Making Sense of the Supercar

Ingolstadt does it differently.

Image: newcarnet

Running an errand recently facilitated a rare sighting for me: not one but two first-generation Audi R8s passed me by within seconds of each other. Notwithstanding the pouring rain, I paused to take the pair in, a silver example closely followed by one in black, both on 2008 plates. Hang on, I thought, has the R8 really been around for that long? Longer still, it turns out: launched in hot and dusty Nevada in 2006 following its Paris Salon unveiling, Audi’s everyday supercar has lost none of its sparkle over the intervening years.

Styled under the supervision of Italian design chief, Walter de Silva, the R8 cannot readily be pigeonholed as a conventionally beautiful mid-engined supercar. Instead, it is unorthodox, complex and, in front and rear three-quarter views, most definitely muscular and imposing. In de Silva’s words, the R8 is “A car with strong individual signals combining to produce a powerful overall signal.” It is “neither arrogant or vulgar, but elegant.” and possesses “plenty of Italianness, with emphasis on surfacing and volumes.”

The R8 was hand-built by 260 engineers and craftsmen at Audi’s Neckarsulm facility, originally at a rate of fifteen cars per day(1) before gradually increasing to double that number. The two-door mid-engined coupé was based on Audi’s aluminium monocoque, dubbed Audi Space Frame, which was also used as the platform for its Italian cousins, the Lamborghini Gallardo and its successor, the Huracán. Ingolstadt was, however, at pains to differentiate the German and Italian models: some 5,000 R8 parts were uniquely Germanic, and the car bearing the four interlocking rings was significantly cheaper than the raging bull. The R8 was also 131mm (5 1/4″) longer than the Gallardo.

Image: audi-mediacenter.com

Capitalising on Audi’s early 21st century domination at Le 24 Heures du Mans, the 2003 Frank Lamberty and Julian Hoenig designed Le Mans Quattro Concept gestated for three years before entering series production in June 2006. The launch 4.2 litre V8 engine delivered maximum power of 420bhp (313kW) and torque of 317 lb ft (430Nm), the red line sitting at a quiveringly high 8,250rpm. The R8 tipped the scales at 1,560Kgs (3,439lbs), distributed in a most un-Audi-like ratio of 44% fore to 56% aft. A thrilling four-and-a-half seconds would see sixty, with a v-max just thirteen short of 200mph.

Assisting the road-holding duties, 19” rubber coated the distinctive five-spoke alloys, with double-wishbone suspension all round. Audi offered the options of magnetorheological damping and ceramic brakes, both witheringly expensive, but a racing driver’s (and journalistic) wet dream. Both, of course, would enhance the R8 experience on the track, but the standard set-up was more than enough for public roads. The regular brakes featured eight-piston callipers up front, six to the rear.

Returning to my sightings, what first caught these eyes were the LED headlamps, cutting through the squalid weather. Even by today’s death-ray laser beam standards, the R8’s lights offer more than a hint of scowling menace, as impressive now as sixteen years ago. To the car’s side strakes, available in colours and finishes to blend in or contrast as one chose. A light-coloured car with black strakes can, from a side-on perspective, lend the R8 a nose-heavy look, miraculously disappearing when seen from the rear three-quarters. Strangely, de Silva asserted that, while the R8 may derive from a racing car pedigree, paradoxically, “there is no correlation between the race car and this design. It’s all about elegance, class.”

Image: topspeed.com

Sitting inside, alcantara, nappa leather and the admired Audi perfection in detail are much in evidence. Never a car in which to visit the municipal dump(2), personal space is deemed more than adequate, with excellent visibility and ergonomics. Those so inclined will have (just) enough room for two golf bags behind the seats, with another 100-litre space under the bonnet. A flat-bottomed steering wheel allows those with chunkier thighs to sit in comfort and, with hydraulic assistance, it takes but three turns from lock to lock.

De Silva was gracious in acknowledging the work of his talented design team; Gerd Pfefferle and Frank Lamberti for the exterior, an interior courtesy of Carsten Monneryan and the immaculately presented engine bay, road wheels and those lights by the appropriately named Andreu Sola.

Contemporary reviews of the car were customarily favourable and the R8 even bloodied the nose of the hardy perennial Neunelfer. Car Magazine’s Phil McNamara gave the car a ‘seminal moment’ review. Honest John could only say rather prosaically that, over time, the cabin had become dated when compared with the newer crop of rivals. The standard six-speed manual was, however, very well regarded. Then again, dependent on where one looks, the seven-speed auto appeared either ‘ideal’ or ‘not as good as Ferrari’s’. Driven reasonably, around 22mpg could be achieved, but the 90-litre tank would require frequent trips to the green pump should one’s right foot become leaden.

