Audi has long had a reputation for building excellent performance cars, but the R8 marked a departure into mid-engine supercar territory. Having been around for several years now, however, it's not so much out of the ordinary as it is the benchmark of the range--and, for some, the very idea of a supercar.
While it doesn't share the track record of Ferrari or Lamborghini, the R8 does borrow from its Italian Volkswagen Group cousin, if only under the skin. In terms of build quality and interior makeup, it's all German.
Whether you want a coupe or a convertible, Audi offers three performance levels for the R8: V-8, V-10, and GT. Even the base model is quick, at 4.4 seconds to 60 mph, 187 mph top speed, and 420 horsepower from the 4.2-liter V-8. The Spyder gets to 60 mph in 4.6 seconds and carries on to a top speed of 186 mph.
The 5.2-liter V-10 coupe boosts that to 525 horsepower, 3.7 seconds to 60 mph and a top speed of 196 mph, while the Spyder gets 60 mph done in 4.0 seconds before a top speed of 194 mph.
Stepping up to the top-of-the-line GT model yields 560 horsepower, 3.6-second 0-60 mph times, and 199 mph top speed. An R8 GT Spyder is available in Europe, but hasn't yet made it to the U.S., though a limited run is expected to arrive in the first half of 2012.
But what is the R8 like to drive? In a word, fantastic. All models are available with a choice of six-speed manual or six-speed R tronic automatic transmissions, both of which are slick, tight, and performance-focused. The automatic suits the R8's personality a bit better, however, making the most of the R8's daily-driver qualities while not holding it back on track.
In fact, just about the only thing likely to hold the R8 back on track is the driver. Quattro all-wheel drive makes grip under acceleration phenomenal, biasing up to 35 percent of the power to the front wheels, and the relatively low 3,400-pound curb weight (higher in some models) helps stick the car through the corners. Magnetically-controlled dampers help there, too, as much as they help smooth out rough roads on the street. Available carbon-ceramic brakes make fade a vague memory, but can be a bit too grabby on the street.
Steering is light, but not over-boosted, and gives a natural, connected feel of what the car is doing and what it's capable of doing.