Audi ready to race

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The 2008 Audi R8 is a lot like other exotic-looking sports cars: priced in the six figures and awesome-looking.

But the two-seat R8 is unexpected, too: It's comfortable to ride in, if you don't mind sitting low to the pavement, and it's sporty and taut without being harsh and punishing.

Just remember to watch the speedometer. With a 420-horsepower V-8 and a slight, 3,600-pound weight, the aluminum-bodied R8 is the fastest production Audi ever, with a 0-to-60-mph time of just 4.4 seconds and a top speed of 187 miles an hour.

If the numbers alone won't convince you the all-wheel-drive R8 is the closest thing you can get to a road-ready Audi race car, there's always the styling, with air gills and swoopy metal. The look is like that of the R8 that won the 24 Hours of LeMans race five times from 2000 to 2005.

Why bring such a car to market?

For one thing, the R8 has Audi's highest price tag. Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge and gas guzzler tax, is $115,600 for a manual transmission model with required convenience package. With automatic transmission that includes a shift-it-yourself function, the price starts at $124,600.

For these prices, an Audi customer could get three new TT coupes. But the TT -- or any other Audi -- wouldn't do what the R8 can do for Audi: Expand the brand image.

Already known for building stalwart German luxury cars, Audi wants to set a new, exciting image and better capitalize on its racing heritage.

So it's going against impressive competitors in the two-seat, exotic sports car segment, including the 2008 Porsche 911 Carrera that has a starting retail price of $73,260 for a six-cylinder model and the Lamborghini Gallardo, which starts at $184,250 for a V-10 model.

Don't get hung up on contrasting the Italian-bred Gallardo with the R8 just because Audi's parent company owns Lamborghini now and the R8 is built at the same Neckarsulm factory as the Gallardo. The two cars are distinctly different in flavor, and they share few components.

Indeed, the R8's well-arranged cockpit -- complete with a speedometer that's full of numbers that go all the way to 220 mph and a small steering wheel with a flat bottom -- instantly says "serious, modern motoring." And the test car's black metallic exterior paint and black leather interior made for a compellingly sinister persona.

I couldn't tell what I enjoyed more -- the smooth power that came from the 4.2-liter, double overhead cam V-8 sitting just behind the seats or the feeling that the low-slung R8 rode on rails at every corner.

The engine, with Audi's effective FSI direct injection system, kept on delivering power all through the gears and on into amazing speeds.

The tester had the R tronic automatic, which required some practice before I could go through the first couple of gears without feeling each shift sharply. But the thrusts of power jetted me and the car past everyone, no matter what the speed. Torque in the R8 peaks at 317 foot-pounds starting at 4,500 rpm and goes to 6,000 rpm. Redline is way up at 8,250 rpm, and a six-speed manual transmission also is offered.

I made lots of stops at the gasoline station for premium fuel. The car's tank holds 23.8 gallons, but you wouldn't know it the way the engine gulped gas. For the record, the R8 has a federal government fuel economy rating of only 13 miles per gallon in city driving with the automatic transmission, and I didn't get much over 11 mpg. The highway rating is 19 mpg, but I didn't see that, either.

The engine is used in Audi's sporty RS4 sedan, too. But because the R8 sits so low to the ground, the engine has a dry sump bottom. No worries about ground clearance, though. I didn't even scrape the front air dam going in and out of my driveway in the R8.

There isn't much visibility out the back of the car, though, even when the rear wing stays down. (It goes up automatically at 65 mph to handle rear end lift and goes down at 20 mph.) Audi offers an optional rearview camera.

Views out the front of the R8 aren't great, either, with all the trucks, sport utility vehicles and vans on the roads. At one point, I was on eye level with the trailer hitch on the back of a Toyota Tundra truck. But with the R8's quick power and nimble handling, the car doesn't stay behind any other vehicle for long.

Engine sounds are constant. So is road noise from the 19-inch tires.

Storage space is better than expected, with some room behind the seats and another 3.5 cubic feet of rectangular space in the front of the car, under the hood. Remember, the engine isn't up there.

Even 6-footers can find the R8 interior comfortable, with decent headroom and legroom. Because the R8 is a low-volume model, the federal government has not reported crash test results. Standard safety equipment includes knee air bags, seat-mounted side air bags, side air bags, Audi's quattro all-wheel-drive and electronic stability control.

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