It was only a question of time, really. Eventually the four rings from Ingolstadt and the bull from Sant'Agata would go head-to-head with one another. Because even if the Audi R8 has kept a respectful distance in the marketplace to the Lamborghini Gallardo from which it's derived, humble pie is obviously no longer on the menu in the office canteen at Audi HQ.
At first the Audi R8 seemed entirely different, simply a stretched, German-size version of the Gallardo with a luxury kind of spin. After all, Audi is the world's fastest-growing luxury brand right now, while Lamborghini is exclusive and extreme, catering to a very select audience that wouldn't be caught dead in an Audi.
But when you see the 2011 Audi R8 GT in real life for the first time, you wonder what it is. Is it a celebration of Audi's nine victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans? Or is it evidence of a new corporate seriousness about the sports car business, not only a head-to-head confrontation with an exotic as serious as the Lamborghini Gallardo LP570-4 Superleggera but also a warning shot across the bows of the Porsche 911 Turbo?
Audi R8 GT
When Audi set out to do the 2011 Audi R8 GT, it turned once again to Quattro GmbH, its specialty high-performance division in Nekarsulm, the site of Audi's long-forgotten NSU factory. Quattro GmbH has learned much building the Audi R8 LMS for GT3-class racing (notably at the Nürburgring 24 Hours), and maybe that's why you can order your R8 GT with ignition cut-off switches, four-point seat harnesses and even a full FIA-approved roll cage. Of course, the LMS features the race-prepped 592-horsepower version of the Audi R8 5.2 FSI's 5.2-liter V10, while the R8 GT has an iteration of this engine that makes 552 hp at 8,000 rpm and 398 pound-feet of torque at 6,500 rpm.
Audi has managed to lighten the R8 GT by some 386 pounds compared to the normal R8 V10. A curb weight of 3,362 pounds is very respectable for a midengine V10-powered exotic with all-wheel drive, even if this total is still some 209 pounds heavier than the Gallardo Superleggera. As a result, the R8 GT will take another tenth of a second in the sprint from a standstill to 100 km/h (62 mph) compared to the Superleggera, although this means no important difference whatsoever, really. That's 3.6 seconds for the Audi R8 GT and 3.7 seconds for the Lamborghini.
It's more interesting to see where the Audi engineers found the excess weight in the R8. They eliminated 18 pounds by using lighter carpets, and the new seats are 66 pounds lighter. The bumpers and engine cover are now in carbon fiber, which shaves off 33 pounds, while removing the acoustic insulation around the V10 saves another 44 pounds. Other weight-saving measures include a magnesium subframe for the engine, lighter brakes, a lightweight exhaust system and a polycarbonate rear window. Oh, let's not forget the forged-aluminum 19-inch wheels and the carbon-fiber rear wing.
The GT's V10 sounds wonderfully horny, although almost exactly like the R8 5.2 FSI's 525-hp V10. You need to get it above 5,000 rpm before it starts to bite, and you really would suspect it to be a bit nastier with the lightweight exhaust and all. Apparently the Audi engineers did this on purpose, to stay out of trouble with the noise regulations on racetracks.
Somehow you're not surprised; in fact, there are very few surprises with the R8 GT. It drives like a precision instrument, just as you would expect. Because there's less weight, you can brake later, more easily point the car at the right line through the corners, and then accelerate harder. The single-clutch, six-speed automated manual transmission does a decent job, even if you feel obligated to momentarily lift off the throttle to get smooth gearchanges (something that confuses the electronics, by the way).
When Audi originally introduced the first R8, it was nothing short of a revelation, since it was a four-wheel-drive midengine sports car that you could slide around the corners as if it were a BMW M3. It still is the most deliciously balanced Audi ever to come out of Ingolstadt. With the V10 the R8 feels heavier, even though the weight difference is just 88 pounds. But sliding it around corners? Forget it! It really is more like damage control, fighting the steering wheel and throbbing the brake pedal to get the car back on line.
So you use the ceramic brakes to get the entry speed into a corner just right, keep the car on line through the apex and then use the amazing traction to catapult out of the corner. But it's a little hard to justify all this exotic technology on the road. Yes, the 2011 Audi R8 GT is without compromise when it comes to speed. But you just don't feel you've taken the same big step like when you go from a Porsche 911 Carrera S to a 911 GT3.
