ANDREW ENGLISH TAKES THE MID-ENGINED BEAST FOR A SPIN ON PORTUGAL’S TWISTING ROADS
There’s a tendency to think that since Audi doesn’t actually produce any mass-produced, mid-engined cars, like Porsche does, that it doesn’t really know how to. Think again.
For sheer mind-warping performance, for the reverberating beat of a naturally aspirated V10 singing its heart out, for the absolute plushness of the cabin and the near fingertip precision of its handling, the new Audi R8 is enough to leave you wondering why this VW-owned company doesn’t stuff the engines behind the seats in all its cars.
Hang on, though, mid-engined? They’re those low-polar-moment-of-inertia widowmakers, which make impromptu backwards visits into the scenery at any sign of less-than total commitment through the turns.
Not the R8, though. On winding Portuguese roads, its big 20-inch front wheels turn in, load up and then the corner tightens and a stray dog appears. Oh, help.
Lift off the throttle and the Audi tightens its line. Brake and it tightens a little more and that’s all it does, with a side-load on that’s pulling the wax out through your ears — impressive.
More impressive is the extraordinary nature of that 5.2l V10 engine: 450kW is a lot of grunt to be delivering to the road in any form, even with four-wheel drive and a new electronically actuated Haldex multi-plate clutch.
Around town it’s a pussycat, but stand on it and even from the lowliest of revs, you’ll wonder if a human can breathe at that sort of acceleration.
It’s not all perfect, but we’ll get to that. Audi’s been playing around with mid-engined supercars since Ferdinand Porsche designed Auto Union grand prix racers before World War II.
In 1991 it produced the Avus Quattro concept then went racing at Le Mans with the R8 endurance racer. All the while the R8 road car was under development.
On sale in 2007, the R8 has proved an extraordinarily resilient supercar.
In the past couple of years we’ve been teased about how a replacement R8 could look with Audi’s Nanuk and ItalDesign’s Parcour concepts, but the real thing looks surprisingly conventional.
Audi’s TT coupe is clearly an influence, but from the rear you can also see bits of old Ferrari Testarossas and maybe even the 1960s Dodge Charger.
The R8 shares its underbody with Lamborghini’s Huracan; also its steering, wishbone front and multilink rear suspension, V10 engine and seven-speed twin-clutch transmission, although the tuning and the body and cabin design is all Audi’s.
Audi NZ will launch the R8 mid-2016, with a high level of technology and driver assistance systems.
“This latest R8 increases its city driveability but happily retains its track performance and sportier styling lines,” says Audi NZ’s managing director Dean Sheed.
Does motor racing improve the breed?
“When we developed the first model, we started with the road car,” says Heinz Hollerweger, Quattro’s managing director. “But when we went racing, we had so many compromises that we had to change for the race track. This time we started with the race car.”
And apart from a cage, road and race, R8s have identical inner bodies.
Climb in and the cabin is spacious (for bodies if not luggage), plush and classy with immaculate black leather upholstery, quilted Alcantara headlining and the sat-nav screen/instrument binnacle from the TT.
The steering wheel is festooned in buttons, some of them still a mystery, and the centre console isn’t quite as clever as Audi would have us believe. The seats seemed comfortable and the ride, though lumpy, was surprisingly smooth. The ceramic brakes are eye-popping, with a beautifully sensitive pedal.
What didn’t feel comfortable at any time, though, was the driver select programmes which alter the ride, steering response, engine and transmission response.
As expected, Audi had specced the test cars with every conceivable extra: variable ratio steering, magnetically variable damping and the performance pack (standard on the Plus model), which sharpens the dynamic responses in the stages for dry, wet and snowy roads. Nothing wrong with that, but with two driver select programmes, Comfort and Auto, the transmission and throttle response is unlinear and plain frightening at times.
This is a car that’s easier, safer and more comfortable to drive in its go-faster mode.
Apart from that, however, it’s comfortable (ish), good looking and clever.