Image: drivemag.com

Time and enduring appeal has been kind to the original R8. UK starting prices at launch were around £77k. Autotrader gave the original car a 3.7 out of 5 rating, which seems a little mean, but the website now contains early examples still commanding impressive mid-£30k asking prices. The R8 subsequently became available as a Spyder, with a V10 petrol engine, and even a V12 diesel. Sadly, more aggressive styling accoutrements upped the ante at the cost of sullying the purity of the original design. Worldwide sales of the first-generation model over nine years to 2015 were over 28,000 units, an impressive result in the rarefied world of supercars.

Today, Audi will build you an entry-level R8 Coupé V10 Performance RWD starting at a modest £130k. For those with a less parsimonious budget, an R8 Spyder V10 Performance Quattro Edition starts at £166k. Hues named Vegas Yellow, Ascari Blue, Mythos Black or Floret Silver come free of charge(3). Ara Blue crystal paint finish costs £1,535. Matt paintwork and other special order finishes? Audi doesn’t volunteer prices and, if you have to ask, you probably cannot afford them.

Late in its second generation, the R8’s styling has become obtuse, cleaved to some degree of the original’s clarity and impact. The R8 has thus become something of a forgotten man, with rivals aplenty, but still hanging in there.

Allowing de Silva to close, his rationale for the original R8 is quite revealing. “Elegance is a concept that I am convinced is set to slowly make a comeback, even in this sector. Indeed the great masters – Pininfarina, Bertone and Giugiaro – have always made extremely elegant sports cars. Today there’s a little too much overstatement.”

Amen to that, sir.

(1) Audi advertised the R8 in 2007 with the tongue-in-cheek tagline ‘the slowest car we’ve ever built’ referring to the car’s rate of production rather than its performance.

(2) That job may be reserved for the identically-engined Audi RS4 Avant.

(3) Ideal for a thrifty Yorkshireman.

Author’s note: R8 (pronounced “Oreyt?”) is a term widely spoken and heard in my native Yorkshire, being the traditional informal greeting in God’s Own Country.

Data Sources: audiworld.com interview with Walter de Silva 08/12/2006, Auto Design Magazine.com, carbodydesign.com. Sales figures from carsalesbase.com.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

17 thoughts on “Making Sense of the Supercar”

  1. Good morning, Andrew. Two R8’s within seconds? That really is an everyday supercar. I haven’t seen one in years, though.

    I’ve sat in an early R8 once. For my liking it’s too heavy and too complicated. I also don’t particularly like it’s looks. It is too long, even though I think the side blades are trying to hide that fact. I would have liked it better if it was more like the original NSX. Just like the Audi, the Honda is too long, but the excess length is all behind the rear axle there. Also the Maserati Bora and BMW M1 come to mind. These are much older, of course.

    If only Audi had put the Spyder Quattro concept into production. That car isn’t in the super car league, but would have competed with 718’s and A110’s. There probably wouldn’t have been a business case anyway. Pity.

  2. Yes, the front overhang always appeared too long for a classically elegant profile. Everything else is OK.

    PS – oreyt as a contraction of Are you all right?

    1. Correct. A couple of dozen miles to the south, on the Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire borders, a reaction to Andrew’s sighting of two R8s might well be “Them little mesters are doin’ orayt fer thissens then….”

    2. Correct. Derbyshire variation is orayt – as in “Two R8s in Sheffield? Little mesters must be doin’ orayt fer thissens then!”

  3. Good morning Andrew and thanks for your exposition of the thinking behind the R8. I applaud Audi’s attempt to apply a different philosophy to the traditional supercar format but I suppose that, for many potential buyers, their excess, impracticality and ‘look at me’ shoutiness is the essence of their appeal.

    The Spyder Quattro Concept that Freerk pictures above is, to my eyes, beautiful in its restraint, but would probably be far too understated as a style for a supercar.

    1. You are right, Daniel. I like restrained and understated. These are not qualities people look for in supercars. I would, but a customer base of one is too small 😉

    2. A big challenge with mid engined powerful cars is to get enough cool air into their engine bay and to get the hot air iout of it (that’s why Fugen Ferdl insisted the design of the Bugatti Veyron could not be changed to create a challenge for his engineers at this point).
      Look at the Spyder and you can see that this would have been a big problem because of the lack of ventilation openings even compared with the relatively restrained R8.

