Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Review: Audi R8 - The all-weather supercar

I’m not really sure why I get all my really nice sports cars in the dead of winter. Whether it be my inexperience as a journalist making me low man on the totem pole. Thus, ineligible to receive these great cars in the summer when the old dogs get first crack. Or it may be that I’m actually quite fond of driving in the snow, and have a racing background to back up any suggestions of my competency.


Deep dark winters past I’ve braved the elements in M3’s, M Coupes, Porsche Caymans and 911 Turbos. Even the open topped (and open sides, front and rear for that matter) Ariel Atom was driven in the final few rainy days of winter. My hairline still hasn’t recovered from the bombardment of rain droplets hitting me in the forehead at 160.


Regardless, its early February, and I’ve finally got my greedy paws on the keys to a supercar that I’ve been dying to give a go to; Audi’s extraordinary R8. The R8 is one of those cars you just won’t see that much of, like a proper supercar should be. You may see one once in a blue moon, and the chances of you getting a ride in one is slim to none. But, to get behind the wheel of this mysterious car means you will be one of the lucky chosen few.


To those lucky few, Audi has served up a real treat. First of all you cannot overlook the R8’s unique look. Love it or hate it, Audi’s usually conservative designers must have been at the closing stages of a kegger when the R8’s lines were created. It really is a uniquely special vehicle. While it may give off the look of a supercar, that’s where the similarities end. For one, the interior has a surprising amount of room and comfort. An excellent seating position, great forward visibility, and a striking dash layout make the R8’s interior a surprisingly invitable place. The biggest surprise however, was the way it drove.


Audi’s performance brands have awed the rednecks of higher society with large growling V8’s that can go real fast in a straight line. Sure they have massive brakes and incredible grip with every car featuring the Quattro system. However for me, the S4, RS4, S6, and RS6 are magnificent performers, but the heavy front ends and Quattro system tends to dull the driver’s interaction with the car and give a feeling of indestructibility. It’s not that “seat of the pants, heart in your mouth” driving experience you get from other RWD or cars with the engine mounted in the rear. When the S5 was set to unveil, Audi enthusiasts were begging for a RWD machine, only to have yet another Quattro thrown in front of them. Oh the understeer is overwhelming.


The R8 is, yes you guessed it, a Quattro. A backwards Quattro, but still a Quattro. However, with that big V8 sitting in the back, the handling characteristics have completely changed. Now we have more weight in the back, giving a more efficient turn-in and cornering balance as the rear end follows you around the corner. Then when it comes time to put the power on, Audi have kept the vast majority of the torque (70% in fact) going to the rear wheels. Ah, finally the glorious oversteer I’ve been yearning.


There in lies the problem with driving a mid-engined car. They have an amazing ability to bite back. The time it takes to go from hero to zero is ferociously fast and violent. Those unskilled I the ways of the mid-engine will be left standing beside a smoking heap of aluminum and carbon fibre, being laughed at by everyone driving by in a Civic. That is what makes mid-engine supercars so special. They strike the fear of death into you. However with the Quattro system at work, Audi have made the R8 a surprisingly civil and competent supercar.  So much so, Audi handed over the keys even as the snow fell. So off I went in a $160,000 supercar, with traffic lines obscured with a blanket of white.


Terrifying one may think. What with Carbon Fibre, Magnesium and Aluminum making up the majority of materials and a 420 hp V8 lifted from the RS4, the R8 should be an extremely expensive accident waiting to happen. However, it was well behaved and never gave me any unscheduled shots of adrenaline. The Quattro made this car as capable as any. Although it is in the dry where this cars shines, and luckily for me this is Vancouver, and snow rarely lasts more than 48 hours. With dry tarmac a foot, I called in sick, and set off to explore the R8’s true abilities as a sportscar.


With the new day came a dry road. So calling in sick, and off I went to enjoy the R8. Enjoy it I did, as the car is absolutely infectiously addictive to drive. Massive quantities of grip, staggering  braking abilities and a good bit of power is what you would expect from such a car. However the easy of which it drives was something I was not expecting. The predictability and ease of the R8’s handling abilities are phenomenal. It never gives you the feeling that you will loose control, and when the tires do start to loose contact with the ground, it is so easily controllable it should almost be illegal. It feels as though the car was designed to be just as comfortable sideways as it is driving straight. It all makes for an enormously enjoying yet intoxicating drive.


Then there is the sound. A prerequisite of all supercars is that they must emit a spine chilling sound that is permanently engraved in the mind of anyone who hears it. When the fast foot hits the floor in the R8 the 4.2L barks out a roar of magnificence that will make anyone jump within a 300-meter radius. It is a sound that strikes the fear of death into hearts of all who hear. I’ve never had a car that actually made a grown man scream like a child as I passed by with the tach reaching for the red and back-end steeping out of line.


So the end is near, its time to give the R8 back. This is the time when my emotions say the most about the car I’ve just driven. Some keys you can throw back with no problems. Some hurt you a little inside. Then there are a select few that just simply hurt to give up. Giving them up is like saying good bye to a good friend you know you may not ever see again, leaving that empty feeling in your stomach. Cheesy I know, but there is a car that can do that as well, and the R8 did. That’s when you know when a manufacturer has built something special.