I recently had a chance to drive an original, first-generation Audi R8, which I believe will go down as one of the most important cars of the early 2000s. I love the R8: It was fast, and fun, and exciting to steer around curves, but in this column, I’m more interested in discussing the second thing I just said: The R8 will go down as one of the most important cars of the early 2000s. I really believe that’s true.
Before I explain why, let me tell you how my Audi R8 driving experience came about. It was courtesy of an excellent exotic-car dealership in the Detroit area called Platinum Motorcars, which has a truly wonderful inventory of cool stuff. When I visited, they had a Porsche 928 GTS, a Unimog, a Ferrari 430 Scuderia, a Volkswagen Bus camper and a McLaren MP4-12C. The entire dealership was like a Cars and Coffee.
The owners of Platinum Motorcars were tremendously nice, and they gave me a pick of any cars in their inventory I wanted to review — and their first-generation R8 was among the easiest choices. There’s a reason for this. Yes, I knew it’d be quirky, and fun to drive, and exciting to shoot a video with — but I also wanted to explain the story of the original Audi R8. And so, here goes.
The story of the original R8 is basically this. Back in the early-to-mid-2000s, Audi’s reputation wasn’t exactly stellar. What I mean by this is everyone sort of considered Audi to be a second-class car brand, the kind of thing you’d buy if you couldn’t afford a BMW or Mercedes-Benz. Audi decided they wanted to change that, and they further decided an exotic sports car was the way to do it. Enter the R8.
Now, that may sound like a simple decision — make an exotic sports car, and everyone thinks we’re cool — but it isn’t always that easy. Not only do you have to make the sports car, but you have to build an entire product line around it so that people realize it’s special — something Acura hasn’t done with the new NSX. Not only do you have to make the sports car, you have to make it accessible enough that people actually see them on the street, thereby raising your brand presence — something Lexus didn’t do with the LFA. The challenge is building a car that’s cool enough to be desirable but affordable enough to be relatively common (a difficult task in itself), while simultaneously creating a car lineup that can benefit from the draw of this new model. This is the challenge of the halo car, and as you can imagine, it’s tremendously difficult to execute perfectly; there’s an enormous amount of timing, and planning, and strategizing, and designing involved.
Audi executed it perfectly.
When the R8 came out for the 2008 model year, Audi was instantly cool. Here was a midengine exotic car you could get for only a little more money than a pedestrian Porsche 911 Carrera S — a car everyone sees every day. It was more daring, more exciting, more exotic, and more special than a 911 — and it was still, somehow, available for only $110,000 to start. I have no idea how Audi made all this work, but they did. That alone would’ve made for a perfect halo car, but the R8 didn’t stop there.
The R8 had a few other amazing aspects — like, for example, the LED running lights. In today’s car world, virtually every car (possibly every single car, with no “virtually” involved) has LED running lights. Guess where they started? That’s right — the Audi R8. The car that made Audi cool, the car that elevated the brand, also pioneered one of the most ubiquitous modern design features in the car industry. The R8 also had another cool benefit: It was the cheapest car to show off its engine under a glass covering in back — a feature reserved for high-dollar Ferrari models at the time.
So the R8 came out, and Audi built its brand around it, and it sold well enough that people recognized it, and the rest is history: In the past 10 years, Audi has completely changed its reputation, and the R8 is the car where it all began. The design still looks modern today, its features have been replicated by many cars that came afterwards, and it remains maybe the best example of a halo car done right. And for all these reasons, I think — someday, in the future — people will recognize the R8 as one of the most important cars of the early 2000s, possibly even the Jaguar E-Type of this era. Mark my words. Unless I’m wrong, in which case I hope you forget that I ever said them.
Also published on Medium.