Talk about blockbusters!
Audi has built what will be the next big icon of its more than 100 year history. The TT was hands down the most iconic car at the end of the 20th century. Within the first decade of the 21st century, Audi has created another, the R8. How many other automotive manufacturers can brag about having two such important vehicles in such a short period of time?
The major automotive manufacturers seem to regard sports cars as their brand icons. For example, Mercedes and the 300 SL Gullwing, BMW M1 and Z8, Ford GT-40, Chevrolet Corvette, Dodge Viper, Nissan 240Z, Porsche 911, Jaguar XKE, Toyota 2000 GT, and the recent Acura NSX. Each of these cars came to symbolize the essence of the brand. In most of these cases, the image of the icon has endured long into the future products of the company.
Audi has recently restored earlier icons such as the Silver Arrow cars of the 1930s to carry forward the genetic history.
Looking at the fall 2003 quattro quarterly issue recently, the Le Mans quattro concept car was on the front cover. I had compiled a story on this stunning show car and hoped in my heart that it would be built. Dr. Martin Winterkorn, now the head of VW, made this project his personal passion and saw it through into production.
In late January, Audi put together a rollout for this model in Las Vegas for journalists from around the world. I drove up from Los Angeles in a borrowed A8 W12 to spend several days testing this car. Charles Moyer, Automotive Editor of Chronos magazine shared most of the time in the cars with me. We took turns driving over many hundreds of miles of Nevada back roads, Las Vegas city streets, and multiple laps at a course set up at Las Vegas Motor speedway. On the second evening, I drove an R-tronic and magnetic suspension equipped car. And what did I think?
It was unanimous among the journalists—the R8 was stunning from every angle. The car has both “masculine” and “feminine” attributes, with hips with curves like a beautiful lady, and subtle styling touches that are engineering master strokes. The R8 bristles with refined authority.
Aerodynamics and engine cooling were at the top of the priority for the chassis designers as the top speed of this V8 powered model is at least 300 km/h. How this was integrated with beautiful looks makes the story even more impressive.
In the case of the new R8, form does follow function. As on the R8 sports racing car for Le Mans, down force was more important than low drag. According to Audi, the R8 has a drag coefficient of 0.345, the lowest coefficient of any sports car producing down force. The drag does not overcome the engine’s power until the top speed of 301 km/h (186+ mph) is reached.
The size of the large air apertures at the front and rear of the R8 was initially determined by the immense amount of cooling air required by the engine and by the brakes. It required a complex formula of caloric exchange/thermodynamics to be solved. The same design team that created the R8 race car was behind the exterior design of this R8 road version.
Accoutrements of a road going sports car do not typically include giant spoilers as worn by a full-blown race car. However, in order to create directional stability, a complex diffuser underbody was developed in conjunction with the aesthetically correct, automatically extended rear spoiler. Multiple NACA ducts on the underside of the car direct air to cool the front differential, transmission, drive shaft and center differential, brakes, and engine compartment. It seems to me that this is more a low-flying aircraft than car. I do wonder if many of the aerodynamic and thermodynamic lessons learned from the development of the Bugatti Veyron and its 400 km/h top speed were applied to the development of the R8.
According to Walter de’Silva, former Head of Design of the Audi brand group and now Head of Design for Volkswagen, “Our aim was to create a powerful sports car—but with an exceptional quality of elegance.”
The surfaces of this car begged to be touched. When I first approached the car, I ran my hands around its edges and curves. They are enticing, and like a fine sculpture well convey the muscular and yet elegant elements that come together in a cohesive manner. This car is sensual and seductive.
The R8 is instantly recognisable as an Audi. The trapezoidal single-frame grille, as well as the air inlets at each side of the grille, reflects the most recent work of Walter de’Silva. A “loop,” which is the line that runs around the entire perimeter of the car neatly tying together the front, side, and rear, can easily be followed with the eye. It starts at the front spoiler, swings over the shoulder, delineates the tail end and then returns down the other side to the nose.
The longitudinal mid-engine concept dictates the proportions, with the cockpit area forward of the engine compartment. Like the Bugatti Veyron, the sideblade is a characteristic feature of the side view. Its function is to direct air for cooling of the engine. It also functions to divide the car neatly between the driver/passenger cabin, and the heart of the car—the engine.
The flat strips of the headlights lie flush with the upper edge of the air inlets. The xenon-plus headlights with their 70-mm diameter glass lenses are framed by the unique daytime running lights made with twelve light-emitting diodes. These give the R8 some whimsy and an unmistakable front-light signature. The small lens in front of the turn indicator is engraved with an R8 logo (it reminds me of a monocle) that can only be seen up close. These are some of the small details that help make this vehicle a work of art. LED front headlights (see sidebar) will be introduced sometime early next year.
