From the July 2007 issue of Car and Driver.
We have here a trio of extraordinary automobiles that defy convenient semantic packaging. Sports cars? Yes, but that’s pretty tame. After all, a Mazda Miata is a sports car, too, and we’re obviously way beyond Miatas here. Supercars? That doesn’t really work, either, because what about genuine supercars—the Koenigsegg CCX, for example, or the Ferrari Enzo. If we call the Audi R8 a supercar, what do we call them? Superdupercars? Same problem with the word exotic. If a Bugatti Veyron is an exotic—and who would argue otherwise?—then an Aston Martin is a subexotic? What would James Bond have to say about that? Not that his opinion counts, since the last movie made it clear he shouldn’t drive anything faster than a Toyota Prius.
But if this threesome resists handy one-word descriptors, it’s clear that these are rare rides, far enough beyond the ordinary to stimulate the envy glands of just about anyone who sees them. Cars for the fortunate few, but for all that, just close enough to the realm of mortals to be reasonable candidates for everyday transportation. Well, almost reasonable. Reasonable if you happen to have a mid-six-figure income and live in a two-season climate.
Let us scrutinize the players.
The rear-wheel-drive V-8 Vantage combines traditional Aston Martin virtues—elegantly swoopy sheetmetal and an isn’t-that-James-Bond persona—with dynamic elements that are wholly contemporary, yielding the first Aston in recent memory that seems capable of competing with the perennial benchmark of the supercar-wannabe class, the Porsche 911.
C/D regulars will recall that in three recent comparo appearances, Porsche 911s have been found wanting in one way or another, first against the V-8 Vantage [“Working Exotics,” March 2006], then against a Corvette Z06 and Ferrari F430 [“The Sports-Car World Cup,” September 2006], and finally versus the R8 [“Incestuous Infighting,” April 2007].
For this confrontation, we altered the mix. The all-wheel-drive Turbo is the largest-caliber weapon in the 911 armory (at least until the brutish GT2 makes its appearance this fall) and more luxurious than the GT3, which seemed to make it a more appropriate opponent for the R8, which also has all-wheel drive.
Named for the race car that was unbeatable in five appearances at the Le Mans 24-hour race, the R8 represents an ambitious step up for Audi, a mid-engined two-seater offering enough speed to get you arrested within a couple city blocks and looks-like-a-supercar-to-me styling. The message is clear: Audi is not content with its role as third among Germanic equals, and the R8 represents a formidable bid for unconditional performance parity. We are talkin’ serious strudel now, liebchen. No more Herr Biedermeister (German for “Mr. Nice Guy”).
Would the R8 measure up? We gathered the contenders and headed for the California high desert and Willow Springs International Raceway to find out.
Third Place: Aston Martin V-8 Vantage
When we threw a V-8 Vantage into the ring with a Porsche Carrera S, we weren’t astonished by the result, but we were a little surprised by a couple of scoring categories that helped it carry off the first-place trophy. Styling? No shock there. The Aston’s angular body and classic GT-coupe proportions—long hood, short rear deck, fast windshield, aggressive stance—stand out in any crowd. But there were two scoring results that really got our attention, both of them subjective. Although the Carrera S prevailed in every objective test category—acceleration, braking, lane change, skidpad—our test crew preferred the Aston’s handling and also found it more entertaining to drive. Wow.
HIGHS: Appealingly edgy update on classic GT-coupe shape, smooth operator on rough pavement, irresistible V-8 growl.
LOWS: A bit too much body roll, nervous under hard braking, short on muscle among these heavy lifters.
So, could Her Majesty’s sexy two-seater keep pace in even faster company? The short answer: no. The Audi R8 prevailed against all comers, and we think it would have prevailed had we added other players to the games—the BMW M6, for one. But the Aston did run the 911 Turbo a very good race, ultimately missing second place by about 100 horsepower and 203 pound-feet of torque. In fact, in the mind of our Aaron Robinson, a man given to occasional fits of Anglophilia—we suspect he believes aeronautical development reached its peak with Britain’s WWII Spitfire fighter—the V-8 Vantage held an edge over its German rival.
But his was a minority opinion. We all agreed the Aston is a car that would qualify as beautiful at any gathering. The Audi turns more heads with its radical looks and LED eyeliners, but the Aston Martin is a classic beauty, with enough creases and character detailing to keep it current.
We were also unanimous in our appreciation of the Aston’s ride quality, which was supple by the standards of cars in this class. But that ride quality came at the expense of chassis compromises—and consequent body roll—that made the Aston a reluctant warrior on the track, reluctance magnified by darty behavior under hard braking.