      A couple of years ago I was on a visit to Audi Sport in Neckarsulm which is completely separate from their main factory there. The location is very close to the motorway, you just drive off the A6, turn right and after three hundred metres or so you are at their main entrance.
      https://audimediacenter-a.akamaihd.net/system/production/media/4686/images/34ba194d2ad563c8c2a95d20bec875e53fbfce03/AU140724_full.jpg?1581981201On this short piece of road there was a row of cars coming the other direction, amongst them a Ferrari 488, Lamborghini Gallardo, McLaren something, Porsche Carrera GT and two R8s covered in 3M psychedelic camouflage foil which was going for the motorway and two minutes later you could hear some very interesting exhaust sounds.

      (Just around the corner from Audi Sport is a tyre dealer specialised in re-selling brand new alloy rims for Audi and VW. They are from employees that have nothing better to do than buy new rims for their brand new subsidised car and the original rims stay with that dealer. He always has around 4,500 of them at astonishingly low prices. For me it’s an indication that people are just mad)

    3. I agree about the cooling issue Dave. Above the engine of the Spyder there is only an engine cover as it has a vertical rear screen, so you could extract air that way. The air intakes are in the rear pillar, but are on the small side, so getting enough cool air in would be a problem indeed. It’s only a V6, but still.

      Right now I can only think of the Maserati Bora and Lotus Esprit series 1 as mid-engined cars that managed without ugly air intakes as well. Not that all side air intakes are ugly. I think the early Bora’s overheated, but later examples didn’t suffer from it too much. I know very little about the Esprit, probably because of the stigma of the unofficial ‘Lots Of Trouble, Usually serious’ acronym. I imagine it would break down before it had a chance to overheat.

  4. On some level have to respect how Audi approached the R8, at the same time it is a pity they were not able to justify giving the R8 V12 TDI concept the production green light to become the world’s first production diesel supercar (the Trident Iceni V8 diesel being the only other could-have-been rival), at least before Dieselgate ended up completely undermining the idea of a diesel supercar sub-niche.

  5. I don’t much care for Audi in general (excepting the first TT and – bizarrely – the first-gen A3 convertible for its unfashionable resistance to the CC-roof trend), but the R8 has a certain restraint to it that contrasts nicely with its exotic mechanical make up. I think I like that thus it’s somehow the opposite of a ‘normal’ Audi: a humdrum car (in mechanical terms at least) dressed up to be more impressive – often with aftermarket aid by… discerning owners.

    It’s small wonder that most of the restraint of the R8 has fallen by the wayside, given the state of current Audi design. Walter de’Silva’s words are like balm for my overstressed eyes looking at current design trends – where is he, nowadays?

    1. Don’t forget that it was de’Silva who marked Audi’s departure from Bauhaus design with the introduction of the fussy and unnecessary ‘Tornado line’.
      Under de’Silva’s guidance Audi design deteriorated a lot.

  6. The diesel engined R8 was a new thing to me, it looks like that was just a one-off concept – though I’d imagine if the V8s and V10 petrols suffered from overheating a V12 TDi would have melted down in no time. What’s surprising about the R8 is that it seems to have outsold and outlived the Nissan GT-R – another supercar that many labelled to be better on road & track alike. I’d wager that after the facelifts the GT-R might have also gotten the nicer looks as well, the Mk2 R8 still retains an almost-perfect silhouette, but the changes made to fit the design into a refreshed Audi-corporate identity unfortunately ruined a huge chunk of the original R8 identity.

  7. Good Morning Andrew
    I saw one recently rather than your two. To my eyes they look lovely and sound pretty good as well.
    Time is catching up with me I fear. Sixteen years old you say… how can that be possible?

  8. Regarding the immaculately presented engine bay you got caps for oil filler, PAS fluid reservoir and coolant bottle made from aluminium. These are sought after as a decorarion item for lesser VAG products and originally were sold only to customers that could present paperwork proving they were owners of an R8 but now are yours for a cool 50 € (oil filler) to 120 € (coolant reservoir)

    Beware of cheap Chinese imitations that sell for a tenth of the price but don’t hold the correct pressure in the cooling system…

  9. Every time I one of these Jeremy Clarkson’s quotation about Keira Knightley comes to mind. I shouldn’t repeat it here.

    It represents Peak Audi to me, when they had bold, Bauhaus-inspired styling that made them the car to have. Somehow it seems less resolved than the (perfectly proportioned) first gen TT though. For a mid engine car there’s too much front overhang and too much visual mass in front of and above the front axle. I don’t know that I could improve it though, as so much else about it is beautiful.

  10. Lovely article for a car that’s been growing on me more recently, despite my general dislike for modern Audis.
    Also, at risk of being impolite, I’d like to point out a small mistake – maybe a typo – on the (2) remark. The R8’s V8 is shared with the RS4, not the RS6.

    1. Hi BrunoL. Thanks for your comment and glad you enjoyed the piece. Thanks also for pointing out that typo, now corrected.

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