Driven: Audi R8 4.2 Quattro

Our “Driven” series highlights the several cars I was able to sample at IMPA’s Spring Brake 2010 event. These short takes are summaries of my driving impressions of the cars on the roads surrounding Bear Mountain State Park in Rockland County, New York.

Given my involvement in automotive journalism, I spend a great deal of time reading what others have to say about cars. And I confess, there are times when I simply get tired about reading about a particular car. The Audi R8 was one of them-everything I read just heaped praise on the car, and regardless of where I turned, the opinion was the same. The car is simply great.

When a Phantom Black R8 rolled into the parking lot shortly after our day began, I put the car on my ‘must-drive’ list. And, I should add, my counterparts are correct-the R8 is simply an awesome car. By now, you may have seen the TV commercial where an R8 is ran out of Maranello (home of Ferrari). I now fully understand that ad.

Naturally, it helps that the R8 is easy on the eyes. Audi has managed to pull off a mid-engine exotic that meshes German coolness and menace into a beautiful package. The R8’s signature ‘sideblades’ were a dark Lava Grey on our car, so in person they were barely noticeable. The car looks fantastic from any angle, and it is a joy to view the engine from the clear rear engine cover.

And what an engine! The 4.2L V-8 is rated at 420hp. Audi claims a 0-60mph time of 4.4 seconds, with a top-speed of 187mph. The roads surrounding Bear Mountain State Park are wickedly tight and twisting, making it hard to exploit the power the car has. On the short straights available, and under hard acceleration where I could the sense the car was about to really get on cam, I was instantly met with another blind corner, forcing me to back off the throttle. My reward came on my last stretch, a three-mile blast on the Palisades Parkway, where the V-8 could finally pull to redline. The R8 is fast and powerful, but does not overwhelm-you never feel like the car is getting away from you.

But the R8 is so much more than raw speed. Our car was blessed with a true six-speed manual with a gated shifter. Gear changes were a slick, metallic, mechanical affair that was, in a word, beautiful to this driving enthusiast. The sound emanating from the V-8 behind you is glorious. The tranny adds to the soundtrack, in a “hey, I’m handling all this power, and I’m allowed a seat at the head table” kind of way. The Audi makes all the right sounds for the exotic car that it is. Even rolling through a parking lot at 5mph, the R8 sounds cool, giving all onlookers a hint of the power within.

Handling, steering and braking are key to navigating the roads I sampled the R8 on, and again, the car was exemplary. Pushing the car demands total confidence, and the R8 never let me down, but I could tell my abilities as a driver ran out before the limits of the car came into question. Best of all, the Audi is an easy car to drive, slow or fast. The available hill hold assist was a welcome feature on the occasion I had to move from an incline from a dead stop.

What seals the deal for the R8 is combining exotic car performance in a completely livable cabin. It can be argued that Audi makes some of the finest interiors available, and the R8 maintains that reputation. Comfortable seats, an excellent driving position and a quality of materials befitting this price range all combine to make the R8 an easy place to spend some time in. The as-tested price of our R8 was $127,890USD. Hardly a bargain, but I would take the refinement of the R8 over the similarly priced but faster Corvette ZR1 any day.

When the Acura NSX debuted in 1990, critics then hailed it as the first exotic car that could stand duty as a daily driver. But a quiet V-6 engine, unassuming character around town, and a derivative exterior made it seem like you had to be willing to give up something for the practicality the NSX delivered. The Audi R8 shatters that notion. This car is proof that an evocative exterior, a soulful drivetrain and real-world driveability can co-exist yet still feel every bit an exotic car.

I would tell Audi that what they have managed to accomplish with the R8 is nothing short of a miracle, but it is nothing they have not heard a thousand times before.

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