AUDI ENTERS PORSCHE TERRITORY.
Over the past few years, Audi has not put a foot wrong. It now builds more than three times the variety of models it did 10 years ago, has doubled its sales from 43,000 in 2000 to 86,000 last year and away from the showrooms its racing cars have dominated endurance events at Le Mans and in America since the start of the decade.
If it has lacked anything it has been a halo car but now that gap in its portfolio has been filled by the exquisite R8. This is a car that takes the brand into what is for it hitherto uncharted territory, the realm of prestige sports cars such as Porsche and Aston Martin.
The R8 is a landmark car, much as the original Audi Quattro was back in the early 80s, because from now everyone will be forced to revise their opinion of the marque.
Yes, we know it can make superb saloons (A4, A6 and A8), it can do cabriolets, coupes (the TT), hatchbacks (A3) and SUVs (Q7) of equal calibre but to that list we must now add a genuine high performance sports car. I'll shrink from calling it a supercar because by today's standards that means you need more than 500bhp, a top speed of 200mph or more and a six-figure price tag.
But the R8 is aimed right at the heart of the Porsche 911/Aston Martin V8/Jaguar XKR market and as a package it is going to take some beating.
Let me start with some bald statistics. It shares some components with the Lamborghini Gallardo (Lambo is owned and engineered by Audi) but the vast majority of this hand-built, aluminium-framed car is pure Audi. It equals the Jag as having the most powerful engine, 420PS, but unlike the XKR or indeed any other car under £120,000, it has four-wheel drive and is mid-engined. It has the best power to weight ratio of any car in the class, its 4.2 V8 revs higher than any other, the car accelerates faster than any other and goes on to a higher top speed.
But then there are other elements too, the most obvious of which is staring you in the face - its styling. Put alongside the 911, XKR, Aston, Maserati and Mercedes SL, it looks for all the world as if a racing car has escaped from the track and landed among a load of road cars. There's nothing wrong with the others, nothing at all, but not one of them comes even remotely close to matching the visual drama, the sheer sense of shock you get from seeing the R8 on the road. It sits poised low and wide, with big air intakes at the front and vents at the back framing the venture and speaking of serious speed and purpose. The beautifully detailed V8 sits exposed, Ferrari-style, nestling just behind your shoulders and the sideblade panels just ahead of the rear wheels add extra drama. If you don't like them (and I don't) they can be body-coloured to blend in.
Opening the door reveals a surprisingly spacious cabin with a lot of head, leg and shoulder room and indeed, compared to the cramped quarter of some sports cars, the R8 is positively luxurious. It references the racing cars in the rise of the dashboard from the central transmission tunnel, creating the sense of being in a single seater (or `monoposto' as Audi correctly calls it) and especially when it is picked out in the optional carbon fibre trim. The six-speed `box on the manual versions has an exposed gate (again, very Ferrari) and it goes without saying that the finish is exemplary.
You can disregard Audi's claim of there being space behind the seats for a pair of golf bags. It simply isn't true but there is room in the front boot for a couple of largish, soft overnight bags.
And so to the open road, where the R8 proved surprisingly controversial. Our test took place in southern France based around the Paul Ricard race track where the roads are sinuous, fast and blessedly smooth and where, within reason, the police are shall we say, a little more accommodating than you might find over here. In short, a perfect place for seeing just what this car will do.
The engine is very smooth and the slightly turbine-like noise at lower speeds turns into a proper V8 soundtrack at the business end of the rev range, either from within the car or without. Thanks to modern electronics it will burble away all day long in busy traffic without any problem at all and it pulls strongly from there virtually all the way to the 8,000 red line. Personally I would like a bit more oomph towards the top end, a slightly peakier engine and a bit more power. Perhaps the strongly rumoured (for which read almost certain) but so far officially denied 5.0 V10 version next year will answer that.
Why does it need a bit more power? Well, because the chassis is so spell-binding. Never before have I driven a car of such potency that is so easy to drive so quickly and by that I don't necessarily mean in terms of miles per hour but in how close one can get to its grip and handling limits without really trying.
Partly that is because of the inherent traction advantages conferred by its four-wheel drive but also in part because it is so well balanced. The torque is split 65:35 in favour of the rear and the weight distribution is slightly rearward biased too, so you get all the benefit of 4WD with the handling characteristics of a rear-driver. It's absolutely brilliant and incredibly forgiving. Its high speed stability is superb even at autobahn speeds of 160 mph or so and away from the motorways its cross-country speed is devastating.
There are some who say it is too easy to drive very quickly, that the R8 has dumbed down sports cars and that the steering is slightly dead around the straight-ahead. I don't agree. I would also like to hear their opinions after a drive on a wet day.
I think we should applaud Audi for making a car in which so much performance is so accessible and a car which is so safe and forgiving. True, it will flatter an average driver in a way in which perhaps a more challenging car like a 911 would not but that is not to say it won't reward a good driver - it will.
As I said at the beginning, this is a landmark car for Audi which has yet again demonstrated its ability to enter new market areas and to do so ready to take on the class leaders. Is there any flaw with R8? Well, one springs to mind. The UK allocation is 750 a year and with the current waiting list, if you placed an order now, it will be 2009 before you see your car. It's worth the wait though.
£76,825 (manual) £82,025 (R tronic/automatic)
0 to 62 4.6 seconds
Top speed 187 mph
Fuel consumption (manual) 13 mpg urban/28 extra-urban/19 average
CO2 349 g/km (manual)
Warranty three years/60,000 miles
Servicing - according to service indicator up to two years or 19,000 miles.