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Friday, August 29, 2008

America's Best Handling Car - The Audi R8

By Kim Reynolds, Arthur St. Antoine, Frank Markus
Photography by Julia LaPalme, Brian Vance

VIDEO: CLICK HERE to see the conclusion video of the series featuring the Audi R8. And if you haven't already, be sure to read the instrument test and track testing portions of the series.

If handling were simply about lap times and lateral-g numbers, the awesome Dodge Viper ACR would have run away with this test. But as our data show, and as Randy Pobst confirmed, handling is about nuance and consistency. If you look closely at the graphs, the diagrams, and the computer traces from our objective testing, three cars consistently produced the smoothest curves, or the most closely grouped data points: Audi R8, BMW M3, and Nissan GT-R. And two of those three-the R8 and the M3-figured right at the top of Pobst's subjective rankings. Before we get to our winner, though, let's review the finishing order from 10th place on up.

Pobst loved his laps in the Ford Shelby GT500KR (10th place), exiting the car while whooping and hollering as if he'd just won the Daytona 500. "Man! That was fun!" he crowed. Yet after the adrenaline rush had subsided, Pobst admitted that, while the KR was a gas to hurl around Laguna Seca's curves, in terms of sheer handling performance it left much to be desired -- a view confirmed by our instrumented tests and on-road drives. The Shelby finished 9th in our lane-change runs, 6th in step-steer reaction time, and next to last in ride quality. One look at the KR's computer tracing in our figure-eight test sums up its overall handling flavor: messy. The Shelby team has massaged the old live-axle Mustang chassis well enough to bring out the boy racer even in a racing pro, but in this sophisticated field the GT500KR comes off as decidedly old-school.

The first car Pobst drove on the track, the Chevrolet Cobalt SS (9th Place) left the hot shoe nodding his head in admiration. "A really fine effort," said Pobst. And while the Chevy didn't produce any apex-rattling numbers, it proved composed and adroit at most handling chores. Check out it's figure-eight tracing: neat and tight, albeit with relatively low limits. Lane-change responsiveness finished just ahead of the Shelby, and ride quality proved far better than the Viper's or KR's. Given that it's an affordable, front-drive sedan, the Cobalt SS earned lots of thumbs-up for showing well against the big guys.


In the Mini Cooper S (8th place), again we see an adeptly tuned, midpriced front-driver. Though slowest in lane-change responsiveness and step-steer reaction time, the Mini produced a tightly grouped figure-eight tracing and finished midpack in ride quality. Pobst loved its handling balance, noting that the tail will wag helpfully but controllably in turns. "Confidence-inspiring," was Pobst's summation.

Undoubtedly many of you are in shock: the mighty Dodge Viper ACR -- a race car drivable on the street -- in 7th place? Ah, but now the more enlightened among you realize there's much more to handling prowess than simply cranking out crushing g readings or scorching lap times. Driving the ACR is like riding in a centrifuge: It's awesome, intimidating, brutal. The numbers are there all right: highest lateral g, quickest lap time, quickest step-steer reaction time, second-best in the lane change. But now take a look at the Viper's figure-eight tracing. Rather than being a tight, smoothly arced group, it looks as if someone spilled a carton of ping-pong balls in a circle. The Viper is all over the place. Pobst commented that, while he enjoyed the experience, he was constantly working the ACR through transitions. Ride quality is simply terrible, akin to riding a dump truck down a dirt road. And out in the real world, on the twisty roads sports cars are truly intended for, the Viper darts and hammers where other machines flow and glide. Shock and awe: 10. Finesse: 0.

The lowest-scoring all-wheel-drive ride in our test, the Mitsubishi Evo MR (6th place) pleased Pobst with its fine cornering balance and its uncanny ability to put the power down everywhere -- even in the cliff-drop Corkscrew. The Mitsu produced a nice, smooth trace through the figure eight, finished 4th in the lane change, scored an impressive 3rd in step-steer reaction time, and landed 7th in ride quality. It's still a Lancer sedan, though, which means a relatively high center of gravity. Also, while the MR feels stable and composed up to nine tenths, when you step over the limit it lets go fast. Higher-finishing cars deliver more warning before they break loose.