The roofline is softened by the third brake light, forming the upper edge of the transparent engine compartment lid. The engine is exhibited like a work of art inside a large crystal-like showcase. As in Italian exotics, the engine is part of the art of the car. This engine can even be seen after dark, when the two sets of three white light-emitting diodes linked to the coming home/ leaving home function illuminate the engine compartment. This “showroom” can be fully lined in genuine carbon fiber as an option to enhance the “eye candy” effect. (As a side note, have you ever looked into the engine compartment of recent Porsche 996/997s? It is a confined mess of plastics, and the engine is nowhere to be seen.)
Two large-format diffuser apertures in the rear bumper allow the cooling air to escape. Again, form follows function. The four round tailpipes of the exhaust system are neatly located in pairs on the right and left above the diffuser apertures. The automatically extending rear spoiler also interacts with the air flowing around the car. The added downforce ties together with the aerodynamic design of the underbody and diffusers. At low speeds, the rear spoiler is retracted flush with the body again. There is a switch in the car to activate the rear spoiler and keep it extended, if the driver so desires.
LED taillights are used for practical as well as aesthetic purposes. For the first time, according to Audi, it’s now possible to give all-LED rear lights a three-dimensional character with a pronounced three-dimensional effect irrespective of the angle from which they are viewed.
Each time I walked up to this car, I wanted to drive it. I think this car will be remembered for its breathtaking styling, just as the Jaguar XKE is: there is nothing else like it, and it is gorgeous.
Climbing into the cockpit, one immediately realizes that it is comfortable and roomy. I had no trouble sliding my 6’2” frame into the drivers’ seat.
Fortunately this car has a relatively long wheelbase of 2,650 mm (104.3”), which allows a reasonable interior length as well as road comfort. The cabin is wide, with plenty of shoulder and arm room. There is a substantial range of seat and wheel adjustments, and I was quickly able to find a comfortable driving position. This also space left behind the seats for storage of soft luggage or sets of golf clubs. My feet were not cramped by the wheel wells either.
The instruments are part of a “monoposto” arc that starts at the driver’s door and continues through the display and controls and ends on the passenger door. The instruments as well as the controls on the center console are elegant, purposeful, and classic, yet modern in their form. They look like they were made by a fine watchmaker rather than by a car company. This interior looks like it belongs in a $100K+ dollar car. One of my pet peeves about Porsche 911s is that the interior doesn’t match the opulence of my Audi C4-S4.
You can customize this arc with either carbon fiber, or with a clear black “Piano” lacquer finish. I drove cars equipped with both and the carbon fiber gets the nod.
The center console is tall and flows well from the center of the monoposto. The MMI and air conditioning controls as well as most of the switches are within fingertip reach.
The 365 mm (14.3”) three-spoke steering wheel is wrapped with Nappa leather over a magnesium core. It has the R tronic paddle controls, buttons for the telephone, as well as the usual MMI buttons. It is shaped with a flat lower edge, like the standard wheel in a European RS4. This aids driver ingress and egress. It was nice to have a full gauge pack, including the all-important oil temperature gauge. There is an onboard lap time computer, which will no doubt come in handy for the lucky owner.
Like the new Q7, S6, and S8, the optional Audi Advanced Parking System on the R8 has a rear-view camera that displays on the MMI monitor the area out of your normal view through the rear mirror or window. It combines ultrasonic sensor technology with a rear-view camera. The camera is located above the rear license plate.
Guidance lines are superimposed on the image on the monitor as an aid to manoeuvring. The zone colored blue, for instance, depicts one vehicle’s length to the rear, and orange lines mark the car’s course at its current steering angle. However, I have noticed that in mixed lighting, like a partially shaded driveway, it is hard to discern quickly the images that you will see displayed in the MMI monitor. But overall, this feature is a great passive safety advance.
Visibility outwards was excellent. The A pillars are slender, and the side and rear vision is fine. Parking and backing up are greatly assisted with the MMI/rear camera view.
The front luggage compartment is small, like that in Porsche 911s; you can fit 100 liters beneath the front lid. This would be several soft luggage bags, or maybe six bags of groceries. There is also 90 liters of space behind the seats. Audi says two sets of golf clubs fit behind the seats. Between these two storage spaces, the R8 will hold enough for weekend trips and most daily errands.
All of the interior pieces are of the best quality. The feel of the switches, the quality of the plastics, the texture of the leather, the Alcantara headliner, it just all feels so right. I do not know of another car company that does interiors as well as Audi.
