Audi's everyday supercar not only infringed upon the Porsche 911's market territory, but it also showed the potential of all-wheel-drive.
Audi talked about building a supercar for years before they actually got around to doing one. Audi's AWD expertise might have been forged in the crucible of rallying's Group B glory days, but this expertise was used primarily to help luxury sedans handle better in the snow. Sure, there was the sporty TT, and some hot versions of those sedans, but these were a long way off from being supercars. Audi's halo car might not be the world's fastest car, but it has earned heaps of praise for its excellent handling and the ease with which it can be driven.
The idea of the R8 could said to be traced back to the 2000 Rosemeyer concept. This W16-powered art deco concept was styled to resemble the V16 Auto Union Type 52, a supercar which was never actually built. The Type 52 was designed in 1933 by Dr. Ferdinand Porsche with input from Bernd Rosemeyer, one of the few drivers capable of controlling the big Auto Union Silver Arrow race cars of the era. Rosemeyer was later killed in another Auto Union car, but it would probably be better if you didn't think about that. The 2000 concept was an impressive piece of machinery, to put it mildly, and surprisingly true to the 1933 design.
But VW had only recently acquired Lamborghini, and ultimately decided against creating any in-house competition for the struggling supercar maker. Then, in 2003, with two new Lamborghinis under their belt and the future of the company looking much more secure, VW gave Audi the green light to revisit the idea of a supercar. The first sign of this came in the form of the 2003 Le Mans Quattro Concept, a car much more similar to the actual road car which debuted in 2006. The production car shares a name with a Le Mans prototype racer used by Audi from 2000 to 2005, racking up 5 overall victories in the 6 years it raced.
The name was simply transferred to the road car when Audi switched to racing the R10 TDI. However, the road car has virtually nothing in common with the racer, and was in fact based on the Lamborghini Gallardo, which debuted the same year as the Le Mans Quattro Concept. The mid-engine supercar was initially offered with just one engine option, a dry-sump version of the 4.2-liter V8 found in the B7 RS4, which produces 424 horsepower. This isn't a huge amount of power, but it was enough to get the car to 60mph in 4.6 seconds. It has only two seats, but it was immediately noticed that the car was supremely easy to drive and even live with.
These are the sorts of things people say about the Porsche 911, and the comparisons began right away. These were egged on by the R8's price tag, which was $114,000 for the base model, a number which is close enough to the 911's price to make potential buyers pause. The options list will quickly add thousands to the price of the R8, but it's hardly as though you couldn't say that about the 911 as well. But no matter how you look at it, that is very cheap for a supercar. In 2008, a V10-powered version of the R8 debuted, resulting in Audi's best sales year so far for the car.
The engine is a modified version of the Gallardo's V10 and it produces 518 horsepower. For anyone who doubted the R8's supercar credentials as a result of the somewhat humble origins of the V8, the V10 pretty much made up for it. A lighter and more powerful version of the V10 R8 debuted in 2010, badged as the R8 GT, and the convertible version of this debuted at Le Mans last year. The R8 has AWD, but this is slightly different from the version of the Quattro system found in Audi's sedans. The R8 has a rear-biased system, more similar to the system used by Porsche in the 911.
This system will send only 30 percent of the engine's power to the front wheels at any given time. This seems to be a good number, as Jacky Ickx has described the R8 as "the best handling road car today". And he should know, he won the 24 Hours of Le Mans 6 times, more than anyone except Tom Kristensen. The R8 is a supremely good car. It shows the full possibilities of AWD, and although this is not quite as dramatic an advantage over other cars as it was in the days of the Sport Quattro, it's nothing to scoff at either. If you only have the garage space (not to mention budget) for one supercar, the R8 is one of the best picks.
It's fast, easy to drive, relatively inexpensive to keep running and it looks great too. If you're like me, you'd probably rather have the Rosemeyer, but this is as close as you're going to get.