Moments of truth don’t get much bigger than this... As tall orders go, Audi’s sensational new R8 faces the very tallest of them all. And it all comes down to one big question. Is the mid-engined two-seater better than a Porsche 911? Specifically, is it more exciting to drive and easier to live with than its German rival – regarded as one of the greatest sports cars of all-time?
It might sound a bit melodramatic, but there’s plenty at stake. If Audi has got the R8 wrong, it could reverse the excellent progress it has made with cars such as the TT and A4 Cabriolet.
This is the daring position the firm has put itself in, and as we climbed behind the wheel for our exclusive first drive, we could swear that at least two members of Audi’s top brass were exchanging worried glances.
First impressions, however, are very good. Not only does the car have great road presence, but the V8 engine is a work of art and sounds spectacular. The 4.2-litre FSI unit sits behind the driver’s head in a carbon fibre nest, and as the revs climb, you can almost hear its 420bhp, 187mph potential.
Select first gear, and the open-gate, six-speed box clicks noisily as the lever hits the end of its travel. Shifts are millimetre precise, and the cogs prove easy to engage. Acceleration is relentless, and the 0-60mph dash is completed in less than 4.5 seconds. Wheelspin is minimised by the four-wheel-drive transmission.
In fact, our only criticism is aimed at the clutch, which can prove tricky to use smoothly at very low speeds, even though our car was fitted with an electronic anti-stall device, which as an £80 option is probably not worth it.
Predictably, the suspension is firm, particularly on the first version of the R8 that we tried, which did not feature Audi’s magnetic ride suspension system. You can feel every crease in the tarmac in a car which appears nothing less than 100 per cent ready for the racetrack. As a result, the loss of comfort is traded for high-speed stability and huge amounts of grip.
The steering is incredibly responsive, and even the slightest turn causes the R8 to change direction. On the downside, the system does lack the delicacy and feel of the 911’s.
However, when equipped with the £1,350 optional magnetic ride, the R8 deals with small bumps more effectively. The system boasts two modes, comfort and sport, but even in the latter it is more forgiving than the standard set-up. Impressively, magnetic ride has little effect on the steering quality, or the amount of grip on offer.
The brakes are another story. Both steel and ceramic set-ups will be offered, although the latter won’t be available in the UK until next year. But while the ceramic units are massively powerful, pedal progression has an on/off feel, and they clearly need fine tuning. The steel brakes are much more user-friendly. While lacking the ceramic system’s ultimate power, they are more than capable of slowing the car while driving on the road.
So if you want the very best that Audi’s R8 has to offer right now, plump for the magnetic ride suspension and steel brakes, and avoid the automatic R tronic gearbox; the manual is simply delightful.
At this early stage, we would have to say this car doesn’t quite beat the 911. However, that shouldn’t leave Audi’s engineers crying into their German beer. The motor has the character and ability to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with its rival, an achievement that shouldn’t be underestimated.
Download R8 wallpaper on the links below:
* Price: £70,000
* Engine: 4.2-litre V8, 420bhp
* 0-62mph: 4.6 seconds
* Top speed: 187mph
* Transmission: Six-speed manual, four-wheel drive
* Economy: 19.3mpg
* CO2: 349g/km
* Standard equipment: Four airbags, satellite navigation, LED lights, 18-inch alloy wheels, eight exterior colours available, tracking security system, retractable rear spoiler.
* On sale: June 2007