The other element that held the V-8 Vantage back in this derby was its V-8. A slightly expanded edition of Jaguar’s AJ-V8 (4.3 liters versus 4.2), the Aston’s eight delivers 380 horsepower and 302 pound-feet of torque. Mated to a rather stiff-shifting six-speed manual gearbox and the highest curb weight in the group, this combo produced results that were more than respectable—0-to-60 in 5.1 seconds, the quarter-mile in 13.5 at 106 mph—but slow by the group standards.Other objective results were similar: an excellent 0.93-g run on the skidpad that was nevertheless third best; a fine stop from 70 mph in 165 feet, also third best; and a 64.1-mph performance in the lane change—not bad, but ditto.
On mountain roads, the Aston was easy to drive rapidly and would have been a very enjoyable companion for a solo run on a sunny afternoon. But we had to pedal hard to keep the Aston in touch with the faster cars, whereupon driving it became more like work than fun. “An 8/10ths car in a 10/10ths game,” wrote one driver, which sums up the V-8 Vantage versus these opponents.
THE VERDICT: A stylish GT sophisticate that’s a little out of its depth among these thoroughbreds.
2007 Aston Martin V-8 Vantage
380-hp V-8, 6-speed manual, 3600 lb
Base/as-tested price: $117,150/$129,110
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 5.1 sec
100 mph: 12.3 sec
130 mph: 21.5 sec
1/4 mile: 13.5 sec @ 106 mph
Braking, 70-0 mph: 165 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.93 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 13 mpg
Second Place: Porsche 911 Turbo
Aside from having the brake pedal go right to the floor at an inopportune moment (that would be pretty much any moment), nothing erodes a driver’s confidence more than a sense that the rear end of his car is eager to beat the front end into a turn.
The Porsche’s brakes didn’t provoke any doubt. They were always there, always strong; our test car had the optional ($8840) carbon-ceramic brakes. But cornering was another story. When we hustled the car around the fast Willow Springs track, we found ourselves countersteering a lot more than anyone found comfortable. And this with the new Porsche Stability Management engaged.
HIGHS: Omigawd thrust, never-fade brakes, limpet grip, gorgeous interior treatment, maximum Porsche mystique.
LOWS: Spooky at the limits of adhesion, high interior noise levels, Prussian ride quality, snoot scrapes on driveway ramps.
“Spring-loaded for oversteer,” read a logbook notation. Not a plus in slow corners; paranoia territory in fast ones, and Willow Springs has some very fast ones. So we were cautious during timed lapping, with a predictable consequence. The Porsche was blazingly fast on Willow’s straights, but we posted quicker lap times with the Audi. As well as quicker lane-change speeds. We left Willow Springs with respect for the Porsche’s power and relentless braking, tempered by wariness concerning what it might do if a driver were a little injudicious with the throttle. In the days that followed, though, fed a diet of demanding mountain roads, the 911 Turbo’s performance slowly restored the test crew’s confidence.
More on that in a minute. First, a quick hardware review. The 911 Turbo series dates to 1976 in the U.S. and continues to be the ultimate aspirational ride for true Porschephiles. Obviously, there have been changes over the decades: more power, more refinement, more money. But the basic concept continues—engine over the rear wheels, some 60 percent of the mass at the rear, and a profile that’s become almost too familiar.
Thanks to the water jacketing added to the classic flat-six engine in 1998, the profile has also become very snooty. There’s a lot of Porsche extending beyond the front wheels—that’s where the radiators live—and it’s difficult to guide the car up a driveway ramp without scraping the chin spoiler.
But that and other minor irritations—ride quality that can be occasionally harsh, for example, especially with the dampers in sport mode, and high noise levels—are offset by the rush that goes with the Porsche’s 3.6-liter twin-turbo flat-six. The well of torque—505 pound-feet—seems bottomless, with a curve as flat and endless as Nebraska. Hitched to a 3520-pound car—lightest in this group—the boxer six produces face-distorting hustle: 0-to-60 in 3.8 seconds and even more impressive midrange punch. Spot a hole in freeway traffic, and the Porsche is there. Think teleportation.Okay, this Turbo’s acceleration numbers weren’t quite as quick as those posted by the car we tested in Europe last September, but we put this down, in part, to conditions—high winds, dirty pavement—that also slowed the Audi R8. But if you’re a torque junkie, the 911 Turbo offers a big fix that’s always as close as your right foot.
As noted, confidence in the Turbo’s dynamics ramped back up during two days of mountain-road action. Grip from the hefty Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 tires was abundant; the steering nearly matched the Audi’s for accuracy and feel; the brakes made us begin to believe they’re worth the extra dough; the six-speed manual gearbox was reasonably precise; and the twin-turbo six delivered huge helpings of power, regardless of gear choice. The R8 was easier to drive quickly, but the Porsche’s power covered that disparity.
