““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Audi's R8 has been a bright blip on the radar of the car crowd since it was first espied a while back, but this debutant mid-engine two-seater entered the consciousness of a wider population with its fleeting appearance in the Patriots-Giants Super Bowl commercial this winter. The ad spoofed the horse's-head-in-the-bed scene from The Godfather. While the screams of the stirring slumberer were familiar, in place of blood everywhere there were lashings of engine sludge; in place of the prized equine's severed noggin, the sawn-off chrome front of a stodgy car lay beneath the covers.
Audi is muscling in on turf here that remains fiercely protected by, uh, Audi, among others, since Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini and Porsche are already in the family. I haven't driven a Gallardo or a Veyron, but I can safely say that I would get as many grins out of owning an R8 as I would from owning a Ferrari F430 or a Porsche 911 Turbo. The question here is not whether the car can hold its own in the stratosphere, but whether the badge can. Is it possible for this car to run four circles around the pack of icons symbolized by the Ferrari prancing horse, the Lamborghini bull, the Maserati trident and Porsche's heraldic antlers? Can an Audi, respected as a purveyor of solid sedans to stockbrokers and chiropractors, be elected a supercar by those with the means to vote?
If there's any justice in the land, the answer should be a resounding yes, but time will tell. The badge a car wears plays a pivotal role in its fate. Remember the VW Phaeton? Apparently the world was not clamoring for a pricey, 12-cylinder luxury vehicle that wore the same label as the Beetle. Remember the Acura NSX? A delight to drive, that mid-engine beauty from Honda lacked nothing but a storied bloodline. Audi is on a roll, however, and the ancestral genes of its rallying successes, along with forebear Auto Union's racing history, are dominant in the R8.
Looking at the Audi head-on, its scowl of daytime-running LEDs glowering from beneath headlights partially obscured by the frown of the hood line, one wonders whether Audi settled on "R8" as a digital version of "irate." This car is instantly recognizable from afar at all angles: from the front, the aggressive visage, wide and low, and three massive air-intake grilles; from the side, the distinctive "blade" just downwind of each door; from the back, the glass-covered V8 engine and the deep slatted cooling gills between the four pipes and the tail lights.
The Audi might not have quite the animal passion of the F430, but what it lacks in sheer snort it makes up for with its tractability and its traction. It's hard to imagine anyone deliberately venturing into a winter storm strapped into a car this exotic, but that is where my daughter and I found ourselves en route to Nemacolin Woodlands, south of Pittsburgh, to join the party there marking the AAA Five Diamond award earned by Lautrec, the resort's French restaurant.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike was fairly easy sledding, but when it was time to exit and turn south onto local roads, I was acutely aware of our $125,000, sculpted, borrowed wrapping. As I was to discover a couple of days later on the return drive, Route 281 in southwest Pennsylvania is a pleasing stretch of soaring, winding and plunging roadway on which to exercise a sports car. In the snow and ice, the road had the makings of a nightmare. As the journey progressed at duly cautious speed, however, the R8 (Audi had had the foresight to put Pirelli Sottozero winter tires on this press mule) didn't just cope with the conditions but utterly dismissed them as any hindrance.
For many miles, there was an upscale SUV in the rear-view mirror, also headed for Nemacolin. Its driver mentioned to the doormen at the resort that his SUV appeared to be making heavier weather of the conditions than the Audi ahead was. My daughter can attest to the number of times I expressed incredulity at the R8's unflustered progress through the snow and ice, up and down some serious grades. We took our time and never exceeded 30 mph, but not once did this Quattro all-wheel-drive car spin a wheel or chatter its ABS.
Earlier in the day, on dry roads, we had been blasting round bends in the same car as if in an F430. The Audi, like the Ferrari, comes with the choice of six-speed, three-pedal manual or automated two-pedal manual.
The interior of the R8 is as well designed as the outside. Our test car carried a base price of $109,000, which climbed to $124,895 with the leather package ($5,500); the $3,500 premium package (parking system, six-CD changer, hill-hold assist, HomeLink, Bluetooth phone prep, auto-dimming exterior mirror and storage); GPS navigation system ($2,000); a fine Bang & Olufsen sound system ($2,000); gas-guzzler tax ($2,100); and destination charge ($995).
The seats in the test car were plenty comfortable even for seven hours at the wheel but, with their side bolsters and seat cushion all fixed, not quite as adjustable as one expects today. The edges of the steering wheel's flattened bottom arc comfortably to cradle a pair of crooked thumbs extended from hands resting on thighs for long straight stretches of road.
Half the fun of an F430 is its assault on the driver, its throbbing cooling fans, its loud barks and hellacious screams from the engine room and its rifle-crack gearshifts. Two hours in the F430 and I was ready to take a breather, but not in the Audi. The R8's ferocity is more civilized but, to anyone not armed with a lateral-g meter and a stopwatch, within a hair as exhilarating for half the price.
The Audi's torque rating of 317 lb-ft at 4500 to 6000 rpm lags its horsepower number of 420 at 7800, leading me to expect relatively lackluster thrust at lower rpms. The driving told a different tale, however, and the car showed plenty of enthusiasm to accelerate away from 40 mph in fifth and even sixth gears. It might not scream with the passion of an Italian, but the German car's voice grows increasingly authoritative with pedal pressure. At low revs, it is deep and restrained, but a truly rousing symphony unfolded from the pipes as the revs headed for the redline in the acoustic confines of the Pennsylvania Turnpike's tunnels.
The "frunk," as my daughter called the luggage space in the nose, carries a few things, but to haul golf clubs or skis or skeet and trap guns, have someone follow you in something bigger. The trick with loading the R8 is to use the car as the suitcase and stuff its compartments with the loose gear you need to carry. Nemacolin's doormen were patient while we extracted the cargo from its nooks and crannies and passed it to them to pile onto their trolley, and the couple who pulled up in the SUV behind us was checked in long before we were. The tortoise and the hare, maybe, but for this hare life is the journey, not the destination.