Design Language: Is the Audi R8 Hotness or Notness?

For years, pistonheads the world 'round have divined Audi's long-rumored (now confirmed) supercar, the R8. With each new prototype Ingolstadt unveiled — the Terminator 3—reject Rosemeyer, the French-porn-star-sexy Nuvolari, the HR Geiger—faced Le Mans — enthusiasts' mental picture of the imminent resolved: A mid-engined two-seater based on the Lamborghini Gallardo. Sometime last year, a heavily disguised test mule began making the rounds. Then, this month, a Web site editor at Carster.com stumbled upon what most watchers believe to be the production version of the R8, unmasked in Santa Monica, California. The shots spread throughout the Internet as if Paris Hilton were down on her knees again.

But something didn't look quite right.

Before we continue, let's get one thing straight. A six-figure supercar must do more than just simply go insanely fast and bond to the pavement like latex paint. (A Corvette Z06 can do that for 60 grand. Hell, a Mitsubishi Evo can do it for 30+.) It also must stick a fork in your loins and stir. Teenagers should be compelled to doodle its likeness on Peechee folders and hang glossy posters of its magnificence on bedroom walls. One look and grown men must lament their workaday sedans as if the almighty just yanked the "down" lever.

Concidentally, this month, Automobile editors issued their picks for the 25 Most Beautiful Cars Ever. After reading and rereading their choices, I noticed every car selected had a single trait in common: a long panel of metal between the front-wheel well and the door cut (often referred to in the upper-echelons of the car-rag world as "fenders"). Every one of the cars chosen, from the dreamy Bentley Continental Type R to the cocktastic Jaguar E-Type to the way-too-gorgeous-for-words Cisitalia 202 Coupe, had a handsome, elongated fender. It wasn't just the front-engined cars, either; even the mid-engined Lamborghini Muira had a little sumpin' sumpin' behind the front wheel.

And that's exactly where R8 comes up oh-so-horribly short.

The R8 takes its cues not from the world's most beautiful cars, but rather from those parked on the average suburban block: wheels pushed to the front, cab set forward. Its design defies the principles of shape and form noted by Automobile editors, with an abbreviated front section that must look like murder to a CAD complier, but leaves human eyes cold.

By way of comparison, the R8 looks like a Toyota FJ Cruiser that's been wacked with Hulk fists until its roof reaches three feet from the pavement. (It even has the FJ's fat, useless C-Panels, though now they're behind the doors not between the windows.) Worse than the awkward cut lines, the misplaced vents, weird gaps and the overall comport of a TT that's let itself go, is the chronic use of black, plasticky composites. The R8's exterior appears to be 20 percent Rubbermaid. A supercar should offer the eye a bounty of sculpted metal (or baked carbon fiber).

What's more, the R8's rear-end is the wrong way round. The most beautiful automotive backsides are usually the simplest. Think of the Ferrari 275 GTB, Shelby Daytona Coupe or plain, old Corvette (notwithstanding the bloated C5). The shape of the car's form concludes, is tied off (or in the case of the Shelby, hacked off) and is dotted with a few tail lamps for flavor. Audi seems to have attempted the opposite. From the (no doubt useful) industrial-looking heat-expelling vents to a plebian tail light assembly that would look at home on, say, a Buick Century, this derriere is fat, busy, sloppy and slopes counterintuitively. Long story short, the designers choked a layup.

What then is the R8? Performance-wise, it will no doubt cook geese with the best of those in the low $100,000 range (Porsche, look out). Whispers indicate an even more powerful diesel engine la Audi's LeMans-winning R10 TDI might show up one day. But will the reptile brain of a 15-year-old car nut care?

Have we reached a crisis point? A design nadir? Are we living in an age when ultra-high performance rides must resemble steroidal hatchbacks, derivative retro rockets like Ford's GT or Lamborghini's conceptual Miura, or military hardware like anything from AMG? Sadly, the answer seems to be yes. And the Audi R8 is bringing up the rear. [by Jonny Lieberman]

Related:
More on the Audi R8 [internal]