Over the years, I've driven my share of attention-getting automobiles. The new Volkswagen Beetle was guaranteed to draw a crowd when it first hit the road; ditto with the new Mini and Plymouth Prowler, and let's not forget the Smart car. Not all of the attention showered upon this last one was positive, mind you, but when I drove it down the street for the first time, people were literally stopping in their tracks and pointing.
Audi's new R8 seems to have the same effect. During my time with it, I had countless drivers pulling up beside me to give a thumb's up, pedestrians and busloads of people rubbernecking to the point of embarrassment, and once, when I parked it in a local park, a crowd of at least 20 teenagers – mainly males – gathered around it and I literally couldn't get in the car to leave.
Not hard to see why. This is a fabulous looking automobile and looks like it's doing 160 km/h just sitting there. It also has a clear plexiglass cover over the engine bay, so you can get an eyeful of the 4.2 litre V8 that provides the muscle for this state of the art touring sports car.
Said V8 develops 430 horsepower and 317 foot-pounds of torque and is mated to either a six-speed manual transmission or Audi's R-Tronic sequential automatic ($11,500 more). My tester had the former gearbox and it moved the R8 along at a lively clip….around four seconds from 0 to 100 km/h. The power numbers for this engine are kind of intriguing; it displaces 4.2 litres, yet 317 foot-pounds of torque for an engine this size is actually quite modest. And the torque for this engine reaches its maximum output at 6000 rpm, which means all kinds of revving power, but not the most in terms of low-end grunt. By way of comparison, Ford's new 3.7 litre V6 develops some 280 foot-pounds and it's just your basic mass-production six-banger.
There is also a 5.2 litre, V10 version of the R8 and it develops an impressive 525 horsepower, but is only about a second faster from 0 to 100 km/h. It'll run you another $29,000, and all things considered, is probably not money well spent.
Whatever engine you choose, the R8 comes with Quattro all-wheel-drive, and is a joy to drive, making absolutely glorious noises under throttle. A Ferrari-style shift gate ensures that you pick your gears carefully, and, despite the rearview camera and sensors, backing the car up is an exercise in frustration. But in terms of driving kicks, you get the full measure of the high-end European sports car tradition: almost zero body lean, stop on a pfennig braking, virtually instant power, and a symphony of mechanical noises emanating from the engine, which is right behind you.
For its $144,000 base price, the R8 also has most of the bells and whistles. Heated front seats, goodly-sized pedals with a footrest, Sirius satellite radio, various choices of leather interior, climate control, a nifty aluminum shift knob, power up and down windows, and accent lighting for the engine bay, to name but a few. Audi has managed to strike a balance between outright luxury and the minimalist ambience that is part and parcel of the sports car experience, and behind the wheel, I realized I was driving an expensive car, but I also felt the inner workings and mechanical rumblings of the R8. As the owner of various Morgans, Triumphs, and Austin-Healeys over the years, this latter point is not to be underestimated.
A couple of other things: the R8 has an optional hill-holder feature and magnetic ride suspension, both of which are welcome features. My tester also had a few goodies in the form of the distinctive Sigma carbon fibre side body blades ($2900), a navi package ($2900), and LED headlights ($3500). All of which put the price tag up to around $162,000 before taxes and extras.
Prospective buyers should also be aware that storage room is virtually nonexistent on the R8, despite Audi's claim that there is ample and convenient spaces for a wide variety of storage needs. True, you could probably cram a couple of small suitcases or overnight bags behind the seats and maybe a grocery bag or two in the trunk, but that's it. This car is strictly a two-seater and there isn't much room for extras. I also encountered a weird little glitch with my car; when I went to fill up the tank, the remote gas cap release button, located in the armrest on the driver's side door collapsed and fell through its housing. I couldn't release the gas cap as a result and couldn't put any gas into my car. On an automobile costing this much, that kind of assembly non-quality is unacceptable. And, although it probably doesn't matter to those who can afford the R8, fuel economy is brutal: 17.1 L per 100 km in town and 10.3 on the highway, so you'll be needing a dependable remote fuel cap release button.
My test car was a 2010 edition of the R8, but other than a price change and a minor power upgrade, the 2011 is virtually identical.
AT A GLANCE
Engine: 4.2 litre V8
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Drive: All-wheel drive
Horsepower: 430 horsepower at 7800 rpm
Torque: 317 foot-pounds at 6000 rpm
Base Price: $144,00; As tested: $161,900
Fuel Economy:17.1 litres per 100 kilometres city, 10.3 litres per 100 kilometres highway; premium gas
Alternatives: Porsche Turbo S Coupe, Mercedes SLS AMG, BMW 5-Series GT, Jaguar XJ.
Positives: Beyond price presence, fabulous handling, a joy to drive, politically incorrect.
Negatives: Pricey, politically incorrect, zero storage room.