Quick Drive: 2010 Audi R8 4.2 Quattro 6MT
By Chris Haak
When I first laid eyes on the Audi R8, I was not sold on its appearance. Sure, it has the the engine aft of the passenger compartment, and it has a front clip that looks, to me, somewhat puny in proportion to the rest of the body.
Now that the R8 has become more familiar to me, having sat in a few at auto shows and occasionally spotting one in the wild (including V10-engined one near the office a few months ago), the car’s design has definitely grown on me. Yes, the long wheelbase looks a bit odd proportionately (the engine is mounted forward of the rear axle centerline, giving the car a rear-mid layout.) But love the R8 or hate it, it’s hard to argue that it cuts an imposing presence on the road. The rear axle is pushed to almost the end of the car, but the front axle is set rearward a bit. Since there’s no engine to squeeze around the axle, it’s a safe bet that the front overhang can be blamed on luggage space requirements and the need for a crumple zone to absorb crash energy.
The R8 isn’t exactly a supercar – in V8 trim as this test vehicle was equipped, it goes out the door for just over $100,000 – nowhere near the $500,000 or $1 million-plus asking prices for the likes of the Bugatti Veyron or Aston Martin One-77. It’s also a little down on horsepower, at least on paper, with “just” 420. The base Corvette for half its price tops it by ten horses. But the R8 definitely has exotic car roots. Most folks know now that the R8 shares several of its chassis components with the Lamborghini Gallardo, as well as the Gallardo’s six-speed manual gearbox or its six-speed R tronic single-clutch automated manual gearbox. The available 5.2 liter V10 found in some R8s is closely related to the engine installed in the R8’s Italian cousin as well.
It also has its engine behind the driver’s head, covered in glass to display its gorgeously-finished intake plumbing. When I hopped out of the car for an impromptu photo shoot, the first thing I said was, “I hope someday to own a car with its engine under glass.” Polycarbonate counts for that wish as well, as I certainly wouldn’t mind having a Corvette ZR1 in my garage either.
The issue with may supercars is that outward visibility and driving position are compromised in the name of aerodynamics, styling, performance, or a combination of the three. It’s almost impossible to see behind you in a Murciélago, and a Gallardo isn’t much better. But in the R8, visibility is excellent. The Audi has a very low cowl (reminiscent of older Hondas) and a short hood that gives a lot of forward visibility, and the door windows aren’t just useless gun-slits. Rewarward visibility is provided by the large, angled glass cover over the engine bay.
Upon opening the door, it’s easier to get into than you might expect from a low-slung sports car. The D-shaped flat bottom steering wheel not only looks like it was lifted out of a race car, but also serves the practical purpose of making entry and exit a bit easier. Dashboard surfaces, entertainment options, electronics, and seat quality were on par with expectations for a car in this price class. In fact, they wouldn’t be out of place in a luxury car, even if that car cost the same price. The switchgear was easy to operate and had a quality feel to it, and the Audi MMI interface had a clear, readable screen with a sharp resolution making the most of screen real estate. Climate control is operated via a three-knob interface that is simple to use, and the handbrake is just that – a manual hand-activated lever. None of this foot pedal or electronic handbrake garbage to be found here.
Nearly every review of this car that I’ve read has trashed the R-tronic automated manual gearbox (a single-clutch affair) for its un-smooth shifting and general balkiness. Happily, this test car had the standard six-speed manual instead. Perhaps tipping its hand regarding its Lamborghini roots, the shifter is gated, which really adds a cool visual touch to the interior.
After settling into a comfortable driving position, adjusting my mirrors, and warning the Audi representative not to be mad at me if I stalled the car (the guy who drove it before me stalled it as he backed it into its space), I eased the clutch out, trying to decide it it would be better to slip the clutch or stall the engine when everyone was watching, in the event I couldn’t intuitively find its engagement point. I decided to err on the conservative side, and stalled it. D’oh.
At least I had already issued a verbal disclaimer about stalling the car before doing so. But I then eased the car around the parking area, more gracefully than my initial departure from the parking space, checked out at the gate, and headed to the open road.
The course that I drove the R8 on is a winding route that passes through Bear Mountain State Park in New York. Over this reasonably short course, it also boasts some significant elevation changes and switchbacks as the road makes its way to a spectacular vista overlooking the park and nearby Hessian Lake. The road is a great one for gauging a car’s handling transitions and braking capabilities, because the brakes will get very hot on the way downhill and the car’s weight tends to shift from side-to-side the road does likewise.
In the 3,450-pound R8, 420 horsepower is nothing to scoff at – though before driving the car, I thought it might be. First, the car is relatively light, particularly considering that quattro all wheel drive is standard. The Corvette Z06 weighs less, but also only asks its rear wheels to provide forward motion.
After acquainting myself with the R8 for a brief spell, it was time to drop a few gears and see what it could do. First, the car sounds incredible. There’s absolutely something to be said for having a high-revving (9,000 RPM redline) V8 just behind your head. The small-but-mighty V8 lets out a sound different from what you’ll hear from a typical American V8 (or the big American-like sound from the 6.2 liter V8 installed in AMG-massaged Mercedes-Benz vehicles.
Changing gears in a car with a gated shifter was a new experience. The shift action was far more positive (it had to be, after all) and there was absolutely no ambiguity about what gear the car was in or going to at any given moment, or it would not be changing gears at that moment. I’m sure partly due to my own lack of practice with it (something I’d be happy to remedy, if anyone from Audi is listening), but I found it difficult to shift quickly and accurately with the gated shifter. When shifting at a more relaxed pace, there’s no question that it does better than the usual gear shifting action found in other cars. A cool side effect of the gated shifter is the “clink-clink” sound that accompanies each shift, as the stick clangs into the aluminum shift gate, just to remind you that you’re driving something special.
The R8 isn’t the fastest car that I’ve ever driven (though maybe in my top ten, or top fifteen), but it is perhaps the car that gave me the most confidence that it could be driven under extreme conditions if you asked it to, and it would not offer up any unpleasant surprises on the track or the street. Grip is outstanding from a steering and handling perspective. I never was wanting for more power, and the car is easy to drive (and easy to drive quickly, if one is so inclined).
The R8’s test track numbers are nearly as good as a Corvette’s, but the whole package is as balanced and refined as any supercar (or near-supercar) I’ve ever seen. There are a few things that seemingly everyone has to say after driving an Audi: the interior craftsmanship is top-notch, steering feel is numb because of the front weight bias, and the R tronic single-clutch automated manual is a piece of junk. Well, the R8’s interior craftsmanship (and design) is still top-notch, and this particular R8 had the greatly-preferred six-speed manual. So that leaves steering feel – and guess what: with the rear-mid engine layout, the R8 suffers none of the numb, uncommunicative steering that affects many other Audis. In fact, the R8 tops the Corvette’s steering accuracy and weighting, yet managing to avoid twitchiness that sometimes affects cars with wide tires and fast-ratio steering.
After stepping out of the R8 (and following a spin in the SLS AMG just an hour earlier), I walked away incredibly impressed by Audi’s performance flagship. As I said at the time, the R8 costs half as much as the SLS AMG, but it’s far better than half as good. The R8 has supercar looks, near-supercar performance (and actual supercar performance for those who step up to the 525-horsepower 5.2 liter V10 model), a comfortable and accessible interior, and a somewhat reasonable price for what you’re getting. People like me who get to drive many, many new, great cars tend to be jaded and have trouble finding a car we’d be happy to own ourselves. But the Audi R8 is, without question, a car I would love to call my own.