For most drivers, in most cars, the ski jump is a nonevent. If you're driving a Miata or a Civic, you'll probably hit it at about 85 mph or less. You'll notice a brief sensation of free fall as the suspension unweights. Try the jump with a five-liter Mustang or a C7 Corvette, you'll see perhaps 110 and get the front wheels off the ground for a fraction of a second. The steering will go completely light in your hands. When that happens, take a deep breath and hold the wheel absolutely straight. If you don't, you'll finish your lap in an ambulance.
This Audi, painted Ara Blue and festooned with carbon-fiber trim that adds an air of purpose to the menace of its blunt face, can do better than that. It rockets flat-footed through Turn 11 with the kind of grip that can't be had from common sports cars. Part of that is due to the mid-engine layout, and part of it is due to the optional 305-width Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires in back. No Focke-Wulf ever turned with more alacrity or accelerated with more fury.
The R8 is so fast, attempts to put it into perspective with run-of-the-mill track-day cars end up sounding like the worst kind of bench-racer smack talk. Here's an example: Imagine the best Spec Miata ever built, with the best SCCA driver of all time at the wheel. Put it next to the R8 at the start/finish line. (If you're a street-car guy, feel free to replace that Spec Miata with a new Mustang GT; they turn about the same lap time.) Wave the flag and watch them go. After one lap, there will be a thousand-foot gap between them, in the Audi's favor. After five or six laps, the R8 driver would have enough time to stop the car anywhere on the track, get out, check his tire pressures, get back in the car, unpair his iPhone from the Bluetooth-enabled stereo, pair a different iPhone, start it up, and drive away, without losing his lead. This is what it means to be a supercar.
As blisteringly fast as the Audi is, however, it might not be the faster car in this comparison test. We've also brought a McLaren 570S, which is waiting patiently in the paddock for its chance to rip around the track.
McLaren now divides its lineup into three distinct ranges. The Ultimate Series contains the 903-hp P1 hybrid hypercar. The Super Series consists of the 650S and the 675LT. The 650S is a product-improved version of the MP4-12C that launched in 2011; the 675LT is a track-optimized version of the same that adds power, subtracts weight, and optimizes the aerodynamics for grip in high-speed corners. Below the Super Series is the Sports Series, of which the 570S is the first to hit our shores. It's meant to be a more relaxed, more affordable entry to McLaren ownership. As we'll see, both "relaxed" and "affordable" are relive terms. For now, however, let's return to our blue Audi R8, which is preparing to thunder up the straight at Shenandoah. The instant you get the steering properly unwound at corner exit, it's time for the 5.2-liter V-10 to put its 610 hp to work. It is naturallyólet's say defiantlyóaspirated in this me-too-turbo era. You'll reach the 8700-rpm redline three times on your way up the hill, unleashing a guttural wail that rattles the track's bridge as you blast underneath it.
Ah, here we are, all systems go, lined up on the track's left edge. Ready to fling over the crest and down to the long braking zone before Shenandoah's other notorious feature: a replica of the N¸rburgring's concrete-banked Karussell turn. The car's virtual cockpit, which can display the Google Earth view of a racetrack while you're on it, also offers a tiny speedometer. It's swinging past 120, almost all the way to 125 mph. This would be a good time to make sure your hands are at 9 and 3 on the wheel and to ensure that your seatback is all the way up. Actually, you don't have a choice about that; the V10 Plus has fixed-back racing buckets. Hope you like the seating angle. And that's where I was, in the moment that it all went very wrong. It was my fourth lap in the Audi. I'd figured I'd need between six and 10 laps to extract my best time from the R8, but it was so damn easy to drive quickly that my third lap was already good enough to print in the magazine. The only place I saw possible improvement was over the ski jump; I lifted just a hair near the top to hit it at 117 mph, which sent the R8 four-wheels-up for about 60 feet. This time I was determined to take it flat.
When I did, the R8 leaped from the ground. And it yawed in midair. Nothing to do for the moment but let my hands and arms relax in anticipation of the landing, which was going to be somewhere between hairy and unrecoverable. Photographer Andrew Trahan was stationed on the far side of the hill. He saw the Audi tilt and dip in flight before the left front wheel touched down, maybe 85 feet after takeoff.
What happened next is a blur in my memory. I was threshold braking and furiously hucking the steering wheel back and forth, trying to fix an oscillation that at one point had me looking at Shenandoah's Karussel through the driver's-side window. When the speed was down to about 65 mph, I gave up, took my foot off the brake, and landed in the concrete banking hard enough to bottom the suspension on all four corners and ring the Audi's unibody like a cathedral bell. Then I was back on the throttle and hustling uphill toward Big Bend and the start/finish line.
