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2008 Audi R8

     Normally when you drive a car you truly love, it’s like hot chocolate. It warms your soul, and you want to come back for more.
     This car — the Audi R8 — is nothing like that.
     I love the R8, sure enough, but it terrifies me. It’s so powerful, so beautiful, so thrilling that simply stepping near it makes my pulse quicken and my blood pressure rise. I only drove it for a few days, but I’m pretty sure it reduced my lifespan by at least a year.
     No, the R8 doesn’t warm your soul. It grabs your soul around the neck and gives it a 420-horsepower beating until your soul’s spleen is ruptured. Then it forces your soul to come back for more.
     So it’s not hot chocolate at all. This car is crack cocaine.
     The R8 follows a simple formula: extremely light weight + extremely high horsepower = extreme performance.
     More specifically, it’s a very expensive, two-seat German supercar with a huge V8 engine mounted directly behind the driver’s back and a body made from Tupperware and Reynolds aluminum foil. It’s stunningly beautiful. And it can go nearly 190 mph.
     Power comes from a 4.2-liter engine that’s mounted just in front of the rear axle. The mid-engine design allows for excellent weight distribution and better handling when the tires start to lose traction, which doesn’t happen easily because it has Audi’s famous all-wheel drive and tires as wide as Tennessee.
     It also has the best suspension system I’ve ever driven. Not only does it perform amazingly well through corners, with the kind of grace and predictability most cars can only dream of, but it also has a magic switch that changes the suspension from racetrack worthy to Cadillac worthy.
     I’m not exaggerating. It’s an enormous difference when you’re floating on glass one second, then flip the switch and — WHAM! — you can suddenly feel every particle of dust between your tires and the asphalt.

     It’s clear Audi wanted this to be a comfortable car for everyday driving, and not just because of the magnetic suspension that can feel like Grandma’s car. It’s also much roomier than many comparable supercars, with enough head and shoulder room for the Jolly Green Giant.
     The R8 is largely hand-assembled using the same platform as the Lamborghini Gallardo, so it’s extremely exclusive.
     How much does it cost? The base price is $109,000, and the one I drove cost around $130,000 thanks to upgraded leather and the world’s worst transmission (more on that later).
     That may sound like a lot of money — indeed, it is — but when you consider the Ferraris and Lamborghinis it compares with cost closer to $200,000, that $109,000 price tag suddenly starts to look like a bargain.
     No other car looks anything like the R8. Its body would fit better on the set of “Deep Space Nine” than on a roadway, so — not surprisingly — this growling spaceship gets plenty of stares.
     For the most part, the styling is dominated by the school of “form follows function.” Giant air intakes feed the monster engine, and the overall shape is designed for high-speed stability. It’s one of the few street-legal cars that actually generates downforce as it picks up speed, meaning the shape is designed to suck it onto the road like an upside-down airplane wing.
     The R8 also has some completely arbitrary styling features that make it one of the most original and memorable cars ever built.
     The most important visual element is what Audi calls the “sideblades.” These two panels form the air intake for the engine, and you can have them painted a contrasting color that stands out from the body paint. I love them for three reasons: One, they emphasize the engine’s position in the middle of the car. Two, they make the R8 look shorter. And three, no other car has them. They’re absolutely brilliant.
     Another strange visual feature is the R8’s pixie eyelashes. A row of LEDs lines each headlight to give the car some personality, almost like the Audi is wearing mascara. I love it.
     But the best feature, hands down, is the window that exposes the massive engine in back. It’s a frame for this piece of aluminum modern art, showing off the heart of the R8.
     Some people may not like this car’s unusual styling, but even its detractors have to admit one thing: the R8 forces you to look at it.
     Any time you drive an exotic car, it gets lots of attention. That can be a good thing if you need an ego boost, but it’s also a major drawback.
     You can’t go anywhere without complete strangers suddenly turning into Morley Safer, grilling you about every detail of the car. And you can’t park it and leave it without worrying that someone will scratch it, dent it or try to cover it in phlegm.
     Even worse, if you don’t want to get a manual transmission, your only other choice is a $9,000 piece of garbage Audi calls the R tronic.
     My test car was fitted with the R tronic, and — honestly — I would have paid Audi $9,000 to beat it with a baseball bat until it was dead. It’s essentially a robotic manual transmission that doesn’t use a clutch pedal. It can do shifts faster than are humanly possible with a regular transmission, but at low speeds it shifts like it’s being controlled by a 15-year-old driving a manual transmission for the first time. It’s jerky, unpredictable and extremely unpleasant.
     When you drive more aggressively, accelerating quickly from each stop, the transmission isn’t so bad. But if you expect it to do smooth Grandma shifts to match the smooth Grandma suspension, you’re out of luck.
     The problem even contributed to me getting pulled over by a small-town cop for accelerating the spaceship too quickly. I tried to explain that the R8 is extremely difficult to drive slowly because of the garbage transmission — which is the honest-to-goodness truth — but I’m not sure he believed me.
     Assuming you stay away from Audi’s R tronic junk, it’s hard to find anything whatsoever to fault with this car. After driving this remarkable machine, every other car suddenly feels like a horse and buggy.
     Its body makes you salivate. Its suspension is magical. Its performance is otherworldly. Its engine sounds like God rolling a timpani.
     In fact, I only have one problem with it: the serious, stomach-turning withdrawal pain when it goes away.


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