Ingolstadt does it differently.
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.
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.”
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.
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.