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Audi’s mid-engine 2017 R8 raises the performance bar, and teaches Porsche a lesson

New York Daily News logo New York Daily News 7/17/2015 Jens Meiners

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Perhaps it's a generational thing, but in this writer's book, an honest supercar needs to have a mid-engine layout.

As a kid, I grew up with the occasional opportunity to ride along in a Porsche 928, a 930 Turbo, and the first-generation BMW 6-series. But I truly admired the mid-engined sports cars from Italy: The Ferrari 512 BB, the Maserati Bora, and the Lamborghini Countach. Not only is their layout unbeatable for driving dynamics (well, perhaps not the flawed Ferrari's), but the proportions and looks of a mid-engine supercar serve as the epitome of automotive aggressiveness.

When Audi launched its R8 supercar in 2006, its mid-engine layout was dictated by its exotic sibling, the Lamborghini Gallardo. Both of them were design masterpieces.

The Gallardo, Luc Donckerwolke's evolution of a Giugiaro proposal, was characterized by the brand's trademark angularity, without the clutter and fuss that adorns today's Lamborghinis. The R8, designed by Frank Lamberty, was a more sensual design, with unique trademark elements like the side blades. Both designs have stood the test of time - but, unlike Lamborghini, Audi has left the R8's looks alone for the entire duration of its recently terminated production run.

Related Link: Research Audi's Latest Models

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Unfortunately, we doubt that the new R8 will be considered as timeless as the first one. The highly evolutionary design adds a few edges and creases, but the blocky front end leaves us cold. The side view, on the other hand, serves up a nice variation of the "blade" theme, and the rear end has a pronounced resemblance with Lamborghini. The graphics of the R8 are not as spectacular as they could be, but the supercar proportions are still there.

While the exterior leaves a bit to be desired, the cabin of the new R8 is a leap forward. There is generous space for the driver and co-driver, with ample room behind the front seats to store bags. The dashboard is ultra-contemporary, with a reconfigurable TFT display in front of the driver, and angular, almost funky switchgear. The R8's dash somewhat resembles the TT, but the styling language is more extreme and the materials are more upscale, and all befitting a $180K supercar.

A push of the button wakes up the 5.2-liter V-10 with a bark that is sure to delight and gratify the entire neighborhood. In a world of sub-4.0-liter, twin-turbocharged performance engines, Audi's naturally aspirated V-10 engine is an anachronism. So much the better!

It revs up seamlessly to its lofty 8,850 rpm redline, accompanied by a voluminous crescendo that is louder in "Dynamic" mode, but more complex and multi-layered when the performance exhaust setting is switched off. Acceleration is almost frightful: With the uplevel 610-horsepower engine, 60 mph comes up in around 3 seconds, while top speed is a highly commendable 205 mph. Triple-digit speeds are always just a few seconds away; such is a permanent revocation of your driving privileges.

This car builds and shaves off speed with such ease that going the legal limit amounts to cruel and unjust punishment. The electric power steering is so quick and precise that no one will miss a hydraulic system. The rear-biased all-wheel drive system allows for easily controllable oversteer, and the R8 remains firmly planted, even on rough surfaces. Truly, this car's limits are sky-high, and it doesn't snap when you get there. No matter the situation, you always have an accurate idea what it is about to do next.

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That's thanks to a thorough chassis retuning, a redesigned all-wheel drive system, a far lower center of gravity, and total weight savings of around 100 lbs. More firmly planted than ever, the R8 teaches the Porsche 911 a lesson in safety and predictability - especially in wet driving conditions.

In "Comfort" setting, the R8 is actually a fantastic long-distance cruiser, a true "gran turismo" that doesn't wear you out, but soaks up the miles eagerly. The DL800 7-speed dual-clutch automatic is perfectly matched to the V-10 engine, although we wish Audi would still offer the predecessor's marvelous six-speed manual (if only for its beautiful open-gate shifter).

With the second model generation of the R8, Audi has not only reached new heights of desirability, it has taught its haughty, Stuttgart-based sister brand a valuable set of lessons. We'd take the R8 V10 - it comes with 540 or 610-horsepower - over a Porsche 911 any time.

And what's more, it proves something we have known all along: A real supercar simply needs to have its engine right in the center.


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