Pobst loves Porsches (he owns an old 911 Turbo), and while he thoroughly enjoyed hot-lapping the new 911 Turbo (5th place), in the end he could place it no higher than fourth on his personal scorecard. "Demands full attention from the driver," he noted-meaning, you've got to stay on top (and even ahead) of the 911 Turbo, or it's going to bite. Step-steer reaction time: midpack. Lane change: midpack. Ride quality: second best. Figure-eight trace: mostly tight with a few big wiggles. Porsche has taken the rear-engine layout further than most probably believed it could ever go, but even with all-wheel drive, there's still a lot of weight swinging around way out back. Both on the track and during our road drives, we observed a few lurid snaps of the tail. To win a best-handling test, a car has to be more predictable and stable than this 911 Turbo. Last year, the Porsche GT3 ran away from the field (try as we might, we could not obtain either a GT3 or its more potent GT2 sibling for this test). The 911 Turbo, however, finishes solidly in the middle.

There is perhaps no better proof of our "the numbers don't tell the whole story" mantra than the Mazda RX-8 (4th place). This isn't a fast car, as its lap time proves. It doesn't shine in the lane change or in ride quality. Steep-steer reaction time is third-best. Yet the Mazda is the very definition of "elegant." Pobst ranked it third on his finishing list. We practically had to yank a few of our exuberant test drivers out of the car, lest they drift the rear tires into smoky oblivion. The steering is alive in your hands, communicative and light. The RX-8 goes where you point it-no second-guesses, no hiccups. Out on public roads, it slips through turns like Hermes silk pulled through a scarf ring. It doesn't beat you up, take unexpected slide trips, or force you to work hard. This is handling hard-wired to your synapses. That three cars finished higher than the RX-8 only shows just how good they are.

We expected the new BMW M3 (3rd place) to finish strong; it's simply one of our all-around favorite cars. Pobst gushed over its sublime responsiveness and grace, scoring it second. On our instrumented tests, the BMW delivered a second-best step-steer time, midpack lane-change speed, a top-place finish in ride quality, and one of the smoothest, tightest traces (despite high performance limits) on our figure-eight test. Most important, the M3 delivers handling performance you can utilize fully on your favorite roads. Steering feel, balance, chassis feedback, grip-the M3 covers every important base as few other cars in the world today can.


Pobst wasn't blown away by Godzilla, ranking it only fifth due to a tendency to snap into oversteer at the limit (a behavior easily mitigated by not switching off the various stability systems). The rest of us, though, came away from our handling test thoroughly bowled over by the Nissan GT-R (2nd place). A review of the numbers shows high finishes everywhere: third in ride quality, fastest lane change, fifth in step-steer reaction time, quickest off-center steering response, a near-textbook figure-eight trace. Nissan's computerized, all-wheel-drive superstar works wonders, delivering lofty performance numbers and the deft handling feel that enthusiasts crave. So why didn't it win? As noted, its limit behavior when its stability computers are sleeping can be tricky. And while the GT-R is undeniably majestic at full bore, at more routine chores its supercar breeding vanishes. "Almost boring when all the computers aren't firing away," said tech editor Reynolds. "On the cruise home it felt like a Sentra."

Which brings us to our winner, a near-unanimous choice from Pobst through our road-test staff. "In another world compared with the other cars here," said Pobst of the Audi R8 (1st place). "So sweet," said road-tester Scott Mortara. "Lots of steering feel, great grip, but a compliant ride, too," noted editor MacKenzie. Each driver was describing the same qualities: On track or road, the R8 is Baryshnikov-fluid yet controlled, graceful yet dynamic. The figure-eight tracing is smooth and tight, with high limits but gentle transitions. Step-steer reaction time is fourth, lane-change third, ride quality fourth. The numbers only hint at the overall handling excellence, though. At any speed, you feel the delicate transparency of the steering, the supple yet confident chassis control, the crisp turn-in. Offered a weekend off to exploit the twirls and twists of Southern California's beckoning hills, the Audi R8-a car we've experienced from the Corkscrew to the salt flats of Utah's Black Rock Desert-is the car we'd most want to pilot, the machine with magic in its mid-engine, quattro-fed chassis. Why, in just a turn or two, the R8 even makes second-thoughts disappear.