Don't look at me" is simply the opposite side of the same coin.
The R8 grabs attention like no other car — and I speak of the quality more than the quantity. It was met with far less disdain than the other exotics I've driven, like Lambos and Astons. People didn't hesitate to give the R8 a thumbs up or say, "Nice car!" Reactions were unabashed — more like what I've experienced in modest nostalgia cars like the Dodge Challenger and Volkswagen New Beetle. Was it because the R8 is relatively new? Maybe. Because it's striking in a different way — more German than Italian? That's probably part of it. But I think the main thing is that it's an Audi.
I was asked a couple of times why anyone would buy an Audi over a Lamborghini or a Ferrari. I suspect many R8 buyers will do so because of the brand, not in spite of it. Many Lamborghinis and Ferraris are purchased because they're Lamborghinis and Ferraris. What some people see as cachet, others see as a banner that reads "trust-fund baby," "Wall Street shark" or something less polite. When people buy the R8, they're buying the car, not someone else's idea of reputation, which might or might not be reflected in the product itself.