Audi seems to have carried over to the R8 many of the lessons learned from the successes in their racing efforts.
The all aluminium 4.2L dry sump V8 is based on the fabulous engine of the B7- RS4. However, it was not a simple task of just installing it in the R8. Because of the mid-engine configuration, many large and small details needed attention.
First, keeping the center of gravity low required running the drive shaft to the front differential in the bottom of the engine, just offset to the side of the center line of the crankshaft. This was accomplished in part by the use of a dry sump. Dry-sump lubrication means that instead of being collected in a large oil sump beneath the crankshaft, the engine oil is delivered to a separate tank by a scavenge pump via an oil cooler, and from there pumped back to the bearing points via the oil filter. It also assures a reliable supply of lubricant and is designed to handle the lateral acceleration that occurs in racing. Even the fuel pump in the tank is also designed to ensure that the fuel supply to the engine is never interrupted by lateral acceleration. This may be little interest to many future R8 owners, but for the ones that will take the car on the track, it is greatly appreciated. The oil cooler has been positioned low in the space frame, behind the left-hand sideblade. The radiators are located in the forward structure: two behind the large air guides at the sides and a third in the center, behind the single-frame grille.
It is not only the mechanicals and the performance of this lovely engine that will endear it to R8 owners, it is also the sound. As Audi well knows, it is the aural excitation or stimulus as well that is all too important. Just ask any person that has heard a Ferrari screaming, and they will tell you there is nothing like it to be heard. The same will be said for the R8. Audi has gone through great pains to make sure that driving an R8 will fulfill the kinesthetic, aural, and visual needs of the lucky owners. Recently I had the pleasure of having an RS4 for a week. I was able to put it though its paces as well as live with it as a daily driver. The highly tuned V8 in this car emits such beautiful sounds, even at idle, that it became an addictive affair of wanting to hear its song often. As I drove the R8 over two days of roads and at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the alluring sounds of this V8 were very satisfying. There are no bad noises in the R8 that I could detect. The level of engine noise, as well as the tone was perfect. You can listen to the incredible optional sound system from Bang and Olufsen, or you can listen to the engine. Either one can be heard without drowning out the other. NVH (noise-vibration-harshness) engineers pored over this car with the result that this super car is a harmonious blend of pleasing sounds and feelings.
According to Audi, a key component of the mid-engine concept is the bulkhead between the passenger and engine compartments. The sheet metal surfaces of this firewall are insulated with special materials on both sides, and the glass pane is made from special acoustic glass—a laminated dual pane with a thick soundproofing film. The engine sound is dominated by the intake and exhaust system. If the exhaust flaps are closed, the silencer is transformed into a sound-absorbing reflection silencer. Open the exhaust flaps (done automatically) and a much sportier tone results. The air cleaner housing has been acoustically tuned. The intake sound penetrates the engine compartment in carefully measured amounts through special sound apertures, and is acoustically filtered by the firewall as it passes into the passenger compartment.
Acceleration times are quoted by Audi to be 0 to 60 mph in under 4.6 seconds, with either gearbox. 125 mph comes up in 14.9 seconds, and the rated top speed is around 187 mph (301 km/h). To the best of my seat time estimation, this is a conservative figure and is easily obtained. There is always enough torque available for normal street driving, and if you wind out the engine, there is enough power for highly entertaining driving.
MTM (Motoren Technik Mayer) of Germany already has a supercharger kit for this car which will boost the power to 550 and bring 0-60 time to well under 4 seconds. It is only 20,000 euros! The 420 horsepower and 430 NM torque figures appear to be identical to the RS4. However, when looking at the pictures of the engines side by side, you can see that the intake and exhaust manifolds are different.
One can easily visualize the intake manifold looking like the old days of Weber carburetors and Hillborn mechanical injection, with long nearly vertical intake runners. They are integrated into the dual-branch intake system that starts on both sides of the R8 beneath the sideblades and directs the incoming air to the two throttle valves via a 27-liter air filter box. At low engine speeds and loads, a tumble flap is activated in the lower section of the intake manifold, producing torque-boosting swirl in the combustion mixture. This is in stark visual contrast to the RS4 engine with its dual length and quite circular intake path. Also the sound produced by the intake manifold on the R8 is purposely different from that made by the RS4.
Due to the compact packaging necessary for the mid-engine layout, the entire exhaust system is all new and made of stainless steel. All of the exhaust runners of equal length.