If you're looking for an R8, don't get the GT, even though it'll go 199 mph. Don't even get the normal V10. Go for the original R8 4.2 FSI, the one with the 414-hp 4.2-liter V8. The handling is so sweet, plus you have the manual gearbox to enjoy. Even when you add the optional ceramic brakes, the R8 4.2 FSI is still only half the price of an R8 GT. Maybe light weight isn't everything.
Lamborghini Gallardo LP570-4 Superleggera
Like so many other special editions from Lamborghini, it's easy to wonder whether this car is less a performance exercise than simply Sant'Agata's way of providing its customers with something that no one else has. Of course, you could also think of it as a reply to the Ferrari 458 Italia until the next-generation Gallardo arrives, which won't happen before 2012 at the earliest.
The Lamborghini Gallardo LP570-4 Superleggera is blindingly quick, but it's also a formidable cruiser because it's fairly comfortable, too. The latest Superleggera is a lot less hard-core than the first-generation car, which goes some way to explain the comfortable driving experience on the motorway (although 202 mph is within reach). Instead of doing a unique suspension setup with dedicated springs and dampers, you now get the chassis from the Gallardo LP560-4, but tuned to be a bit closer to the racing bulls that Lamborghini runs in its own one-make racing series. By the way, when you're on the motorway, the rest of the world can't seem to move out of the way quickly enough.
The driving position is a lot better that the first-generation Superleggera and much better than what the R8 GT offers. OK, so you still have to wiggle a bit to get into the driving seat. You still get a bit of dated Audi switchgear here and there, and don't get your hopes up to find the latest-generation DVD-based satellite navigation. But this car is an event, an undiluted Italian supercar. The only thing missing here are the scissor doors from big brother Murciélago.
There's that characteristic whine from the starter motor as the Lamborghini's 10 cylinders spool up and then come to life. While the first-generation Superleggera had to make do with 523 hp, some simple work with the direct injection has turned up a total of 562 hp at 8,000 rpm. Perhaps it's a coincidence that this is the same output that the Ferrari 458 Italia's V8 delivers.
Lamborghini's package is lighter than Audi's, and it has managed to shave even more weight from its midengine all-wheel-drive car. The seats are a lighter version of the ones fitted in the LP560, though now covered in faux suede, which weighs less than leather. You get carbon-fiber detailing everywhere, like the front aero splitter, engine cover, rear aero diffuser and even a belly pan beneath the car. The windshield and side windows are glass, but the rest you see is polycarbonate. And don't forget the 20 lugnuts for the wheels that are made from titanium. Bottom line, the Superleggera is some 154 pounds lighter than the LP650-4 and weighs an impressive 209 pounds less than the R8 GT. In fact, a 3,153-pound midengine, all-wheel-drive supercar with a 5.2-liter V10 is very good indeed.
As with the R8 GT, the Superleggera gives you a single-clutch automated manual transmission, called e-gear here (Audi calls it R tronic, of course), and it's based on the Magneti-Marelli Selespeed system, which is starting to feel a bit dated by now since Lamborghini hasn't had access to most of the updates (they have been developed by Ferrari, you see). You have two options here. Either activate the automatic setting and let the gearbox do its own thing, which it does rather well because of the engine's 398 lb-ft of torque at 6,500 rpm. Or you can let 'er rip in manual mode and let 562 hp do battle with the supersize semi-slick Pirelli P Zero tires developed especially for the LP570-4.
The brakes have much better feel than the first-generation Superleggera, but there's still some way to go before Lamborghini can match Audi, and even longer to match Porsche. Understeer? According to Moreno, one of Lamborghini's test-drivers, the engineers could have dialed out the all-wheel-drive car's understeer completely, but then, when you would arrive at the cornering limit, the car would probably kill you.
On a track, the LP570-4 changes character, because you can get some heat into the front tires, use all the power and get some serious powerslides going. But on a normal road, you're better off keeping it nice and tidy, sacrifice a bit of the entry speed to get the line right into the corner, and then use all that power as you pass the apex. Once the grip lets go, it does so very abruptly, which is hard to control.
The Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera's sound is softer now, but you still get a lot more thunder than you do in the Audi R8 GT. And if this isn't enough, activate the engine's Corsa mode and all hell breaks loose behind you from the suddenly unimpeded exhausts, while the transitions from one gear to another come so quickly that it's like hitting yourself over the head with a frying pan.
