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The new Audi R8 5.2 V-10: It makes 105 more horsepower than its 4.2-litre V-8 predecessor and tops out at 316 km/h. The styling isn't bad either. (Abdruck fuer Pressezwecke honora)
The new Audi R8 5.2 V-10: It makes 105 more horsepower than its 4.2-litre V-8 predecessor and tops out at 316 km/h. The styling isn't bad either. (Abdruck fuer Pressezwecke honora)

Audacious Audi

Audi aims to become the biggest premium car maker Add to ...

The Audi R8 Quattro, the 420-horsepower version with its V-8, is a motoring beast - a $141,000 mating of verve and vroom. And it's a mere toy, the slightest of baubles, compared with the 525-hp R8 5.2 with its V-10 motor. Now that car is scary fast.

I know this because, in attempting to drive the daylights out of it, I had one of the great pucker moments of my life. It was on the 12-turn, twisty-turny, up-and-down Sears Point Raceway road course (4.06 kilometres) where I had my latest, and likely not last, hair-raising and completely sobering encounter with overenthusiastic overconfidence.

A little background on the car. With a 5.2-litre V-10 engine growling just behind me (the R8 is a mid-engine) and quattro all-wheel drive to put power at all four corners, the performance here is astonishing. The ultrabuff design is a head-turning knockout, too: LED headlights, aluminum body with a very curvaceous rear-end treatment, and classic white paint with black highlights.

But the real point is, the V-10 makes 105 more horses than the 4.2-litre V-8 R8, 78 more lb-ft of torque, gets to 100 kilometres an hour in 3.9 seconds and has a top speed of 316 km/h. Bury the throttle and you're away so fast, your retinas momentarily separate from your eyeballs.

This super sports car has not just a powerful engine, but agile handling and fiendishly strong brakes, too.In a nutshell, we're talking about Italian styling combined with German engineering. What a brand builder.

My own personal brand came close to ending at Turn 2, a fairly sharp yet high-speed right-hander. If you know the track, you know this is not the toughest piece at Sears Point, so it's a little embarrassing to get into this.

But this R8 - what Audi types describe as "a mobile billboard for the Audi brand" - is so responsive and so balanced, I found myself coming into the turn hot, tempted into being just a little overaggressive.

Nooo … . Not good. Not good at all.

I reacted well, under the circumstances, but the driving nannies - electronic stability control and quattro employed just at the moment of truth - truly saved the day, and my skin. (I can be thick-headed and obtuse at times, but I am not crazy; I left the anti-skid device on, folks.)

What a car. In a blink, I was back on my line and flogging the car for all its worth - which, at a base price of $173,000, is considerable.

Still, brilliant as it is, this car is not for everyone. Too expensive, too exotic and too rare. Perhaps a total of 1,200 R8s will be sold a year in Canada and the United States combined.

But Audi officials argue that the R8 is the perfect "halo" car; it casts an image of top-notch engineering, technology and beauty right across the Audi line. It also says that Audi aims to become the world's biggest and best premium car maker by the middle of this decade.

So Audi is looking to surpass BMW, now the world's leading premium car maker and Mercedes-Benz, which closely follows. That's bold. Audi will need to boost sales by several hundred thousand to get there, or see sales at BMW and Mercedes collapse. We'll see.

We do know that Audi delivered 1,003,469 cars to customers in 2008 - 4.1 per cent ahead of the previous year - and the goal is to get to 1.5 million a year within five years or so. More models will be needed for that. Thus, over the next seven years, Audi will increase its vehicle range from the current 28 models to 40.

This year, globally, Audi is faring reasonably well given the global financial crisis. Sales in Canada are up 26.7 per cent so far this year and, in August, they jumped a staggering 89.6 per cent. But around the world, sales were down about 10 per cent through the first six months - though Audi still expects to make a full-year profit approaching about $2-billion.

Not bad, given that Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler lost more than €1-billion (about $1.5-billion) in the second quarter alone and BMW barely eked out a small profit in the same period. Audi's balance sheet looks good compared with its key rivals.

The aluminum-bodied R8, of course, is the designated head turner in Audi's lineup and the V-10 version is the cherry on the cake. All very nice.

But the cars that really matter - the ones that sell in big numbers - are the A3s, A4s and A6s of the world. Audi pushes the perception that these, too, are expertly engineered and well made by using the R8 as the brand halo, and churning out various high-performance derivatives such as the S4 and S5.

Audi also is trading on its eye-catching designs. Outside of Canada and the United States, eight wins in 11 years using diesel-powered cars at the 24 Hours of Le Mans have helped to boost the brand's hot-shoe credentials, not to mention giving diesel technology a racy profile.

New models this year such as the Q5, a junior sibling to the full-sized Q7 SUV, and the Q7 TDI diesel, are also giving Audi a boost here in Canada and elsewhere. Hybrid versions of the Q5 and Q7 are reportedly in the works, as is a diesel-powered Q5. Audi is co-operating with Porsche to develop very interesting gasoline-electric hybrid technology.

What would look particularly good in Canada is the A1 going on sale next year. For now, Audi is unlikely to bring it here, given concerns about the A1 cannibalizing sales of the A3.

Meanwhile, on the economic and environmental fronts, Audi likes diesel technology as the best way to cut emissions and lower fuel consumption for the near term. Diesels are not a particularly hard sell in Canada and the Q5 diesel seems like a sure bet.

But in the United States, diesels for many remain nothing more than dirty, noisy, sluggish and unreliable powerplants and certainly not something associated with a premium brand. That image with the vital U.S. consumer will not be easily overcome.

Audi will keep at it, though, and given the company's strong financial position - real and relative to its key German rivals - Volkswagen's big premium brand should not be underestimated. Five years ago, most analysts did not believe Audi was truly competitive against BMW and Mercedes, but the gap has been closing quickly. Quality, however, as measured by the various mainstream studies, still needs work.

All things considered, Audi is moving scary fast as a company, not unlike the R8 with the V-10 motor that took me right to the edge.

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