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Story by Jack Baruth – Photos by Jack Baruth and Murilee Martin

The late motoring writer LJK Setright loved nothing more than stirring up a bit of controversy, and he had many ways to do so. Whether it was riding a then-new 1974 Honda CBX motorcycle at an unheard-of one hundred and forty miles per hour while dressed as an Edwardian dandy, mercilessly trashing the memory of Sir William Lyons in print, or submitting articles written entirely in Latin to his publishers, Setright seemed to thrive on iconoclastic behavior, and the consequences be damned. In 1990, upon the arrival of the Honda (Acura to us USians) NSX, he cheerfully pronounced it the best car in the world in general, and the best luxury car in the world in particular. Shortly before his death, he wrote

“The Honda NSX, when it appeared in 1990, was unquestionably the safest, fastest, best-made luxury car in the world. Disastrously, it was marketed as a sports car, and subsequent efforts to make it more so have degraded it. As has happened before, the grace of the makers was disgraced by the marketing men.”

This is a different definition of luxury. In Setright’s world, luxury didn’t mean pillowy back seats with DVD players, reeeeech Corrrrinthian leatherrrr, or elaborate Japanese reproductions of previous-generation S-Class Mercedes-Benzes – it meant a vehicle which provided the luxuries of power, balance, handling, craftsmanship, and aesthetics, to say nothing of a perfect focus upon the satisfaction of its two occupants. It is a controversial argument, to be sure, but it is one which, once heard, takes a solid footing in one’s mind. Setright was perhaps not wrong to say that the Acura NSX was the best luxury car in the world.

Was the best luxury car in the world, mind you. Because the best luxury car in the world is now the sublime, sensuous, and nearly perfect Audi R8.

Of course, the mostly headless and demonstrably brainless beast that is The Press As A Whole simply cannot understand the idea of a nearly perfect car, so they have stumbled all over themselves attempting to fit the R8 into their pre-conceived categories. Some, capitalizing on the fact that the R8 shares some architecture with the Lamborghini Gallardo, have deemed it “the budget Lambo”. Others have determined that, since the R8 is built in Germany, it is “the Porsche 911 Turbo killer”. All sorts of track comparisons have been cooked up, pitting the R8 against everything from the Corvette Z06 to the Ferrari 430. One magazine spent tremendous time and expense to detail how the R8 compares to the BMW M3 around a certain corner of a certain English track – a track used primarily for motorcycle racing. Conscious of these absurdities, our friends at Jalopnik concocted a test in which the Audi R8 faced off, bravely, against a fifteen-year-old Honda Civic with expired tags – a challenge which makes at least as much sense as the R8-versus-Nissan-GT-R tests which are certain to appear in the first half of 2008, pretty much everywhere.

Audi’s mighty direct-injection V8, displayed in the Ferrari style.

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Forget all of that. The brilliance of the R8 has nothing to do with a 0-60 time or a luggage space measurement. Instead, it’s the concepts of balance and luxury which define the car. We’ll start with balance. The R8 uses a variant of the high-revving, direct-injection 4.2-liter V8 from the RS4, with the addition of a dry sump. With a different engine, the R8 would have been a very different car; using the Gallardo’s V10 would have made it an undoubted supercar with perhaps too much power for urban use, while the choice of a thirty-valve V6, such as the 3.2 liter engine found in Audi’s sedans, would have made it more of a German NSX, relying on its chassis to make the speed not found under the glass engine cover. Between these two opposed bowls of porridge, the 4.2 is the “just right” choice. It’s fast enough, with the capability to run a quarter-mile under thirteen seconds, but it fails to bully the car along the way a more powerful engine surely would. There’s almost no flywheel effect – in this respect, it resembles a race car. The redline is a stunning 8,250 rpm, but the engine reaches it so naturally and sweetly that we found ourselves repeatedly shifting down for no reason other than to run around the tach. Audi’s V8, in all its variants, impresses everywhere it is found, from the stolid A6 4.2 to the outrageous Spyker C8 supercar. It would probably be exciting under the hood of a 1974 Plymouth Fury III.

