Yes, folks, you read that right: Audi, well, they got a little funny in the head, and they went and handed me the keys to a shiny new R8. I, the least likely Jalop to ever buy any sort of new car- or, in fact, any used car new enough that I can't find plenty of parts for it in my local self-service junkyard- shall be reviewing Audi's new supercar for you today! [Maybe they mistook you for me. Wait, that's just me making myself feel better and trying not to believe Audi is reveling in my pain. -Ed.]
This story began when Audi decided to do an event for journalists in the Wine Country of Northern California, at which they'd show off their trio of hot V8 machines: the RS4, the S5, and the R8. Since I'm the only Jalop in the area- and since (as The Loverman so cruelly puts it) I don't know what it's like to drive a fast car not built in some bullet-riddled-appliance-filled back yard, using a tree limb as an engine hoist and Milwaukee's Best as a motivational tool- the all-powerful Postfather decided to hand me over to the care of the slickest PR team in the automotive world. I was a little intimidated, having never borne the schmooztastic onslaught of Audi's PR shock troops before, but part of the deal was that I'd be able to hoon a 190MPH übercar around the track at Sears Point/Infineon... so, like, hell yes! My orders: show up at a hotel near the San Francisco airport, where a valet would take my car and the Germans would give me an R8 to drive up to some top-shelf resort in the Wine Country.
Now, at this point I'm supposed to go into Hunter S. Thompson mode and rant about how I Rockforded the Crown Vic into the valet drop-off in a cloud of tire smoke, smashed my just-emptied bottle of Old Crow on the pavement, grabbed the first German I saw by the lapels, and shrieked "I got no time to waste, Fritz! Give me the goddamn car and make it a red one! Schnell! Schnell!" Sorry to disappoint, but I was terrified the Germans would simply affix me with their icy blue eyes (I pictured a Prussian general, circa 1870, complete with riding crop and monocle) and a tall aristocratic boss-type would issue a nearly imperceptible shake of the head that told his underlings: "For him, we have no car!" You see, my writing background is in technical writing and fetish porn, not automotive journalism. I'm fat and hairy, dress like I'm on my way to a glue-huffing party located in a burned-out Winnebago at Pick Your Part, and I have the software geek's intuitive fear and loathing of The PR Suits and their world. A schlub. But, by God, this schlub was going to drive an R8 at Sears Point, whatever it took!
That morning, the Crown Vic greeted me with a Check Engine light. I plugged in the scanner and got the code for "Lean Condition, Cylinder Bank 1." Damn, that's not good- car's been running flawlessly for three years and now half the fuel injectors are garbooned or something I can't fix right now. Fine, I'll take the Civic... my beater bass-player's gig-rig '92 Civic, from which some scrote tweeker had just razored the registration tags off the license plate, no doubt so he could stick them on his clapped-out '82 Cavalier with hundreds of tiny ziploc bags all over the carpeting. Well, maybe the Germans wouldn't notice.
Of course I screwed that up right away; when I rolled the Civic up to the valet, the first words out of my mouth were: "Hey, I got no tags on this thing- could you park it backwards so the cops don't tow it?" Sure enough, the Germans and their super-efficient assistants were right there, and I knew what they were thinking:
Back in the little Bavarian town I come from, there was this man, Otto, who worked in the dry-ice factory out by the pig slaughterhouse on the edge of town. Otto would get off work, drink a pint of cherry brandy, and stagger around causing trouble for the hardworking townspeople. One day he was caught urinating in the mayor's mailbox. But Otto saved his pfennigs, and he bought a 1965 Opel Admiral. He cut the mufflers off, installed off-road lights, and from that point on he made life on the roads intolerable for us.
Yes, I was a phony, not a true automotive journalist. I was Otto! No R8 for me! But, as it turned out, the Audi PR crew had all heard of Jalopnik, and they knew who I was, too. In fact, I must admit that everyone from Audi- German or American- was unfailingly pleasant with me the whole time, in spite of my apparent Otto-ness. Next thing I knew, I was stepping from my $1200 Civic into a silver $120,000 R8. And so, it seems that the best way to conduct this review would be as a comparison between the 2008 Audi R8 and the 1992 Honda Civic DX. At this point I should mention (as I did to the Audi crew) that I had never actually driven an Audi of any sort prior to getting behind the wheel of the R8; when I was in high school I had the chance to buy three partial Audi 100s for $50, with (allegedly) enough parts between them to make a single running car, but declined. The Germans seemed puzzled by this observation (Ach! We are making the giant mistake!), but seemed to take it in stride.
I didn't really have much chance to admire the car before heading off on the 90-mile journey north to Calistoga; it was just a matter of climbing in and hitting the road. This particular R8 was equipped with the R-Tronic automatic transmission, which (I found later) is pretty nice on the racetrack but fairly unpleasant in city traffic; in full-auto mode, it feels like someone who just learned how to drive a manual transmission is working the clutch and shifter, and I couldn't quite get the hang of the paddle shifters right away. The car seems to hesitate when leaving a stoplight, bogging down like you're about to stall it, so you give it some more gas, and then some more, and why the hell won't it go?... at which point some synapses click in the transmission ECU, the clutch grabs, and you blast off like some hoon showing off the new 396 in his Chevelle, and then you need to stomp on the brakes because the car is doing twice the speed limit before you have time to react, and you generally look like a schmuck. Just so I don't have to talk about it any more, I'm going to state this up front: If you're thinking of buying an R8, Jalopnik recommends that you get the 6-speed manual transmission. It's $9000 cheaper with the manual, by the way.