The time: 1:37.239. Good enough for me. I was in no mood to try it again.
THUS WE MEET THE NEW R8 IN THE AIR, but Audi, like McLaren with the 570S, would rather you meet it in the middle. The market for six-figure sporting cars has a wide spectrum of intensity. On the relaxed, long-wavelength side, we have front-engine contenders from Aston Martin and Maserati. Bentley, with its Continental GT, and Porsche's 911 Turbo. These are the cars you see heading into Manhattan on Monday mornings. They are compatible with parking garages, full-size duffel bags, and the lifestyle of a hedge-fund manager.
Over on the ultraviolent, excuse me, ultraviolet end of the spectrum, you'll find the track-day specials, the N¸rburgring record holders, and the utterly uncompromising. The Ferrari 458 Speciale was a perfect example of the genre, but the McLaren 675LT also belongs there, as does the Viper ACR. Not all of these cars have radios or air-conditioning. Pampered bankers need not apply.
The original Audi R8, with its 4.2-liter V-8 and spacious and impeccably detailed cockpit, was definitely an infrared kind of supercar. Fast, but not too fast. Dramatically proportioned, but easy to get into and out of. A few years ago, Audi gave the R8 a attempt to move the car's needle toward the center of to-manic spectrum. We were not convinced.
The new one? Convincing. Engine and chassis: borrowed from the stellar Lamborghini Hurac?n, itself a solid contender in that supercar middle ground. Visual aggression: cranked up. Where the first R8 was insouciantly sleek, this one is square and stout. No longer beautiful, but undeniably purposeful. In Plus form, it's the most overtly sporting R8 yet, radiating aggression from every pore and backing the visuals with a drivetrain and chassis that can effortlessly cash every check written by the styling.
The McLaren 570S, on the other hand, represents precisely the opposite idea. The people in Woking started with the platform that underpins the 650S and its 675LT sibling, widely regarded as the purest-blooded supercars south of a million bucks. Then they made a series of profound and nontrivial changes to optimize this lower-priced Sports Series car for daily use.
Although the 570S retains the carbon-fiber structure of its more expensive stablemates, and its outrageous dihedral doors, the sills of those doors are cut lower for easier entry and exit. Every recent McLaren has a narrow center console, which allows the seats to be mounted closer together for a lower polar moment of inertia. The 570S replaces it with a control panel that cascades from the dash in a fashion that will be familiar to any owner of a European subcompact. The resulting extra space between the seats is given over to no fewer than three cup holders. This, in a two-seat car. You can't say McLaren doesn't have at least a mild grasp of what commuters want.
There are a few more concessions to everyday use. The active-aero system from the 650S, most notably the pop-up airbrake, is gone. Also gone: the deliberately offensive high-mounted dual exhaust of the Super Series cars, replaced by conventional exits under the rear bumper that won't deafen passengers or burn bystanders. What's left: 3189 as-tested pounds of supposedly sensible supercar from Woking, England, powered by a 562-hp, twin-turbo 3.8-liter V-8. In our testing, it obliterated the quarter-mile in 10.6 seconds with a trap speed of 133 mph. One gets the impression that McLaren's idea of "everyday usability" is something like Liberace's idea of "restrained and tasteful"; you can only understand it in the context of the firm's other products.
Even in Plus specification, which bumps the power from 540 to 610 hp, the Audi can't quite match the McLaren in a straight line, breaking the quarter-mile beam in 10.8 seconds at 129.5 mph. The undeniable traction advantage of Quattro is more than offset by a 495-pound weight penalty compared with the 570S, but on a less than perfectly prepared surface, the tables might turn. We're talking fractions of a second here.
As a supercar enthusiast since early childhood and a great fan of bench racing, your author could discuss the staggering numbers attached to these vehicles all day long. Did you know, for example, that you can get "stealth" exhaust finish on your 570S for the low, low price of $510? Or that the R8's V-10 doesn't reach its torque peak until a stratospheric 6500 rpm, just shy of the C7 Corvette Stingray's redline?
In the real world, however, there are only two numbers that matter. They are $192,450, the base price of the R8 V10 Plus, and $187,400, the base price of the 570S. The most expensive Audi and the least expensive McLaren sold on these shores. That makes them natural enemies, just like the Luftwaffe's FW 190A and the RAF's Spitfire Mk IX. We have a dogfight on our hands, which means there can be only one winner.
