Mercedes-Benz doesn’t have one. Neither does BMW. Nor Volvo or Saab or any of the Brits save Lotus, and not—at least since the short tenure of the Ford GT—any of what’s left of the Big Three. Exclude the Italians specializing in exotics and Porsche, hardly a volume manufacturer, and the only luxury relatively-mass market carbuilder making a mid-engine automobile today is Audi. That car is the Audi R8.
Indeed the Audi R8 places its engine behind the passenger compartment and in front of the rear wheels, allowing a lower seating position and ideal weight distribution–44/56 front/rear–of sports racers not bound by the practicality required of most road vehicles. As such, the Audi R8 is among the elite of the world’s sports cars.
For 2010 the Audi R8 adds another stratum of exclusivity by adding a V-10 engine to the V-8 offered in the R8 since its debut. The new engine is rated at 525 horsepower and 391 lb-ft of torque, eclipsing the R8’s 420 hp and 317 lb-ft respectively. Not that the latter is yesterday’s bread, but 500 horses is the ante in today’s exotic car market.
The Audi R8’s V10, also used in the Audi R8 LMS GT3 compliant racer introduced in 2009, has an even broader spread of torque than the eight cylinder and pushes minimally more weight so as a result creates the kind of performance that inspires writers to metaphors when the raw numbers should suffice: 3.7 seconds for 0-60 mph and a top speed of 196 mph (or according to factory literature, a precise 196.4 mph, but we’re allowing for the added drag of a humid day).
That of course is only the beginning. Building on Audi’s sports car racing experience more directly transferable to road vehicles than other manufacturer’s dabbling in open wheel racing, the Audi R8 takes to a racetrack like Paris Hilton to stupidity. Which is why Audi chose to introduce the 2010 R8 V10 to a limited number of automotive journalists, Infineon Raceway (in a former lifetime, Sear Point).
The assembled scribes drove the R8s (and S4 and S5) from San Francisco International Airport, through the heart of San Francisco itself and across the Golden Gate Bridge, then into and onto the local roads of Marin County, northward into the environs of the track itself, a test of ordinary vehicles, much less a mid-engined sports car.
Revelation number one: The Audi R8 V10, for all of its high performance credentials, is not a finicky roadway diva. We drove both the R8 with Audi’s six-speed R-tronic twin-clutch transmission and with six-speed manual transmission and found both to be invariably civilized. The R-tronic box can be left to shift on its own, which is does elegantly as the best conventional automatic or shifted by tipping the lever on the console or via paddles on the steering wheel, right for up and left for down. Upshifts are quick and usually smooth though we found the R-tronic to be slicker downshifting than up, with a flawless blip of the throttle to match revs.
The R8’s manual shifter is “gated”—it has the shift pattern carved into panel of aluminum, through which the shift lever must be negotiated, much like that of classic Ferraris. It may be an affectation but from our limited survey, drivers either liked it or detested it, the latter saying it made shifting more difficult. It requires added precision on the part of the user and more practice to avoid missing a gate. We didn’t find it a hindrance. The clutch pedal with the manual transmission and the take-up was light and smooth, particularly for a 525 horsepower engine, unlike another German manufacturer’s cars we could name.
The interior styling of the R8 is tame, if compared to say the Pagoni Zonda, but exotic compared to more ordinary Audis with a bill like that of a baseball cap over the instrument panel. The steering wheel is flat-bottomed for extra leg clearance and carbon fiber trim is liberally applied.
The seats are midway between the front and rear axle lines so the Audi R8 doesn’t have the riding-the-front-wheels sensation of many mid-engine cars, but still has enough room inside for three cubic feet of oddments behind the seats. A mesh net is also strung across the rear bulkhead and there is even a pair of cupholders. The luggage compartment, under an expansive hood, holds a mere 3.5 cubic feet. Travel light or FedEx your luggage ahead.
What’s under the rear hatch is no secret. The twin banks of the V-10 are clearly visible under the glass–no plastic shroud over the engine here–and labeled “V10 FSI” for the uninformed with the four interlinked rings of the Audi logo on each bank’s intake manifold. The engine has direct injection and for reliable lubrication during high-g cornering and a lower engine location, lowering the R8’s center of gravity, a dry sump oil system.
One wouldn’t call the Audi R8 lovely, not in the elegant style of a Jaguar or Aston Martin, or voluptuous in the Italian style. The Audi R8 is cleanly efficient, with a design more like a well crafted weapon than an objet d’art. For aerodynamics the R8 has a full flat underbody with front and rear diffusers, the latter larger for the R8, plus an automatic-deployable rear spoiler with a vent for engine compartment.