Audi R8 4.2 FSI quattro (short test) review
by David Finlay (1 December 2008)
Although Audis are generally quite stylish these days, they are generally not especially distinctive, and this trait applies even to the R8. I like the look of Audi's most potent sports car (apart from the contrasting panels on each side, which have never struck me as a good idea) but although it's undoubtedly pretty on in its own right it doesn't jump out at you - in visual terms, I mean - when it's parked beside anything vaguely similar. And I'm not the only one who thinks this. A colleague, with whom I strolled past a row of A8s and TTs a few weeks ago, confessed to some difficulty in sorting out which was which from a quick glance.
If you were working for Audi you might put some positive spin on this by saying that the R8's looks are "subtle", and you might take that idea a little further by suggesting that the R8 is really quite a subtle car in general. And so it is.
Slightly too subtle in one respect. It has the magnificent 414bhp 4.2-litre V8 engine which is probably the single best thing about the RS 4 saloon and estate, not least because it makes them sound absolutely wonderful. You might expect that the R8 would sound even better (it certainly looks as if it should) but in fact the aural experience isn't quite as thrilling.
Part of the reason for that is that the engine is in the wrong place in the RS 4, being mounted ahead of the front wheels. In the R8 it sits between you and the rear wheels - just where it should be in a proper modern supercar. But this also means that all the sound is going away from you, unless you're doing something apocalyptically stupid in reverse. If an R8 is being driven slowly, the best place to be is outside it, where you can hear the grumbling and the stoking of fires and the suggestion that something epic is about to take place. Inside, all you can hear is a slight hum.
The sound effects are of course much more impressive when you're driving hard, though still not quite as heart-stirring as in the RS 4. Mind you, you'd swap this slight disappointment for the R8's greatly superior handling. The RS 4 has fantastic grip which nearly but not quite makes up for the lack of balance due to its unfortunate weight distribution; the R8 does not have a weight distribution problem, and the balance is wonderful.
It's not just the layout that is responsible for this. The R8's suspension is very sophisticated, especially if - as in the case of the test car - it includes the optional "magnetic ride" dampers whose oil includes small magnetic particles. A small current, applied automatically when the occasion demands it, lines up the particles across the flow of the oil, thereby making it thicker and increasing its resistance.
The same system is also used in the TT, but it works better here. In a straight line the "magnetic" R8 rides superbly, soaking up bumps as smoothly and efficiently as the low-profile tyres will let it. Attack a corner and it firms up noticeably as the particles start flying in formation. Bury the throttle pedal on the exit and you can feel the rear squatting down as it deals with all the power you're throwing at it. Out on to the next straight and back comes the smooth ride. Brilliant. A lesson to other manufacturers.
You might expect the R8 to be cramped and impractical, and if so you'll be astonished by the amount of room in the cabin. This is a low-slung car, no question, but once you've lowered yourself into it there is an more space than you would imagine if you didn't actually try it yourself.
At six foot three I often have to resign myself to the idea that I'll never be able to buy a certain car because I just can't fit inside it (the first-generation Audi TT being a memorable example) but that particular hurdle does not stand between me and R8 ownership.
But no, it's not practical. Luggage room is just 100 litres. Then again, if you can afford an R8 you can probably also afford something larger that will carry a week's shopping. If you do your own shopping.
It's not cheap, either. Expect to pay over £80,000 for a new one. That's more than the official list price, but you want the magnetic ride suspension and you'll have to pay extra for that. There's also the question of the gearbox. You can have the six-speed manual as fitted to the test car, but for another £5200 you can have the R tronic option which gives you sequential semi-automatic control over what is essentially the same transmission.
I'd go for R tronic myself, not so much because it puts the R8 on the lighter side of the 20mpg combined fuel economy barrier (how long would it take to pay for itself just because of that?) but because the test car's gearchange was horrible. The lever and its open gate look very sporting, but the change itself reminds me of a conversation I had with a chap who built racing cars. He said that the most difficult thing to get right was the gear linkage, and the notchy, clangy, difficult, cussed change in the R8 makes me think that it was the aspect of this car which caused Audi the greatest trouble too.