May 17th, 2010

Is the R8 Audi’s iPod?

The Audi R8 has been with us for nearly five years now and it is still fresh faced. One reason for this is that Audi keep treating us to little updates which keep on making it better and better. We started with a V8, then boosted it up to a V10, have the possibility of chopping the roof off, nearly had a diesel, may have an electric and now we have a lightweight R8.

This all seems very clever because these additions are making the R8 still seem new, but fundamentally it is also making people cough up for the latest model. This nature of squeezing as much out of one car while constantly updating the line-up makes good business sense. In many ways the R8 follows Apple’s philosophy.

When the R8 first came on the scene it was a bit of a shock. Could the four rings really make a supercar? They had a pretty good record in motor sport; especially with the R8′s racing name sake winning Le Mans five out of the seven times it competed. Audi also had a pretty good parts bin to rummage around in being part of the VW group.

The Volkswagen Group comprises of nine active automotive companies, one of them being Scania – the lorry company. Luckily Audi stayed away from that section of the garage and headed for Lamborghini.

The Audi R8 shares its basic layout, transmissions, all-wheel drive and a modified version of its aluminium space frame with the Lamborghini Gallardo. Although, the majority of the car (about 85%) was developed by Audi and their in-house tuner Quattro GmbH, the R8 is a different beast to the Italian bull.

The first generation R8 had a V8 engine thrown in the middle and if we run with the Apple comparison it is the original iPod. 420bhp, 4.2 litres, 0-62mph in 4.6sec and a top speed of 187mph, Audi’s stats said a lot before people had even driven the car. Aesthetically the package gave something different to the other European supercars Audi were competing with. The R8 was more refined, more German but also had a performance feel with the skin trapping click-clack 6 speed manual transmission.

The reviews were all good for Audi on their first attempt. Great ride and handling mated to the legendary Quattro four wheel drive system meant you could get out of most drifts whilst drawing what you were doing on an Etch A Sketch. But we felt cheated, we knew that Audi was planning to plonk something bigger behind the rear seats and we wanted to get closer to the hallowed ground of 200mph. We needed an iPod with video.

Luckily Audi dropped a bomb in December 2008 as they announced a R8 which would use a 5.2 litre FSI engine, based on the unit in the Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4.With figures bouncing around of 518 bhp, and 530 newton metres of torque everyone looked at the sky and said “thank you”. As soon as testers fired the V10 up and heard the snarl and crackle everyone looked round and said this is what the R8 should have been.

Was it smart business sense for Audi to tease us like this? Well I guess so. The changes to the v10 weren’t massive apart from the engine as it only got prettier lights, a louder sound system (not that you need it) and special wheels. But these little tweaks appeal to the material cyborg which human beings have become – we need the latest product. That is why a number of dealers saw people who had the ‘old’ R8 V8 come in and cough up £112,500 for a V10. So why have Audi just decided to release a new lightweight hardcore R8 GT? Well the iPod video was so last year darhhhling! It is all about the iPhone now.

We all know that lightweight cars are good (insert Colin Chapman quote here), so when sister company Lamborghini had been taking all its cars to Weight Watchers it was about time that Audi sent the R8 to boot camp.

The 5.2-liter V10 in the R8 GT now squeezes out 560 hp while 100kg has been lost. The weight loss programme was not conducted by a gastric band but by adding thinner glass, polycarbonate rear windows and replacing many aluminium body panels with carbon fibre. This weight saving equates to 0-60 in 3.6 seconds and a top speed of 199mph with Audi’s new ‘R-Tronic’ hydraulically actuated semi-automatic gearbox.

A new fixed wing and rounder exhausts the size of ‘the Chunnel’ means a louder and more aggressive BWWWWARPPP to please your ears. But like when the iPhone came out, this R8 is only for the hardcore fans as only 333 Audi R8 GTs will be made and 33 will be sent to Britain. But don’t think the R8 GT is the tip of Audi’s supercar iceberg; they have plans for the future. After finding their feet in the crowded supercar market, Audi now want to shake things up with a bit of alternative propulsion.

Audi were arguably the first supercar company to experiment with alternative fuel supercars. Since the incarnation of the R8 there were always rumours of a diesel powered R8. “Diesel supercar!” people were shouting and choking on their words simultaneously. The Audi R8 V12 TDI was debuted in 2008 at the North American International Auto Show and from the outset was seen as a game changer.

Using VW’s turbodiesel technology which has propelled Audi to Le Mans victory, the road going version spat out some incredible statistics – especially in the torque department. A thousand newton metres of the stuff which would make the diesel the first R8 to crack 200mph. Having a V12 TDI required more cooling than the standard R8, hence the NACA duct in the roof to feed additional air in to the engine but more importantly it makes the R8 look badass. The vents on the front and back of the car were also increased by 20% to make the car running on black less asthmatic.

The idea of a diesel supercar sounded great, people started to clamber together to turn the revolutionary wheel. But then the R8 TDI got sent to the finance department where it received three big red crosses by the guys with calculators. Audi decided to halt plans to produce the R8 TDI, citing “the cost of re-engineering the petrol R8 to accommodate the massive twin-turbocharged diesel engine is simply too great – and that it would be unable to recoup its investment through sales alone”. Balls. So what happens now? The TDI was Audi’s iPad, set to change the field for ever and now it was nothing. Well Audi prevailed and saw that the future was electric.

Down but not out with the loss of the V10, Audi hit back at Frankfurt at the 2009 Frankfurt Motor Show with an all electric R8, the e-Tron. “Sacrilege” people cried out, I thought what a great idea. The e-Tron would re-invent the quattro all with drive system.

By placing an electric motor on each wheel torque would be distributed individually and evenly. And we are not talking small amounts of torque, we are talking biblical amounts of the stuff. Four. Thousand. Five. Hundred. Newton metres of torque. Wait … digest that for a second. Now let me put that in perspective. The well known zippy electric benchmark is the Tesla roadster, its maximum torque is 270 newton metres. See electric supercars will be good, just like the iPad will dictate the way we read items like this in a few years times, cars like the e-Tron will dictate what the rich boys will be driving.

At this point I must stress that the e-Tron is only a concept car. It could all go tits up like the diesel R8, but lets hope it doesn’t. Audi seems pretty serious about going electric too as they showed a slightly smaller e-Tron and then an all electric A1 at the Geneva Motor Show.

So is the R8 Audi’s iPod? Well you can’t fault Audi for the way they have gone about the first supercar to brandish four rings. The R8 has made a name for itself and the constant technological and mechanical progression means that it is here to stay.

The R8 can be seen to be on an accelerated Porsche 911 course as the R8 line-up  has started to become as diverse as the 911 range within just five years. We have a base model, a faster one, an even faster and louder one, a race car and even maybe an electric one. That kind of diversity has taken Porsche nearly 50 years. Is this a good thing? Of course it is, if we didn’t have manufacturers like Audi sticking all their fingers and thumbs in every pie possible car manufacturing would be a boring game to be in.

Features . News