TO GIVE BOTH OF THESE VERY DIFFERENT super-cars a chance to properly display their talents, I convinced this magazine's former editor-in-chief, Larry Webster, to join me on a series of twisty roads across Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia, followed by two short evenings at the Shenandoah road course. I expected that Webster and I would arrive at this comparison with sharply opposing preconceptions and loyalties. He's always adopted the pure racer's mind-set to high-performance cars, prizing low weight and chassis agility above all else, even when it comes to a daily driver. I'm from the other school of thought, with two Volkswagen Phaetons, an Audi S5, and a Lincoln Town Car in my recent ownership history. I thought the original R8 was flawless as an every-day supercar, power and lap time be damned. From the moment he arrived at our rendezvous point and unfolded himself from behind the McLaren's $5960 racing seats, Webster wasted no time confirming my suspicions.
"You can't get out of that thing without looking like an idiot," he noted, pointing at the 570S, "but otherwise I think it's perfect. What a brilliant combination of ride and precision. Feels like a landmark car to me." I think the McLaren is actually pretty easy to enter and exitóthe key is to make both of your feet the first thing to leave the car and the last thing back inóbut I wanted to take the R8's side for a moment.
"Well," I responded, "you can't deny that the Audi beats it in everyday use. The stereo, for one thingó"
"Stereo's fine in the McLaren," Webster interrupted.
"It most certainly is not," I replied, and I could feel a flush in my cheeks. "Not by my standards. The R8 provides a brilliant soundstage that wouldn't disgrace a set of Larsen 8s. The controls feel like they were machined individually from billets of polished stainless steel. Don't even get me started on the climate control. To adjust it on the 570S, you have to press the fan button, then muddle through a set of vague options that, I might add, all disappear through polarized sunglasses." Webster looked at me like I'd spent the last three minutes explaining my preference for a particular recipe of quiche. "Let's just get in the cars," he said.
I'd scouted a roller-coaster two-lane that rises and falls, hundreds of feet at a time, through the Green Ridge State Forest at the border of Maryland and West Virginia. I've driven this road in everything from an F-250 to a Corvette Z06, and where it really shines is in its long, steep uphill curves. Even a strong sports car can feel breathless trying to maintain, let alone increase speed in these conditions, but after an hour, it was plain that neither the R8 nor the 570S were bothered.
I'm partial to the Audi's progressive rush of power from about 4000 rpm all the way to redline. This is truly one of history's great sports-car engines, combining massive power with a seeming lack of rotational inertia. On public roads, it's just too much: too much power, too much wickedness in the way it whips the speedometer into the go-to-jail zone without so much as a hiccup.
But you can also grab the T-handled shifter, an unfortunately prosaic piece that isn't worthy of the R8's otherwise bespoke interior, toss it from "S" to "D," and let the car ease into commuter mode. That 91-decibel bellow at full throttle becomes a mild rumble. With a press of the Drive Select button on the steering wheel, you can choose Comfort and let this mid-engined supercar do its spot-on imitation of an A8 sedan. Then you can enjoy the Bang & Olufsen stereo, the outstanding visibility in all directions except those blocked by the large sail panels behind you, and the fuss-free manner in which the drivetrain mimics an electric motor.
It's relaxing, so much so that I failed to notice I was still doing outrageous speeds. I seemed to have left Webster behind. We met up at the next gas station and changed mounts quickly, not before exchanging a few sharp words about the Audi's seats. I think they're terrific, but he hates the lack of adjustment, pointing out that these cars are awfully expensive to not have some sort of power seatback tilt. He knew about a real demon of a road up in the mountains, so we headed that way.
I have had a fair amount of seat time in the 650S and 675LT, so this Sports Series McLaren was familiar territory. First impression: I really dig all the changes. The touchscreen and more logical control layout may not match the Audi for usability, and it's still too obviously an Android tablet with a unique font, but it's a real improvement over the flickery center stack in the 650S. The dashboard, made of three angled screens instead of the electromechanical setup in the more expensive models, is bright and legible.
Before I knew it, we passed a sign that says "High Incidence of Motorcycle Crashes Next 8 Miles." Without warning, Webster disappeared from view, following a banked curve around a massive rock, the Audi's V-10 roar echoing inside the McLaren's impressively quiet cabin. I gave chase.
In the short straights between turns, the 570S has the ability to claw the R8 back, maybe one car-length per five seconds. But under braking and in midcorner, the Audi seems to shed that weight differential, and on corner exit, it's murderous, sling- shotting out without a whisper of wheelspin. Meanwhile, I was fighting the McLaren's ECU. Instead of delivering power to the rear wheels and letting a brake-based traction system sort it out, the 570S waits until it thinks conditions are right before allowing the turbos to spool. This is good in the sense that it will no doubt prevent a lot of inadvertent throttle-on spins in the hands of inexperienced drivers, but it handed back all the advantage I'd gained in each straight.