This V8 is very compact, which helps keep its weight low and assists with the installed position and weight distribution. The crankcase, with its angle of 90 degrees between cylinder banks, is only 43 cm long and 52 cm wide. The cylinder bore is 84.5 mm, with a stroke of 92.8 mm. The engine block is made from a high-strength aluminium alloy by low-pressure die-casting. The camshafts and auxiliaries such as oil pump and air conditioning compressor have a reliable, space-efficient chain drive. This will be a low-maintenance engine, as the cam belt systems of yesterday were first eliminated sometime ago in the ancestral V8 that was first installed in the C5 based Allroad 4.2.
Two transmissions are available: the R-Tronic and a six-speed manual.
R-Tronic is similar to the E-Gear in the Lamborghini Gallardo. This is basically a six-speed manual transmission that is activated by hydraulic solenoids and controlled electronically, and is shifted sequentially.
The R-tronic sequential gearbox provides even better performance and swifter gear-changing than the manual. It allows shifting with manual gearshifts via the steering-wheel paddles or the newly designed sequential gear lever, with an automatic mode comprising two levels, and is equipped with Launch Control for the fastest acceleration times.
The R-tronic’s electro-hydraulic shifting unit has a separate electric oil pump permanently supplying the pressure of 40 to 50 bar required for the gear changes. The clutch is operated by the hydraulics, and a second valve block takes the place of the mechanical gearshift control. Other than this, the manual transmission remains unchanged. The shift commands from the steering wheel or gear lever are transferred by wire. Due to the intranet of data through the CAN BUS, all of the engine systems and management are in communication with the transmission controls.
A viscous coupling distributes the power between the rear and front wheels.
The system was adapted to the mid-engine layout, with its ideal axle load distribution of 44:56 percent, and directs between 10 and 35 percent of the engine’s power to the front wheels as needed.
According to Audi, the asymmetric limited-slip differential on the rear axle makes a further contribution toward maintaining balanced handling. The locking ratio is 25 percent when accelerating and 45 percent when coasting. In conjunction with ingenious axle kinematics, this avoids abrupt load reversal reactions, for instance if the driver switches from accelerating to braking while cornering.
The feeling of the gearshifts really changes depending on how you drive the car. In gentle, light throttle loads, the take off is flawless, the gear shifts have a slight pause, and the entire operation is smooth. The upshifts occur in the normal RPM range of daily driving, and not at redline. On heavy throttle applications and when not in S mode, the shifts are not quite as smooth, yet are more than comfortable, with upshifts occurring higher in the rpm ranges. In the S mode, the threshold engine speeds are higher than in the standard program (just like Tiptronic). Each gear is held longer, and the shift times are reduced, with a noticeable “bang” or shock as the transmission goes through each gear.
In the R-tronic’s Launch Control, the transmission control unit takes charge by optimally controlling the throttle angle and clutch travel. The system is straightforward to use: the S mode needs to be activated and the ESP switched off. If the foot brake and accelerator are both pressed simultaneously, the system automatically establishes the engine speed needed for optimum traction and power transmission. When the brake is released, the R-tronic engages the clutch optimally and accelerates the R8 at maximum speed.
Driving the manual six- speed was actually anti-climatic to me in comparison to the R-tronic. The shift lever is gated though a metal plate, much like many Italian exotics. The linkage is precise and light enough. The clutch is light and progressive as well. However, to have each gear at your fingertips with the R-tronic is far more convenient than taking your hands from the wheel to shift with the manual. Also, the R-tronic can shift faster than any human. It has no parasitic power losses like a normal automatic that employs a torque converter.
Unlike the Ferrari F1 transmission, driving in traffic at slow commuter-like speeds is just fine. There was no forward creeping when stopped, and the take off in first gear was just about perfect. This option gets my vote. Pricing has not been announced yet in the USA, but on the Audi German website, R-tronic is approximately a 7,290 euro ($9,500) extra.
Suspension, steering, and brakes
I have driven a fair number of sports cars in my day, and many of them suffer from suspension set ups for handling with ride comfort taking a back seat.
The R8 is the first mid-engine sports car I have driven that has the ride comfort of an Audi sedan, and the handling of an Italian exotic. It is compliant over bad roads, speed bumps, freeway rain grooves and joints, and just about anything else you may encounter in daily driving. Double wishbones at the front and rear allow for long suspension travel as well as maintain safe self-steering properties. A new double wishbone structure with an additional track rod is used at the rear. It permits a defined toe parameter under load. To reduce the unsprung weight, almost all of the suspension components are made from forged aluminium. Particular attention has been devoted to the comprehensively new rubber-metal mounts that connect all suspension components to the space frame.
