Quick Drive: Audi R8 4.2 Quattro
By James Wong
There are the greats. And then there is the greatest. Where does the Audi R8 sit? I don’t think I’m qualified to say for sure where it should be in the hierarchy, but fresh in my mind I can only think this: that the R8 is probably the best car I’ve ever driven.
For a car to be put on a pedestal like this (especially an Audi), it has to be something special. Well, for a start, it certainly has the makings of a supercar. Based loosely on the Lamborghini Gallardo, Audi has cleverly placed a lighter V8 into the mid-engined configuration of the chassis. This is no ordinary V8 either – 420PS and 430Nm of torque all spell engineering when you consider that Audi has managed to extract all that from a 4.2L engine. Coincidentally, the same engine is also used in the Audi RS4, albeit in the R8 it is made to be dry-sumped. Audi has also borrowed the manual gearbox from the Gallardo (unique with its metal shift gates), although in the particular example I’ve had acquaintance with, it was equipped with R-tronic, Audi’s version of the E-Gear on the Gallardo. With a kerb weight of just 1560kg, the R8 hits 100km/h in 4.4 seconds, and 200km/h in 14.9 seconds. Mere humans can only just about walk across the hallway in 14.9 seconds.
Technicalities aside, it was the drive that can only be described as magical. Although I’ve never reviewed a Porsche Cayman before, I’ve had some time behind the driver’s seat of the Porsche and that incredible balance and neutrality I felt with the Cayman introduced me to the world of the mid-engined car. I never thought I would feel the same way again in the R8, as impressed as I was after the drive, I was skeptical before it because of the experiences I’ve had with Audis. They never had good steering feel to begin with, they are usually forward-wheel driven and even with quattro they couldn’t escape the laws of physics. Now blessed with the engine sitting right behind the cabin, the R8 plays on a different plane altogether. Sitting low and optioned with Audi Magnetic Ride, does the car handle? You bet it does.
The woeful steering that I expected never came to haunt me. The steering wheel is perfectly sized, so it sits well within reach of my hands and never once did it feel too large or too small. The steering felt meaty and communicative, something I wouldn’t expect to say when I first thought about what I would write in this article. It was heavy, but never tiresome, and the car changes direction so willingly I can only liken it to how a dog might follow a bone tied to a string which is then pulled across the floor. The Nappa leather wrapped around it also felt luxurious and yet instills a sense of warmth and confidence to the driver that your hands wouldn’t slip. Simply put, in a game of hit and miss, Audi has missed many times but in the R8, the steering is a definite hit.
Sitting in a cockpit that looks like what you might see in a futuristic aircraft, the R8’s offers unbelievably good visibility all round. You sit low in the car, and yet you can look out of the windscreen confidently and see what is in front of you. You can also look to your sides and realise that, unlike in the Gallardo’s coccoon like cabin, you are actually looking out like in any other car. And the rear view? Forget about the Gallardo’s pathetic rectangular piece of glass; in the R8, you get a full clear view of the car behind you as well as the glorious V8 showered with a flood of white light from the LEDs (also an optional extra). Sometimes, vanity isn’t only reserved for the opposite sex.
And the sound. Yes, the glorious sound. I’ve always been a fan of this particular V8’s symphony. Standing outside of the car and watching the car roll towards me, the car emits an audible growl that is never in your face, but yet tickles all the right emotions to make one go “Wow.” Sitting in the car and then closing the door however, you can hear barely any of it. Even on hard driving at high revs, the car is still very quiet on the inside. You could tell instantly that Audi has definitely placed refinement high on their agenda while building the R8, and in this respect it really shows. I don’t really mind because what this means for me is that this car is a real contender for a daily driver. I’ve said the same before for the LP560-4, but the R8 has made me realise how a car can be refined and yet be heaps of fun too. it definitely feels less extreme in terms of noise levels and interior ambiance than the Lamborghini.
I didn’t get to drive the R8 on open roads. In fact, all I got were narrow, dual carriage-ways littered with humps that, thankfully, were quite devoid of traffic. This allowed me to experiment with short bursts of power before the next hump appears, as well as to assess the braking and suspension. The car’s V8 is quick-revving, snarling and most importantly of all, a pretty darn amazing piece of work. It revs so cleanly and quickly to its redline that you can hardly believe the flexibility of the engine. It shows no signs of stress at any point of the rev band, and the car picks up pace so effortlessly it makes me wonder why Audi ever built the R8 V10. You don’t get to feel the speed though; the car whispers as it does it work and driving fast is not a sweaty palms affair; it is quite the opposite. You just want to go at it more and more, because it so easy.
Which brings me to the next point. The car is extremely easy to drive fast. You just need to have some discipline with your right foot because the throttle pedal is very sensitive; I was barely pressing on it for most of the journey; only for the longer stretches did I apply full pressure. This might be a problem for someone who is usually heavy-footed as the car will go very fast very quickly and soon some road rules will be broken. That aside, the car’s brakes are easy to modulate and are responsive, though a little bit more pedal feel would not go unappreciated.
Going to an area with less humps and more straights, I got to try some gentle corners and the R8 literally dances through them. Neutrality is the word of the day and the car just instills confidence more than anything else in the driver. You don’t feel panic like you do in other cars when the body starts rolling; when your tyres screech or when your tail is losing traction. In the R8 everything is under control and while I’ve barely begun to explore the limits of the R8, I do know that it is well above anything what we can attempt on the street. The suspension combines magically the two variables of comfort and sport; unlike the LP560-4’s rather jarring ride even at its softest setting, the R8’s Magnetic Ride is cosseting and in a split second or less, if you want, can be tuned to be stiffer. These dampers are far more responsive than equivalent air or spring types, as their stiffness is continuously variable depending on the condition of the road. If this isn’t genius I don’t know what is.
Unfortunately, the R8 can only be good at so many things and one thing that lets it down is its gearbox. R-tronic is as frustrating as other semi-automatics with a robotised single clutch, which makes me really wonder why Audi still clings on to it when they know sales are going to skyrocket if they did the R8 with a dual-clutch gearbox. As I commented on my A8 article, dual-clutch gearboxes are the way to the future especially as replacements for gearboxes like the R-tronic. On the R8 it lurches and rocks you back and forth on automatic; you simply cannot drive it like you can drive a normal car. Following the advice of letting the throttle go before each gearshift and it improves the smoothness; but, does it really make sense to add an additional step to operate this gearbox when it is actually supposed to be an automatic? This is still open to debate; however, I am personally not a fan of it. Going into manual mode, things start to get better as you control the gearshifts yourself, but the feeling of “old technology” is still inescapable when the crude jerks intrude into the drive. If you are getting an R8 for yourself, best savour it with a traditional six speed manual gearbox. Curiously enough, out of about 80 R8s in Singapore, there are less than 5 equipped with a manual gearbox.
I made a U-turn back to where I came from. The U-turn felt so good when power was transferred to the rear wheels which pulled the car into the turn. I enjoyed the fact that you can feel the car using its technologies to your benefit. With something as simple as a U-turn, it’s apparent that the car is combining everything that Audi has invested in its development to give the driver the best drive possible. The R8 is Audi’s first modern attempt at a supercar. First attempts are seldom the successful ones, but with the R8 Audi has built its best driver’s car and pinned itself to the history books as the car that humbled the 911.
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