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First drive: Audi R8 – on sale June

Audi

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Review

Five seconds. That’s how long it took for a small crowd to gather round the Audi R8 during a driver changeover on the press launch in southern France.

Audi says it has never experienced such a response when launching a new car – and everyone testing the R8 encountered a similar reaction from the public (and in a couple of cases, the police). ‘Trés bien’ was the verdict of our impromptu focus group.

Very good is also the response from Audi executives when asked about demand for the R8.

Retailers have already collected more than 1,200 orders for Audi’s first ever mid-engined sports car, which doesn’t go on sale until June. With Audi expecting to complete 450 of these by the end of the year, and with an allocation of 750 in 2008, retailers should prepare prospective customers for a long wait.

Is it worth the wait? R8 has the looks and the performance, although there are two caveats – first, the chassis stiffness (see Behind the wheel) and second, the automatic R-tronic sequential gearbox. Audi decided against using the excellent dual-clutch DSG system due to the cost of developing one to handle the massive torque of the 4.2-litre V8.

But the single-clutch system is disappointing. The car pitches when climbing through the gears using the paddles, especially second to third, under both gentle and hard acceleration. Engage the sports setting and it feels as if each cog is being slammed into place with the aid of a sledgehammer.

It takes a bit of getting used to and requires feathering of the accelerator to smooth over the lurches.

Far better is the manual with its slick metallic change slots. It gives the driver involvement that the outstanding R8, with its urgent drive, poised road handling and thrilling engine note, demands.

R8’s four biggest rivals will be the Porsche 911 Carrera, Aston Martin V8 Vantage, Mercedes SL500 and Jaguar XKR. Its on-road performance is only bettered by the 911, and then only just, but its interior quality is matched by none. It’s a car for those who want a premium feel behind the wheel while they thrash the twisty roads.

Typical customers will be men aged 40-49 in a household with an income of £8,500 per month.

They will either be motor sport enthusiasts, buying into Audi’s Le Mans heritage, or prestige seekers.

The R8 name builds on Audi’s Le Mans successes. An R8 has won the race five times since 2000 and has filled the top three positions three times.

Given the expected demand, and restricted supply, CAP predicts sector leading residual values of 47% for a three-year/60,000-mile R8, but early purchasers should be able to get most of their money back if they decide to sell within a year, such is the level of exclusivity created by the long waiting list.

Behind the wheel

The R8 is superb. A whisker away from beating the sector-leading 911 on handling (it’s not quite as involving), the R8 more than matches it for engine performance.

The 4.2-litre V8, with its guttural burble at tickover, rising to a throaty howl under acceleration, is a thriller. It lays down all its power without a hint of torque steer, thanks to the four-wheel drive and 44/56 front-rear weight distribution.

On the track, the suspension set-up is perfect. The R8 is glued to the road with neither under nor over-steer apparent.

On the road, the magnetic damping system, which constantly adjusts the dampers to suit the road surface, can occasionally be caught out. With the sports setting selected, the body tenses up, but it results in a bumpy ride on anything other than the flattest surfaces.

That said, it’s a sports car and this firmness can be lived with. Given the buzz provided by the engine and the car’s handling abilities, the ride quality will not be a deal-breaker.

Price: £76,825-£82,025
Engine: 4.2-litre V8, 414bhp @ 7,800rpm; 317lb-ft @ 4,500-6,000rpm
Transmission: Six-speed man/auto four-wheel drive
Performance: (man) 0-62mph 4.6s; top speed 187mph
Efficiency: (man) 19.3mpg comb; 349g/km CO2
Rivals: Porsche 911 Carrera, Aston Martin V8 Vantage, Mercedes SL500, Jaguar XKR
Strength: Looks, performance, premium interior
Weakness: Auto gearbox, ride can be crashy
Opportunity: Grab sales from dominant 911
Threat: Given pre-orders, none
USP: Le Mans thrill in a road car

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