At that kind of pace, individual seconds stretch into tangible objects, observed every which way by a mind furiously calculating closing speed and maximum corner velocity. We couldn't have been on that road for more than seven or eight minutes. Yet in that time, I found myself captivated by the McLaren, despite the indifferent stereo and generic interior. I believe the phrase for it is pur sang. Pureblood. Yes, it's the discount model. But in the space of moments, you can feel the direct kinship to its more expensive siblings, all the way up to the almighty P1. All the corners cut and all the costs reduced are merely peripheral, a $99 H&M suit worn by an Olympic decathlete. By the time I closed the gap on the R8, I was a true believer.
I thought that our little drive might have reconciled Webster to the Audi's merits; his sheer joy in flogging the thing was obvious in his take-no-prisoners approach to each corner entry. No such luck. When we came to a halt, he was caustic: "That is a luscious motor that makes exotic noises and big power without turbos. We should give it props for that alone. But the car feels devoid of emotion. Did the designers or builders have any passion in the thing?"
You can't argue against the Audi as a day-to-day proposition, in this company at least. It has the same fully realized feeling, and that same milled-steel solidity, as the A6 and A8 sedans with which it shares a showroom. "Inarguably the more livable car," Webster noted. "The dashboard is brilliant. I couldn't stop looking at it. And it's plenty quick. I just don't get worked up over it." I noticed, however, that like me, he gravitated to the Audi's clear engine cover during our talk. For a moment, we both just stood there and looked at the heart of the machine. The V-10. It's one of the finest engines I have ever experienced. And we may not see its like again. I wonder what the 570S would be like if you could replace the powerful but slightly anodyne twin- turbo V-8 with this strong, subtle, and exhilarating Audi-via-Lamborghini motor. I'm sure it would upset the weight balance. I'm not sure I'd care.
At Shenandoah that evening, the 570S was seven-tenths faster than the R8; looking at the data, that's almost entirely due to the power-to-weight advantage. But it's a bit scary. From the midcorner to the exit of Shenandoah's fourth-gear Big Bend, I struggled to get the power down without inducing life-changing oversteer. Maybe that's good. It's hard to value anything that comes without effort. You could be justifiably proud of getting the maximum out of it. It takes more than a checkbook to fully experience this automobile.
HAWKER HURRICANE. MESSERSCHMITT BF 109. Supermarine Spitfire. Focke-Wulf FW 190. Great Britain and Germany, locked in combat over the skies of London, the English Channel, Normandy, Berlin. Stunningly powerful and graceful machines pushed to the maximum, no quarter asked or given. How many generations of children have imagined diving out of the sun with cannon blazing, dispatching an opponent with a flawless split-S or chandelle, then waving ruefully as they parachute to the ground?
There is something both magical and visceral about those final piston-engined fighters. They became nearly perfect, and then in a flash, they were obsolete. Yet it is worth nothing that people still spend unjustifiable sums of money to restore and fly those warbirds, while the blunt-nosed jets that succeeded them stand abandoned and forlorn in aviation graveyards. Consider these two cars, the R8 V10 Plus and the McLaren 570S, as their spiritual and automotive successors, perhaps the last generation of completely piston-engined, gasoline-powered supercars.
We could easily make a case for the superiority of either vehicle, depending on driver skill, intended use, and how sensitive one is to things like interior quality or in-flight stability. As compromise supercars, bridging the wide gulf between everyday luxury cars and no-compromise track-day specials, both machines succeed admirably. The R8 really is fast; the 570S is truly livable.
The fact remains, however, that purchases of this nature are primarily, and justly, driven by emotion. Desire. This is where the Audi, extraordinary as it is, stumbles. At its heart, the R8 is a Hurac?n with all of that car's willful ridiculousnessófrom the flip-up start-button cover to the inexcusably massive and sunstroke-inducing windshieldósanded over. What's the point? Where's the fun, the passion, in that?
The 570S, on the other hand: It might be tamed for the street, but it has the bones, and the heart, of a proper racer. The doors are ridiculous. The interior is lamentable. Visibility isn't great. But you'd never stop wanting to drive it, never stop thinking about it, never stop smiling when you fall into the buckets at the end of a long day. It's the less reasonable of our pair, and that makes it the only reasonable winner. In this twilight of the traditional supercar, the McLaren truly shines.