Super-straight tracking at almost aircraft-like speeds makes driving this car wide open a secure treat. I tried to shake the composure of the R8, but try as I could, the car was always stable. Even on railroad crossings taken at a fair clip, there was no noticeable axle tramp, and no chassis shudder at all. The R8 feels benignly understeered, and it took a lot of effort to get the rear end to snap out into oversteer, yet it was under control with the throttle. I found the R8 to be highly entertaining, very predictable, and utterly secure.
The weight distribution is 56% rear and 44% front. The car feels so well planted. Taking hairpin turns at breakneck speeds showed off some of the quattro sure-footedness as well as the neutral chassis balance. This is a forgiving car, unlike say an RWD Porsche Turbo.
All of the cars I drove were equipped with the optional 19” wheels. Unlike all other Audi quattro cars, the tire size is not identical between front and rear. The front is a 235 width, and the rear 295. Because of the differentials and the viscous coupling of them, the somewhat different rolling circumferences are not an issue.
In Europe 18” wheels are standard, but it is unknown what the final R8 North American model specs will be fitted with as standard.
I was able to try out the new Delphi-developed and 1,740 euros ($2250 approximately) optional Magnetic Ride suspension. The shock absorber does not contain conventional oil, but a ferrofluid—a synthetic hydrocarbon-based oil in which microscopically small iron particles are suspended. When an electrical voltage is applied to a coil in the shock body, a magnetic field is created, causing the alignment of the particles to change. They arrange themselves transversely to the direction of flow of the oil, thus inhibiting its flow through the piston channels. The damper becomes instantaneously firmer.
The advantage of this technology is that the damper adjustment responds much faster to the commands from the electronic control unit than previous systems with an adjustable valve. The control unit is supplied by complex sensing technology and constantly monitors the optimum values for each wheel. If, for instance, the car enters a bend, the damping force for the wheel on the outer arc of the bend is increased. This reduces body roll and increases the turn-in sharpness.
There are two modes to choose from: comfort or sport. When you engage the magnetic suspension sport mode from a switch on the center console, the effect is instantaneous. This ingenious suspension is an option on the new TT as well. It seems to be more effective for sport driving than would be needed for daily driving. In fact, the standard suspension on the R8 is so good that unless you are determined to buy all the options available, or you plan to track this car often, the money would be better spent on other options, like the R-tronic.
Audi obviously paid attention to the steering feel. It is light enough for city driving, and direct and weighted correctly for sporty driving. With a steering ratio of 17.3:1, the hydraulically assisted rack-and-pinion steering feels quite direct, with excellent turn but it is not too abrupt for high-speed driving. The turning circle of 11.8 meters (38.7 feet) is small for a sports car (especially one with AWD) and is perfectly acceptable.
Braking was on par with the suspension and steering. In other words, it’s superb. I was able to test the stock eight-piston front and four-piston rear (with a separate e-brake caliper) brakes as well as the optional ceramic brakes. The internally ventilated discs on the standard setup are floating, and are 380 mm (15”) in the front and 356 mm (14”) in the rear. These brake discs utilize an aluminium “hat” and are held to the rotor with stainless steel studs. This technique reduces unsprung weight as well as lessens the thermal transfer from the disc to the hub.
Driving with the optional ceramic brakes was quite an eye opener for me. While the hype that surrounds the concept makes it sound attractive, the reality is even more so. The discs are made from carbon fiber reinforced ceramic material. The basis is very hard, frictionally resistant silicon carbide, with its diamond-like crystalline structure. Embedded in it are high-strength carbon fibers that absorb the stresses that occur in the material. The intricate geometry of cooling ducts in the ventilated discs prevents extremely high temperatures. The ceramic brake disc ring is bolted via ten sprung elements to a stainless steel “hat” that acts as the connection with the wheel's hub.
The ceramic brakes are identifiable by the anthracite-colored special six-piston monobloc aluminum calipers in the front, and the fixed calipers at the rear. The advantages of the ceramic brakes include a further reduction in weight of around 44 pounds, which in this case improves the handling characteristics and ride comfort. Audi says the high abrasion resistance permits an operating life of up to 185,000 miles. Most likely an R8 owner will never have to change these discs.
So far, it looks like this option may not show up on our shores for sometime to come. In driving a car with these brakes, you can repeatedly haul the R8 down from very high speeds with absolutely no fade and just awesome pedal feel and modulation. This option is priced at 8,000 euros for an S8; it is unknown what it will cost for the R8. This is not to denigrate the stock brakes, which are more than adequate in all the driving I was able to do. If you track the R8 in sporting events, I would recommend ordering the ceramic brakes as replacement parts from an Audi dealer in Europe and retrofit them. It will cost you an arm and a leg, but will be money well spent for competitive driving.