The R8, of course, is no Plymouth Fury. It has a natural balance – there’s that word again – that reminds us of nothing so much as the Porsche Boxster S. Your humble author has many trackday miles behind the wheel of his 986S, and around Infineon Raceway we discovered that all of the traditional Boxster track tricks work very well with the R8, particularly the “mule kick throttle”. What’s the mule kick throttle, you ask? Simple – put the car on the sidewalls of the tires in the middle of the corner, as close to the absolute cornering limit as possible, then repeatedly pulse the throttle (like a kicking, well, mule) to cause the car to turn in sharply. This technique leads to utter disaster unless the car has the balance of a pre-ankle-injury Kerri Strug – but the R8 simply sniffs the road a bit, waving its nose from side to side, and then takes a sharper exit line. Remember, kids, in a fully loaded car cornering at or around the limits of the tires, the throttle steers the car, and the steering wheel slows it down. Do we need to tell you not to try this at home? As with the Porsche, the R8 shows a mild push at corner entry but balances very well in the mid-corner with throttle application. The steering is lighter than one might prefer, but it communicates everything which needs to be said about the grain of the road and the grip of the tires. The stability control is reluctant to intervene, and when it does, there is none of the “hand of God” feeling one gets with Porsche’s PSM. Instead of a sharp correction, there is a mild adjustment, with very little loss of forward momentum. It’s easy to go fast in this car – perhaps too easy, as demonstrated by the journalist who put his throttle foot to the firewall, wrong-lined Infineon’s Turn One, and ended up putting a bit of dirt inside the car before it came to rest, a few inches from the guardrail. Audi’s stability control program cannot rewrite the laws of physics; it can only blur the line between talent and traction.

Catching Journalists In the Audi R8

At speed, the Audi’s controls are trustworthy and have well-matched efforts. The gated shifter of the manual-transmission model is a tactile delight; it makes a proper supercar “clack” with every shift and feels utterly unburstable in operation. The middle pedal is firm enough, even after multiple laps of the track, and the clutch effort is light without feeling flimsy. One minor quibble: the engine control software dislikes left-foot braking and will punish it by reducing throttle during and immediately after any instance where both throttle and brake pedals are being pressed. The fix is simply to reduce the overlap period in slow turns, adopting an autocrosser’s stab-and-release technique. As the lap times drop, the R8 never threatens to punish, never fails to comply, never loses brake pressure, never heats up, never reprimands the driver. It simply gets faster and faster, showing more of the aluminum and steel fist beneath the Alcantara glove. In the end, it’s the tires which disappoint. Our test cars had Pirelli P Zero tires, 235-width in front and 285 in the rear – not enough. The fifty-millimeter stagger is all well and good to keep Gold Collar kids in Los Angeles from tossing their R8s backwards into the nearest row of palm trees, but with proper track rubber – perhaps 285-width Hoosier R6es in front and 305-width in back – the R8 would live up to the potential of the chassis and engine. At the very least, Audi should consider a wider, less staggered Michelin Pilot Sport Cup option. It would be the first change we’d make to ours.

All we want for Christmas; the lineup of “school cars” in Audi’s garage at Infineon Raceway .

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Or maybe we wouldn’t change a thing. For the truth is that although the R8 shines around a road course, it would be pure folly to spend the money (over $110,000 with the options, since we mentioned it) on an R8 just to drive around the track. Yes, it’s a fabulous track car, and very probably superior to anything short of a 911 GT3 RS in that regard. Still, building fabulous track cars isn’t all that tough. The history of automotive development is littered with cars which were stupendous on the track and merely stupid away from it. Building a great track rat isn’t enough – if it were, the Radical Prosport would be the world’s best car, and it clearly is not. To find the true excellence of the R8, we would have to forget about lap times, smoking brakes, and striped curbs.