In addition to addictive power, the Porsche got high marks for its beautifully crafted interior, including the optional adaptive bucket seats ($1145), with everything clad in handsome dark cocoa leather ($430). There were other extras—GT Silver Metallic paint ($2380) and the Sport Chrono package ($1840) prominent among them—that made this a rather pricey example of the breed. Still, for the base price—$123,760—you get all the essentials, including the monster engine. The 911 Turbo may not provide the kind of driving delight we experienced in the Audi R8, but absolute power in a legendary sports car is still a combination that’s absolutely seductive.
THE VERDICT: For 911 addicts who have no wish to be cured, Porsche Sturm und Drang just doesn’t get any better than this.
2007 Porsche 911 Turbo
480-hp twin-turbo flat-6, 6-speed manual, 3520 lb
Base/as-tested price: $123,760/$141,510
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 3.8 sec
100 mph: 9.2 sec
130 mph: 16.2 sec
1/4 mile: 12.2 sec @ 117 mph
Braking, 70-0 mph: 159 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.98 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 14 mpg
First Place: Audi R8
If we express the essence of the 911 Turbo and R8 in musical terms, the Porsche feels like Wagner: Think “Ride of the Valkyries”–thrilling, but also dark and brooding, tinged with Götterdämmerung. The Audi, in contrast, feels like lighthearted Mozart: Think “Eine kleine Nachtmusik.”
Where the Porsche is purposeful, the R8 is playful. And if the Audi can’t quite match the headlong rush of the 911 Turbo, no one could call it slow. The direct-injection 4.2- liter V-8 delivers 420 horsepower at 7800 rpm and 317 pound-feet of torque at 4500. The output tends toward peaky and lacks the Porsche’s immense tidal wave of torque, but the gearing of the six-speed manual gearbox is well matched to the V-8’s power characteristics, yielding consistent 0-to-60 runs in the low-four-second range—4.3 in this test—with the quarter-mile flashing by in 12.8 seconds at 112 mph.
HIGHS: Ballet-dancer balance and grace, eager responses, telepathic steering, internal combustion rarely sounds better.
LOWS: Proportions awkward from some angles, uncomfortable dead-pedal height, blind in the rear quarters.
Again, that’s a bit slower than our April performance but within Audi’s official performance forecasts. And the sounds that go with the R8 soaring toward peak revs are tough to beat for sheer internal-combustion audio. But that’s not what sets the 2008 R8 apart. This Audi provides a mix of speed, agility, and comfort that is unique among sports cars contending just below the realm of true supercars–the Ferrari F430, for example, or the Lamborghini Gallardo. In a three-day wring-out, no one put a wheel wrong, despite repeatedly taking the car to the limits of its Pirelli P Zero tires. Never a hint of snap oversteer. On the rare occasions when the rear tires began to lose grip, the loss was predictably progressive and easily managed.
What’s the magic formula here? All-wheel drive? Yes, but without the inherent understeer that goes with most all-wheel-drive cars, other Audis included. In this application, the torque split is biased toward the rear–never more than 35 percent to the front tires. Also, with the engine sitting longitudinally behind the cabin, weight distribution skews toward the rear of the car—44.1/55.9—but not so dramatically as in the Porsche. The 104.3-inch wheelbase (almost a foot longer than the Porsche’s), a dimension dictated by the mid-engine layout, helps enhance the stability index, too, and is a plus in ride quality that’s amazingly benign for this kind of car.
The R8 is wonderfully neutral, a trait augmented by steering that’s all but telepathic. Few cars provide a more intense feeling of partnership with their pilots, regardless of price. As one tester observed, the R8 “makes every driver a hero.”Demerits? Barely worth mentioning. It’s hard to see beauty in the contrasting-color “side blades” that shelter the engine-bay air scoops. The blades also contribute to hefty B-pillars that limit rear-quarter sightlines. Inside the car, the excellent seats, as supportive as the Porsche’s without being quite so snug, were mitigated by a broad dead pedal set on the same plane as the clutch and brake pedals—cramp-inducing after an hour or so. And as much as we liked the precise action of the six-speed manual gearbox, the clack-clack-clack that went with whacking the lever in its aluminum gate got a little old.
But most of this short list is stuff that would, with familiarity, become transparent or at least acceptable to an owner. Audi has achieved something exceptional: a user-friendly sports car with supercar attributes and everyday drivability.
Some questions remain. Can Audi sell a sports car at this price level? Wait and see on that one. If/when we see the rumored “S” version of this car, perhaps with the corporate gasoline V-10, or perhaps a turbo-diesel V-12, will we drop the asterisk from our supercar references? Ha. What do you think?
THE VERDICT: Sports-car perfection from an unexpected source.
2008 Audi R8
480-hp V-8, 6-speed manual, 3540 lb
Base/as-tested price: $109,720/$120,970
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 4.3 sec
100 mph: 10.7 sec
130 mph: 18.0 sec
1/4 mile: 12.8 sec @ 112 mph
Braking, 70-0 mph: 160 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.97 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 14 mpg
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