Two moments cemented the idea of the original Audi R8 being cool in my then-20-year-old brain. The first was when Tony Stark climbed aboard one in the middle of Iron Man, while the second involved a certain chap called Jeremy Clarkson thrashing one at Bruntingthorpe.
One memorable shot from the latter involved a 997 911 Carrera S executing a lurid powerslide behind the R8 in an attempt to position the Porsche as the more exciting car. To me, it didn’t matter. Long before I’d had the chance to realise 911s are almost annoyingly good to drive, they just seemed too obvious. But the Audi? It was different. It was new. And sweet lord, did it sound good.
Fast forward 13 and a bit years, and I’m in that very R8 featured on Top Gear all those years ago. It was Audi UK’s original press car, and when the current PR team were alerted to it coming up for sale recently, it was snapped up for the brand’s extensive British heritage fleet.
Since the R8’s arrival back in 2007, the performance car landscape has changed dramatically. The once-impressive-sounding 414bhp output of its 4.2-litre, naturally-aspirated V8 is these days bettered by the 2.0-litre four-pot in the Mercedes-AMG A45 S - a jumped-up C-segment hatchback, for Pete’s sake.
In terms of mid-engined supercars, even ‘entry-level’ options these days tend to develop over 600bhp. The least powerful new R8 meanwhile, the RWD, is good for 533bhp. At the time of the original R8’s launch, the major car mags seemed to be fairly split when it came to judging the car as a proper supercar or a very fancy sports car.
The V8 R8 skirts the line between the two camps, and in doing so, becomes something quite special. And something that’s a far more entertaining on-road driving experience than any modern supercar. There is a proviso, though - you need to go for the manual.
Audi decided to mix the R8’s futuristic styling with those huge sideblades and its modern, aluminium-intensive construction with something thoroughly old-school - a gated manual gearbox. The point of these metal gates used to be all about keeping floppy gear-levers in place, something which hasn’t been a problem for decades. On the R8, it’s merely there to look and sound cool.
Sliding behind the wheel and firing up the dry-sumped V8 a few inches behind my head, the thought of having to press down on a clutch pedal and manually engage a cog before setting off just seems bizarre. High-power mid-engined cars with manual gearboxes just haven’t been a thing for years - normally, I’d be shifting up with some paddles hanging off the steering wheel.
A few miles in, I’m getting used to the gearbox. The throw is a little longer than expected, and some care is needed to slot each ratio in neatly. Finally, the temperature gauge is where it needs to be, and the revs can increase. Soon, I’m exploring the top end of the V8, which lets out a fantastic howl as the needle races to the 8000rpm redline.
Once we’ve arrived, there’s a clunk, click as third gear is engaged, followed by a growl from the 4.2, which once again goes on the hunt for high RPM glory. What a combination of noises. Slowing down again is just as dramatic - nailing a heel and toe shift, which is made easy by decent pedal spacing, is a giddy moment of motoring joy.
There are better manual shifts out there, with shorter throws and more accurate engagement. But you won’t find many from the last 15 years that are hooked up to an engine as memorable as this one. And I couldn’t care less that the metal gate is technically pointless - that click/clack sound is addictive.
The gearing isn’t too ridiculous either, so you can enjoying working through the cogs without hitting silly speeds. A modest (for today) power figure of 414bhp helps, too. You can work this car hard on the road in a way that just isn’t feasible with modern supercars.
A 0-62mph time of 4.6 seconds might be hot hatch territory these days, but it doesn’t tell the full story. The high-revving V8, the gated manual shift, the low-slung nature of the car - it all works together to give a much higher impression of speed and drama.
It’s easy to get caught up by the drivetrain, but there’s also a brilliant chassis to back it up. The ride in the standard suspension mode is smooth and comfortable, settling down nicely whenever crappy bits of tarmac are tackled. And yet, body roll is minimal.
The R8 has an early version of Audi’s magnetic ride system, but engaging it doesn’t make much of a difference to the car’s dynamism. It achieves little more than making the ride more uncomfortable and causing mild amusement by the use of the exclamation mark in the message ‘Sport Mode On!’ that flashes up on the dot matrix display.
The hydraulic power steering offers up a small amount of feedback and needs a little more work than the average modern setup thanks to a more leisurely ratio. That’s just fine, particularly since your efforts are rewarded by a car that’ll happily change direction very quickly.
Based around a Torsen centre differential, the all-wheel drive system tends to give off a sense of neutrality, occasionally giving a whiff of movement at the rear. In some corners, the R8 can understeer earlier than I’d like, but it’s a small complaint. Yes, a 911 of the era will feel sharper, but the R8 is not as far away as you might imagine while being capable whatever the weather and packing that V8.
Plus, the cabin’s stood the test of time a lot better than the Porsche’s. Sure, the infotainment system instantly dates it, but otherwise, it’s peak Audi cabin design. Minimalist, stylish and well built, and only ever so slightly let down by the egregious use of climate controls from an A1. It’s a car you could clock many miles in without thinking about it, and once you upgrade that old nav unit for something aftermarket with the usual mobile syncing stuff, the R8 will be as useable as any modern supercar.
Despite all of the above, there are early 4.2-litre R8s out there for as little as £30,000. A budget of £40,000 should buy you a really decent one, and while certainly not cheap to run, they aren’t hellishly expensive to keep going either.
If I had £40,000 spare, I’d have one in a heartbeat. Even if I had a lot more than that, I still would. There isn’t a single modern supercar I’d own over one of these. It shows that Audi was on to something back then, using a car with supercar DNA to deliver more sports car-like performance. But sadly, it’s big, impressive stats that tend to sell these things when they’re new.
Once the V10 was introduced, buyers flocked to it, neglecting the sweeter V8. The gated manual found itself all but abandoned, too. In the last three years of the first-gen R8’s run, 99 per cent of customers went for the S Tronic dual-clutch transmission. No wonder Audi ditched it and the V8 for the current generation.
This merely makes the original 4.2 manual all the more appealing. It’s the connoisseur’s choice. The one for people who actually give a damn about driving. You can keep your 0-62mph bragging rights - going slower while being noisier is way more fun.