Porsche 911 Turbo S
The Audi R8 GT and the Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera LP570-4 really should be compared to the Porsche 911 GT2 RS, right? Well, not necessarily. Despite the fact that it's not a stripped-out lightweight racer, the all-wheel-drive Porsche 911 Turbo S is actually quick and fast.
At first, the Porsche looks completely out of place in this company. The twin-turbo six-cylinder flat-6 engine in the Porsche is drowned out by the V10s, of course. Even with its twin turbochargers, the Turbo S doesn't deliver more than 523 hp at 6,250 rpm, so it seems hopelessly underpowered. This car even has rear seats, and not a spot of carbon fiber anywhere. Lightweight? Not even close.
But then please take another look at the specifications. The Turbo S isn't just quicker than Porsche's own Carrera GT. It's quicker than a GT2 RS as well (which also goes some way to demonstrate how effective four-wheel drive really is). And from zero to 100 km/h (62 mph), it will keep up with a McLaren F1. Pretty much nothing you can get your hands on can keep up with a Turbo S, including the R8 GT and the Superleggera.
The Standard of Measure
No one who has ever driven a 911 GT2 RS will sit back and wish that Porsche had made it just a little bit faster. Even so, Porsche always finds a way, and this time it has taken the twin-turbo 3.8-liter flat-6 and raised the boost from 11.6 psi to 14.5 psi, fiddled with the internal workings of the turbos themselves and added a new carbon-fiber induction system, so the result is another 30 hp and the Turbo S, a brand-new model in the lineup.
So 30 hp is just enough to give you a bit of extra push from zero to 100 km/h, and a bit of extra boost in the northern end of the rev range. The torque goes up to 516 lb-ft at 2,100 rpm, which is the secret to the car's ability to get to 100 km/h (62 mph) in the 3.3 seconds that Porsche claims. Anyone can do it, since you simply use the launch control. Seriously, it's quicker than the mighty GT2 RS, which doesn't take any prisoners in this discipline. Nevertheless, the Turbo S is very quiet, though.
If you're stepping out of the Superleggera and into the 911 Turbo S, the Porsche feels numb at first and it takes a little while before your brain is recalibrated. The Turbo S is almost unbelievably comfortable, with soft seats, soft suspension, soft everything. Porsche's dual-clutch automated manual transmission accentuates the difference with the Audi and Lamborghini, since the only indication that it has swapped one gear ratio for another in the seven-speed transmission is the change in digit of the gear indicator in the instrument panel.
The Porsche makes sense. It's compact and user-friendly, plus economical, too. It drives like a 911, so it still doesn't like crosswinds, and it's a bit more comfortable for a rookie to drive uphill than down, since the front tires feel firmly beneath you at every moment.
The 911 communicates with you through the steering wheel, telling you that now you're driving fast, and now you're driving very fast — and now you have to be Walter Röhrl not to end up in serious trouble. It'll go 196 mph, after all.
Taking Stock of the Supercar Universe
It's interesting to think how little talent you need to get the most from the Porsche 911 Turbo S thanks to electronic gizmos like the all-wheel-drive system's torque-vectoring capability. If anything, its superiority is its Achilles heel. Audi and Lamborghini make some compromises to get the result they desire, but the only compromise in the Porsche 911 Turbo S is the lack of drama. Of course, if you want your ashes to be spread one day across Döttinger Hohe on the northern loop of the Nürburgring, you might want to go for a Porsche 911 GT3.
And the showdown between Audi and Lamborghini? It's up to you, really. When you drive the R8 GT, you'd really rather have the normal V8 version because it's half the price and the R8 GT isn't twice as good. When you get in the Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera LP570-4, you ache to have the rear-wheel-drive Balboni with the manual six-speed gearbox, only with the Superleggera engine.
Neither makes for a sensible choice, but then when choosing a 560-hp supercar, sense rarely comes into the equation. Even with the kind of money Audi is asking for the R8 GT, the German car still pales when compared to the Superleggera. Which, we suspect, must make the Italians pretty pleased.
The R8 GT is an Audi with no limits, and on a track day it will be in a class of its own, even if it's more difficult to justify on the road. The Superleggera is a Lamborghini, which means old-school undiluted Italian supercar. Only a complete masochist would choose either one as their daily driver. Which brings us to the 911 Turbo S, the least expensive by some margin, but also the most effective, and the only one you can drive anywhere, any time. But in the end, it might come down to this. Neither the Superleggera nor the R8 GT can keep up with the pace of the 911 Turbo S.
Portions of this content have appeared in foreign print media and are reproduced with permission.