I made it to the freeway onramp and figured, hey, let's see what this thing can do! The R8 can run high 12s in the quarter-mile, so I figured I was in for some serious violence when I stomped the gas pedal; I've driven a few 12-second Detroit cars, so I was prepared for some enter-the-freeway-sideways drama. No drama- the R8 just went very, very quickly, with the Quattro system and all those smart traction-control computers keeping the nose pointed in the right direction, and a highly pleasing V8 note coming from behind me. Now I would like to state for the record my primary impression of the Audi R8: It is all about the engine.
12.5:1 compression on pump gas, thanks to direct fuel injection. Dry-sump oiling system (which is the main difference between the R8's V8 and the one in the wet-sump RS4). 420 horsepower out of 4.2 liters' displacement. Lots of cams and valves and incomprehensible German high-tech wizardry. An 8250 redline- 82 freakin' 50 Are Pee Ems with a V8, buddy! I'll tell you what I told the Loverman when he called to ask, "Well?" after my first day with the R8: This engine is God!
And that brings up my main complaint about this car: It's not crazy enough. It's comfortable, the ride is smooth (even on potholed Bay Area freeways), the climate control system will maintain your selected temperature with Teutonic precision, and- worst of all- the engine isn't loud enough in the passenger compartment. Come on, when you have a V8 that can hit 8250 RPM without blowing valves out the tailpipes, don't you want its every snarl to completely fill your consciousness? In fact, even the external appearance of the car isn't quite extreme enough for a car that can reach 187 MPH; it looks good and fast and all that, but I noticed that I got very few "Damn, look at that!" responses from other drivers.
Clearly, what Audi is trying to build- in fact, have succeeded in building- is a supercar that you can use as a daily driver. And you could indeed use the R8 for just that. Oh, sure, it guzzles gas and has a tough time going over speedbumps, and you'd need to be careful about where you parked it, but when a machine descends from the Olympian supercar heights into daily-driver territory it must compete with The King of Daily Drivers: my '92 Civic.
So, let's start with price: I bought my Civic for $1200; the '08 R8 with manual transmission MSRPs at $115,600. That's pretty close to a 100:1 ratio, and the R8 is only about five times more fun than the Civic to drive; that's a huge fun-per-dollar difference. Advantage: '92 Civic.
Next, we look at the sound system. My Civic is equipped with a Toyota Tacoma cassette deck I got on eBay for $10, hooked up to a wired FM modulator for iPod input and driving four junkyard Pioneer speakers. It doesn't quite fit in the dash opening (note to self: don't assume all Japanese car radios use standard DIN sizing), but it sounds pretty good.
The R8 I drove came with the optional $1800 Bang & Olufsen sound system with 12 speakers, 465 watts, and a satellite radio (strangely, it had no auxiliary input for the iPod I'd loaded with Pantera, Motörhead, and Rammstein just for the occasion; instead, it had dual slots for SD memory cards located behind the navigation screen... and the cards had been preloaded by Audi PR folks with a sense of humor: Bee Gees and Abba dominated the playlist. Won't SD cards seem quaintly outdated in a few years, the way we look at 5-1/4" floppy disks today?). In any case, the sound quality absolutely annihilates that of the setup in my Civic, and I was able to find some Alice In Chains buried in one of the SD cards, so it wasn't an all-Bee Gees drive. Advantage: R8.
As for engine performance... well, the '92 Civic has a 102-horse D15B7, which buzzes out less than 1/4 the power of the R8's mill. Fun as the Civic is when the cam reaches its happy zone, the R8 has it beat pretty handily in everything but fuel economy. But that brings me back to my main complaint that the R8 is just too civilized; godly as its V8 may be, its not-quite-so-godly 317 ft-lbs of torque means it lacks true madman brutality off the line. I've owned $1500 mouth-breather GM A-bodies that felt like they pulled harder than the R8 from a dead stop, and never mind that the R8 keeps accelerating like a Saturn V for about 70 MPH past the point at which an Olds 455 runs out of grunt- if I'm paying north of 100 grand for a car, I want the world to end when I floor it. I want my eyes to go out of focus and I want the headlights pointing at the sky, and when I hit second gear I want the thing to light up the tires for about 100 feet. Of course, I recognize that I'm not quite a member of the target demographic that Audi had in mind when they built this thing, so you need to take that into account. Even though I might want to swap maybe 50 horses for 100 ft-lbs... wait, forget I said that- this engine is perfect. Maybe the car needs to lose a few pounds, starting with the carpeting, sound insulation, and air-conditioning hardware. Overwhelming Advantage: R8.
As for overall comfort and day-to-day drivability, that's a tough one. The '92 Civic is bumpy and noisy compared to the R8, but the Civic's gauges are easier to read and its controls are simpler and far more intuitive. At this point, I should probably mention that I've never owned a car with remote locks, never mind a navigation system, and so all the data screens and layers of options in the R8's instrument panel just annoyed me. The R8's seats blew the Civic's away when it came to comfiness and adjustability, however, so: Slight Advantage: R8
That's enough for now; I think talk about handling, braking, and such should wait until we get the car out on Sears Point. Stay tuned for Part 2: Racetrack Hoonage With The R8!