Audi R8

This is the first car I've desperately wanted since I started working at Road & Track. Driving Audi's new R8 4.2 FSI supercar is much like kissing a girl for the first time -- the image and feel of it become eternally etched into you like a hot-iron branding.

The R8 has nearly every innovation available on an automobile. Yet Audi showed restraint and ignored the V-10 from the S6, S8 and Lamborghini Gallardo. Instead, they utilized the RS 4's V-8 that revs high to a maximum wail of 8250 rpm and pumps out 420 bhp DIN and 317 lb.-ft. of torque. Although built alongside the Gallardo at the Neckarsulm plant, the R8 is less than half the price of the Lambo; it offers supercar styling and handling for a sum just beyond that of the Porsche 911. Of course, with a starting price of just over $100,000, the R8 certainly isn't "affordable." But is it worth it? Absolutely!

The blending of Italian and German is a superb thing. The R8 hugs curves better than anything from a Victoria's Secret catalog. But where supercars are notoriously stressful to drive, the R8 is not -- it's comfortable, quiet and smooth. Yet with a click of the Audi Magnetic Ride button, it transforms into a corner-devouring mid-engine exotic that senses every nuance of the road. Unlike the Gallardo's semiautomatic e-gear, which can sometimes do the herky-jerky in a parking lot, the R8's transmission software is seamless and almost as good as Audi's much-praised dual-clutch system. At other times it's better. Unlike Audi's dual-clutch S tronic (formerly DSG), the R8's R tronic will happily hit the rev limiter in manual mode. An interesting tidbit about the engine is that it allows a 250-rpm overrev beyond the 8000-rpm limit, but only in the first three gears. This helps because the engine revs so quickly that it's easy to touch the limiter in the lower gears at full acceleration.

The engine is sinfully smooth. In a manual-transmission car, I was surprised to find the gated shift lever from the Gallardo. There is little improvement with the manual. The lever has a nice actuation, but is too clumsy for the engine -- the rpm drop faster than an upshift can be performed, making smooth shifting a bit tricky. Clearly Audi invested in R tronic.

The mid-engine, all-wheel-drive layout of the R8 leads to a nimble and extremely well balanced character. The low polar moment means it changes directions easily. With stability control off, the R8 is incredibly predictable at the limit. There is no fear of the snap oversteer we sometimes associate with mid-engine exotics. The tendency for the R8 to push the front end slightly gives the driver great confidence, and mid-corner line adjustments are executed without driver hesitation. With a minimal amount of torque driving the front wheels, the R8 responds like a conventional rear-wheel-drive sports car, but with all-wheel-drive serving as a confidence-inspiring safety net. That secure handling is carried over into all the controls. Driving hard does not mean the driver is working hard. Every control is light and sensitive. The R8 rewards drivers who finesse the wheel.

Getting ready to drive is easy. The D-shape wheel with its paddle shifters is clearly inspired by racing cars -- the shape is meant to give a bit more knee room. This is actually unnecessary, as there is plenty of adjustment in steering-wheel reach and angle. Headroom is quite good and drivers over 6 ft. will find this a comfortable place compared with most cramped exotics. To go fast, you must be able to see where you are going, and the R8 allows for that with a good seating position and more upright A-pillars that don't disrupt the view of pedestrians or corner apexes.

Another aspect of comfort is storage space; it has plenty for a weekend getaway, although that depends on what you are trying to get away from. Admirers will be gawking everywhere the R8 goes. It's like trying not to stare at Salma Hayek walking by -- an R8 is just plain hard to ignore.

When you get up close and see the carbon-fiber details and the artful taillamp clusters, you know this car is special. The distinctive side element is referred to as a "sideblade" and buyers have the option of body color, carbon fiber, Oxygen Silver or something Audi calls Carbon Sigma, which is like a silver-colored carbon weave. This panel is the cover for the dual air intakes. Visually it is unusual; I myself adore it, as it resembles the colored bodywork that differentiated the two factory R8 race cars.

The craftsmanship, performance, exotic####ism and near perfection of this street car, combined with the history of the R8 race car, are going to make this newest Audi a winner, just like the Le Mans-winning race cars with which it shares its name.