Audi R8

Has Audi got it right first time with its new mid-engined sports car?

It’s amazing that we actually managed to drive the R8 at all. That’s got nothing to do with any reliability issues or the logistics of doing a photoshoot in France – more the fact that whenever we stopped, people swarmed over the Audi like bees around a honeypot. We can’t remember driving another performance machine that attracted so much attention.

The Audi is an exhibitionist’s car – and a good-looking one to boot. The designers have managed to make a feature of the cooling vents by placing them directly under the front and rear lights, while the Side Blades double as intakes for the V8 engine. Although unique, they’re arguably the least successful detail on the car, as they cut through the R8’s flowing lines.

Largely hand-built at Audi’s Neckarsulm plant in Germany, the R8 isn’t a big car – it’s nearly the same length as the 911, although significantly wider and lower. This should help its handling, but it doesn’t do practicality or ease of use any favours.

The newcomer’s packaging will force you to compromise: the nose boot totals only 100 litres, and although Audi claims that two golf bags can fit behind the seats, inserting them would block off what little rear visibility there is.

In contrast, both occupants have plenty of space, and get to enjoy a cockpit that is even better than the Aston’s for its sense of occasion. We’re not convinced by the centre console design that curves around the back of the instrument binnacle, nor the fact you sit a touch high. But in every other regard, the R8 is stunning. There’s no faulting the seats, material quality and assembly, flat- bottomed steering wheel, the dash layout, or the fact it simply makes you feel so special.

That impression doesn’t diminish when you fire up the engine. The normally aspirated 4.2-litre V8 roars into life, and once on the move delivers impressive performance from 2,000rpm. At the far end of the rev counter, a red line of 8,250rpm means astonishing acceleration, accompanied by an addictive bellow. It’s a proper performance engine, every bit as convincing here as it is in the RS4.

But there’s one thing that will affect your enjoyment of the powerplant, and the whole car – selecting the right gearbox. As we reported in last week’s first drive, the R Tronic paddleshift system is OK, but it distances you slightly from the driving experience. The same can’t be said of the superb six-speed manual, while the brakes are progressive, strong and reassuring.

That’s true of the handling, too. The R8 is enormously capable and user-friendly, with scarcely believable amounts of grip. None of its rivals, not even the 911, could keep pace on tight, twisting roads. However, it doesn’t have quite the same involvement of the scalpel-sharp 911, and its responses are slightly numb in comparison.

This is a small price to pay for a car with such awesome body control and delightful steering, while the ride quality is little short of astonishing, thanks to the £1,350 Magnetic Ride dampers. These are a must-have for any R8 owner, as they deliver comfort that’s close to matching the Jaguar’s. In fact, the only downside to the driving experience is the limited view out and wide 11.8-metre turning circle.

Oh, and the fact that Audi seems to have adopted Porsche’s pricing policy, by charging extra for everything. The firm’s A3 SE has cruise control as standard – the R8 doesn’t. It’s no wonder most buyers are spending more than £10,000 on options – this penny-pinching approach doesn’t do the otherwise awesome R8 any favours.

Details

Price: £76,825Model tested: Audi R8Chart position: 1WHY: The R8 promises a driving experience to match its looks, but also claims to be easy to live with.

Economy

The R8 proved to have by far the longest range – but it does boast the biggest tank. Overall economy of 18.1mpg is fair; just don’t expect to be able to top 20mpg very often.

Residuals

All of these cars measure running costs in pounds rather than pence. But at nearly £2 per mile, the R8 is by far the most expensive, despite strong predicted used values.

Servicing

According to our Driver Power 2007 survey, Audi dealers aren’t as good as Jaguar’s or Porsche’s; its network was voted 16th out of 32. R8 owners will expect much better.

Tax

Few company drivers are likely to run a supercar, but it’s anticipated that many R8s will be purchased via contract hire – these customers face a monthly bill of £1,633.

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