When Audi unveiled the R8 at the 2006 Paris Auto Show it shocked the world. In a time when Chevy was still selling the Cobalt, Ford was still selling the Crown Victoria, and where Kia and Hyundai were considered the bottom of the barrel, the R8 looked like it was from another planet. What’s more impressive is how the original version of the car still feels like it belongs in a Blade Runner movie, even though it’s been almost a decade and a half since it took to the streets.
The R8’s roots lie with the Audi Le Mans Quattro concept car, which debuted at the 2003 Frankfurt Motor Show. Drawing inspiration from Audi’s success at the 24 hours of Le Mans over the three previous years, the Le Mans Quattro was to be a picture of Audi’s future. It featured full LED headlights, an aluminum frame that was derived from the Lamborghini Gallardo, lightweight carbon fiber bodywork, an advanced magnetic ride suspension, a twin-turbocharged 5.0-liter V10 and Audi’s signature full-time all-wheel drive.
Concept cars rarely turn into anything, much less anything that looks like what they’re pushing, so it came as a surprise to many when the Audi R8 was unveiled a few years later. Named after the dominating prototype race car that took the gold at Le Mans five times 2000-2006, the R8 actually looked remarkably similar to the Le Mans Quattro concept. The production R8 featured many of the same features highlighted by the concept, including magnetic-ride suspension, carbon fiber bodywork, an aluminum frame, and the signature multi-LED headlights that became Audi’s oft-imitated calling card for the next decade or so.
Most people were first introduced to the R8 through the original Iron Man movie starring Robert Downey Jr., where it was Tony Stark’s choice for quickly weaving through traffic in order to get to a red carpet event. In many ways it was the perfect car for the brilliant and wealthy magnate, as it was fast, futuristic, and looked extremely expensive. However, the R8 was designed not as a car for the ultra rich like Tony, but instead it was designed to be fairly accessible.
While the R8 may have had the space-age looks of a supercar, it was an incredibly down to earth vehicle. Unlike Ferraris and Lamborghinis, the R8 was designed to be used everyday, with a price point close to mirroring that of the ubiquitous Porsche 911. Instead of aiming at tycoons, athletes, and celebrities, the R8 was built for successful doctors and small-business owners. Audi wanted people to drive the R8 daily instead of keeping it hidden away except for a couple of times a year.
To that end, it was comfortable and quiet, and featured an interior that was reminiscent of many existing Audi luxury cars. Instead of an exotic high-strung engine that required specialists to service it like most supercars, the R8 featured the same 414 horsepower 4.2-l V8 that could be found in the Audi RS4, as well as an fairly conventional optional automatic transmission (although the best configuration was with the six-speed manual with a gated shifter).
Additionally, the R8 didn’t require any special skills to drive quickly. The R8 communicated its intentions through its well balanced chassis, while the magnetic suspension and advanced all-wheel drive system made sure that power was applied exactly where it was needed for maximum grip. The result was a car that could boast a time of the 14-mile Nurburgring Nordschlife in just 7 minutes and 55 seconds, a time that was only 13 seconds off the pace of the Porsche 911 GT3, a veritable track car for the road.
The R8 continued to evolve throughout its first generation, spawning out a variety of trims and editions. The first major spinoff was the 5.2 FSI quattro which replaced the car’s V8 with a V10 derived from Lamborghini, giving the R8 an extra 111 horsepower and lowering the 0-60 time to just 3.9 seconds. It was also the first ever production car equipped with all-LED headlights, and included bigger brakes, interior enhancements and a new exhaust.
The V10 engine edition of the R8 was soon followed by a Spyder edition, which took the roof off of the 5.2 FSI and was subsequently followed by a convertible version of the V8-powered R8 as well. The ultimate performance type of the original R8 line was the R8 GT, which took the V10 version and lightened it while increasing power.
These days, the R8 is in its second generation. While still a very compelling vehicle, the design hasn’t radically changed but it’s moved significantly upmarket. The V8 and manual transmission are no longer available, and with that the price has inflated to $170,000. While it still isn’t Ferrari price territory, the R8 is no longer the everyman’s supercar. The current generation is set to be replaced in 2020, and full-electric versions are expected.
Regardless of the current state, the original R8 is absolutely timeless in design. It will continue to look relevant ten years from now, even if originally it was a bit polarizing. Its accessibility was notable, even if that exotic design was probably responsible for the need to move it upmarket. But overall, it was just a great car that has no true equal on the marketplace today.