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Monday, September 29, 2008

MTM Supercharged R8

The 2008 Audi R8 MTM is a real Audi supercar, a raging, supercharged, 552-horsepower monster. We've been waiting to see if the R8 could evolve into something with enough brass to take on the Lamborghini supercars to which it owes its basic mechanical platform, and this car proves the R8 has the right kind of sports car DNA.

Until now we've only been able to guess at Audi's intentions for the R8 through a spy camera, as details and impressions of the Audi R8 TDI Le Mans, the R8 concept car powered by a 500-hp V12 diesel, have leaked out so slowly that the process is like water torture. Fortunately, Roland Mayer's Motoren Technik Mayer (MTM) outfit in Wettstetten, Germany, has taken up the challenge of improving the basic R8.

This is more than an imitation Lamborghini Gallardo. Thanks to supercharging, the 2008 Audi R8 MTM offers Lamborghini-caliber output from the 4.2-liter Audi V8, some 552 hp and 428 pound-feet of torque. The MTM-modified R8 is also more refined and even more comfortable than anything from the house of the Raging Bull in Sant'Agata, Italy.

Of course image is a curious thing, so spending $55,000 on extra hardware for an Audi of any kind would be a brave call. And this one in particular isn't the prettiest specimen. But for those who want the go without the full-on Italian show, you could just order up MTM's $26,000 engine conversion without the window dressing.

Supercar Surge
As we steer the 2008 Audi R8 MTM onto the track at Hockenheim, the 2.8-mile road-racing circuit used for the Grand Prix of Germany, the burbling V8 rips into life with a stab of throttle and the car explodes down the road like pipe-bomb shrapnel. If this is a glimpse into the future of the R8, then the Lamborghini Gallardo should be more than just scared — it should be rocking and crying in the shower.

Roland Mayer's people claim the MTM-modified R8 accelerates to 100 km/h (62 mph) in 3.9 seconds, but this car feels far faster than that, as if MTM is trying to be politically correct and not suggest that its car humiliates the standard Audi R8. But when MTM says its car gets to 200 km/h (124 mph) in just 12.5 seconds, then you realize just how powerful this car really is. The speed keeps coming all the way to 197 mph.

A twin-screw supercharger is the key to the power boost, and it delivers a wave of torque from tickover at idle all the way to redline. The result is the kind of surging accelerative force we've come to expect from upper-echelon supercars.

This bolt-on, Swedish-made Lysholm supercharger produces just 5.8 psi, so it does not require a lower compression ratio and the extensive engine rebuild that would ensue. Meanwhile, a Swedish-made Laminova intercooler is also a bolt-on proposition, a self-contained air-to-water system that's built into the intake manifold. Because the length of the intake ducts remains unchanged, there's minimal loss of boost pressure. The result is a compact system that's easy to package in the R8's already crowded engine bay, plus the twin-screw supercharger minimizes mechanical drag for the free-revving engine while the compact intake tract ensures sharper throttle response.

With 428 lb-ft of torque, the MTM-modified V8 pulls from any revs, and the exhaust note changes from a guttural rumble to the hollow bark of a racecar as the tachometer climbs the scale. While running the R8 MTM through town on the way to the track, unburned fuel in the exhaust catches and ignites with a pop. This particular R8 MTM has a six-speed manual transmission, so it's even more fun, although the R8's Lamborghini-sourced single-clutch automated manual transmission will make up the vast majority of R8 sales. That's a shame, because this manual transmission with its short throws and sharp, metallic clacks as the lever moves through the gates is as good as any manual transmission in the supercar business.

The Edge of Reason
The 2008 Audi R8 comes fitted with Dephi's MagneRide dampers, technology that has expanded from General Motors to the whole supercar world including the Ferrari 599 GTB, and yet MTM isn't entirely happy with the present calibration. Though this car walked away from a Gallardo Superleggera — Lamborghini's best-handling car — in a recent track test, the Audi's driver emerged pale-faced and shaking.

The Audi R8's suspension is relatively soft in order to deliver a calm, compliant ride that's suited to everyday use, but the car feels edgy at the limit due to roll oversteer. MTM's Roland Mayer is confident that stiffer sport springs and some minor alignment adjustments are all that's required to take the edge off this beast.

Stay away from track-based shenanigans, though, and the Audi feels as well composed as Mozart's best, as this all-wheel-drive sports car feeds power to the front tires at the first sight of a slide. The big Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tires on forged 20-inch Bimoto wheels add a touch of muscle to the process of turning into a corner, but otherwise the MTM is as usable for everyday driving as the standard R8. Of course, the R8 MTM is louder than Inglostadt's finest and the special $6,100 sport seats are firmer, yet this is still a car that can handle the rush hour before letting loose on a cross-country thrash.

If Looks Could Kill
The MTM version of the R8 looks just like you'd expect a $55,000 conversion from a Bavarian tuning company to look, and the carbon-fiber film that covers the R8's side blade isn't exactly to our taste.

Nevertheless, the carbon-fiber aero splitter, extended rocker-sill skirts and rooftop spoiler add a certain visual edge to the softly sculpted Audi. There's a rear aero diffuser for a measure of downforce, plus a glass engine cover so you can peer at the wondrous supercharged V8. Overall this car is a match for the Audi R8 TDI Le Mans in terms of visual strength.

Taken on its merits, the 2008 Audi R8 MTM is an intriguing idea, and the thought of the simple engine conversion in a stock Audi R8 should make any owner of a Lamborghini Gallardo consider his options.

Yet the R8 MTM is more than this; this is a glimpse into the not-too-distant future. The R10 with its 500-hp V10 engine looks like it will appear next year, and we shouldn't have to wait much longer for the difficult conversion to the V12 turbodiesel. Audi is definitely in the supercar business.

The raging bull of Lamborghini is going to have to do something very special indeed to avoid being put to the sword by its own master.