Down the Silverado Trail in California’s Napa Valley, you will find nearly forty wineries awaiting your examination – but more importantly, you will find roads making Stelvio-esque passes up the hills to either side. Our R8, an R.tronic paddle-shifter with Magnetic Ride, was a little different from the six-speed, steel-sprung variants we’d run around Infineon, and perhaps better for it. Not everyone will enjoy the R.tronic gearbox, as it requires an educated throttle foot when crawling from stoplight to stoplight, but once the peculiarities are mastered it becomes quite rewarding. In automatic mode, it’s considerably better than Ferrari and Maserati’s semi-auto variants; set to manual control, shifts are firm and acceptably fast. More than that, the pleasure of clicking the paddles, combined with the no-flywheel feel of the engine, goads the driver to pick up the pace, again and again. Up a seemingly endless hill, the R8 was a partner in our aggression, shrinking the gaps between the tight turns as if we were operating a telephoto lens, and accepting our hurried steering corrections around blind, unknown curves.

Eighty-plus with a blind right-angle turn ahead? We hit the brake. As far as you know.

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Tighter and tighter twisted the turning road, until we could actually feel the Lamborghini-derived, all-wheel-drive transmission wind up under the steering lock – and then we’d made it to the top. Time to relax and shake out the tension of a rather irresponsible canyon run. Time to find the Magnetic Ride button and change it from “sport” to “comfort”.

Oh, wait. We’d been at “comfort” the whole time. Interesting. And now that we could stretch out a bit and fiddle with the outstanding stereo, the R8 was, in fact, quite comforting. To begin with, it has plenty of room, even for a tall driver. No Boxster ever had this kind of space around the shoulders, or the airy-feeling gap between the seats and the vertical rear window. To find this amount of room in an Audi sedan, you’ll need to skip the A4 and A6. This is A8 territory, with perhaps even a touch more room for knees thanks to a narrow console. The R8 superficially resembles a larger Audi TT from the outside, but inside there’s a much more hospitable environment.

Audi’s best-in-class MMI navigation-and-sound-and-everything-else-besides system is fully present in the R8, working just as it does in the A6 or A8. When the engine isn’t racing to its rev limiter, it’s rather subdued. The air conditioning system has large dashboard vents and, to paraphrase ZZ Top, knows how to use them. There’s no suggestion of heat or vibration from the engine behind the driver’s right shoulder. Truth be told, it feels a bit… luxurious. More than a bit. You could sit in rush-hour traffic with this car and not feel stressed the way you might in, say, a Z06 Corvette or 911 GT3. It would be possible to drive across the country in the R8 without any misery. Time spent in the R8 driving below the eight-tenths mark does not feel wasted, does not feel like an uncomfortable, fidgeting pause between all-out attacks on the road. There will certainly be customers who purchase this car and never run it to that splendid, 8250-rpm redline – but those customers will not feel that their money has been wasted.

Murilee Martin’s arms aside, this is an aesthetic masterpiece…

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With all respect to Mr. Setright, the Honda NSX was never really that much of a luxury car. It felt composed and decent enough on the road, but it had the composure of an Accord, not an S-class. The NSX provided the luxuries of swiftness, balance, and supple response, but when it was time to just sit in traffic and wait, the experience was more Civic DX than Silver Shadow. The promise of the NSX – a car with the performance of a Ferrari and the docility of a Cadillac – is fulfilled much better seventeen years later in this superlative supercar. It pampers two fortunate occupants in the manner of the best big German sedans while thrilling them on demand. It has the freeway demeanor of a luxury car and the back-road vigor of a mid-engined racer. For those who do not require a rear seat, it is very probably the best luxury car in the world. The magazines won’t understand; they’re too busy obsessing over quarter-mile times and bizarre comparisons with rear-engined four-seaters. The market may not understand, and it may forever be sold as a discount Lamborghini or German Ferrari. For those of us who do understand, however, the R8 sets the bar very high indeed. Best luxury car in the world? Setright would no doubt ask: Must we qualify that with the word luxury?

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Jack Baruth

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