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Audi comes charging out with the R8

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No fewer than four Audi employees in shiny suits escorted the 2008 Audi R8 to the L.A. Times' garage a few weeks ago, a veritable task force of handlers to introduce me to the company's new six-figure, mid-engine supercar. Once they arrived, there wasn't much for them to do but stand around and Armor-All their lapels. Despite the R8's evident exoticism -- the car is low, wide and mirthless, its gimlet eyes fixing you with white-hot LEDs like it was brooding on ways to wreck your marriage -- the car required no special instructions. There were no gear-shifting paddles attached to the flat-bottomed steering wheel (though they are an option), no hydraulics to raise the front end as there are in the nose-grinding Lamborghini Murcielago, no wing-setting launch sequence as in the Bugatti Veyron. Just turn the key, drop the clutch and go.

Like hell.

The Cavalli-suited entourage underscores the fact that the R8 -- certainly one of the finest mid-engine sports cars ever built -- is not about posting quick lap times or eating into the Porsche 911's market share, though it will do both to a bloody fare-thee-well. It's about Audi's image.

This is a company that has done everything right and has gone largely unrewarded in the American market. It has built a generation of impeccably tailored German sedans, from A4s to S8s, that have somehow failed to crack the code of automotive prestige. It has advanced core technology, like fuel-saving direct injection, and still its sales numbers stay nailed to the floor. For years it resisted building a luxury SUV, reasoning that a station wagon with all-wheel drive was a more efficient solution, only to take it in the neck from barge-building German rivals. Audi has utterly mugged the 24 Hours of Le Mans, winning seven times in the past decade (eight, if you count Audi-powered Bentley's win in 2003). And still, Audi is outsold by Lexus by more than 3 to 1.

The R8 reflects a strategic pivot from rational to emotional. Instead of appealing to the reasoning centers of car buyers' brains, Audi has decided to split some freaking wigs.

The R8 has a dark and glamorous air, smart and elegant and sexy as a string-back corset. Audi's design team pulled off a minor masterpiece: a supercar for grown-ups.

And so, the thing itself: a 3,439-pound, aluminum space-frame two-seater, with a mid-mounted 4.2-liter, 420-hp V8 under the back glass (à la the Ferrari F430) and a six-speed manual transmission going clackity-click through a classic aluminum shift gate; unequal-length control arm/coil-over suspension at all four corners; and rear-biased Quattro all-wheel drive. Zero-to-60 mph acceleration hovers in the low four-second range on the way to an aero-drag-limited top speed of 187 mph.

These are big, Hollywood-sign-sized performance numbers, but the truth is the car is so completely balanced and integrated, so in touch with its own nerve endings, it doesn't feel drunk with power. The engine -- the same direct-injection revver as in the Audi RS4, only with dry-sump lubrication to lower its profile and thus the car's center of gravity -- is lively but tractable, with a long, progressive E-throttle that makes slow-speed driving effortless. You can short-shift this car from stoplight to curb and it will never complain. Only when you start wringing it out, teasing the 8,250 redline in the lower gears, does the full shove-in-the-back aggression make itself felt. And then, oh the sound: a molten-sugar contralto that dances on wending treble clef, a sound to make angels grab a hanky.

Behind the wheel, what strikes you most is the uncanny civility of the R8. There's no strain, no burring or harshness anywhere, flog it though you may. In around-town driving, the R8 rides like an A8 sedan, or maybe a maglev train. I don't know what kind of dark matter the company uses to attach the suspension or the engine to the chassis, but whatever it is, the R8 has the best signal-to-noise ratio of any sports car on the market.

You might reasonably expect the R8 to drive like the Lambo Gallardo, parent company VW's other mid-engine, alloy-bodied, AWD sports car. There are similarities. Overall, Audi estimates about 15% of the cars have the same part numbers.

But they drive completely differently. The Gallardo is a snake that bites as it kisses, with whip-quick steering, eager/evil rotation and purely one of the most annoyingly loud exhaust notes in all the wide world. The ride is like taking a holiday at Gitmo.

The R8 is more relaxed by several degrees. There's more compliance in the suspension, which of course means a more comfortable ride, but the extra give also helps the R8 to stay planted in rough corners and not skip-skitter off line. The steering, at 3.25 turns lock-to-lock, doesn't require nearly the tiller-tending that the Lambo does.

The R8 cabin, meanwhile, is intimate but comparatively spacious, with plenty of legroom and headroom, and a useful parcel shelf behind the seats. The interior, based on a driver-focused monoposto cockpit with wraparound controls, is executed in French-stitched leather, carbon fiber and Alcantara suede, with the usual complement of corporate switches, instruments and navigation/audio interface.

Relaxed isn't the same as softer. In fact, I suspect the R8 is actually a better-handling car at the limit than the Gallardo. With its wide-track posture, low center of gravity, mid-engine layout and gluey, 19-inch Pirelli tires, it's no surprise that the R8 has formidable lateral grip.

Antaeus doesn't hug the Earth like this.

But what you can't quite get used to is how utterly responsive it is, how agreeably it allows itself to be tossed around like mad. Dive into a 90-degree right-hander with the brake rotors glowing, turn the wheel and roll off the brakes. The car's rear end pitches around with easy, drama-free slide, effortlessly caught countered with a dab of opposite lock and a little throttle. With the stability control off, you can power slide the car just as easily. Whatever torque the limited-slip rear differential can't transfer to the ground is transferred to the front wheels, up to 35% of engine output. To put it plainly, you'd have to be brain-dead to lose control of this car.

When the R8 begins to show up at dealerships in the fall, prices will start at $108,000 for the manual transmission-equipped model and $118,000 for those with R-tronic (the six-speed with automated clutch). There will be several notable options: ceramic brakes, magnetic ride control and the industry's first all-LED headlights. All cars get the unusual -- if not slightly trashy -- LED indicators underlining the headlamps. Bad enough Las Vegas is in Nevada. Now it has to come to our headlights?

That quibble aside, the R8 is a fistful of weaponized cool thrown in the face of the sports car status quo: seductively styled, comprehensively engineered, flawlessly executed. Needless to say, Porsche and Aston Martin's life just got a lot more complicated.

Inevitably, in a year or so, Audi will stick a monster motor in the R8, shoe it with enormous rubber and call it the R8 RS, or something like that. That's too bad. There aren't that many cars that come out of the box perfect. This is one.

dan.neil@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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