I hear the Audi R8 a long time before I see it. Whole minutes earlier. The hollow, baleful wailing rises up the mountains, the sound waves washing against the rocks, slipping through the crevices.
And you know what my first thought is? Not “Can’t wait to have a go in that”, more “That’s it, the Polícia will be on our case within minutes.”* Supercars, even those of an everyday persuasion, tend to leave things in their wake: not least perturbed, talkative locals and readily identifiable sound waves. Especially if they’re yellow.
Unless they’re a Porsche. The 911 Turbo S rolls up a few minutes later, having done the supermarket shop. The back seats contain many crisp packets and chocolate bars. There are many corners between supermarket and mountain top. I didn’t hear it coming at all. I could only identify it as not-another-grey-cloud by the four twinkling LEDs in the headlights.
Photography: Mark Fagelson
This feature was originally published in the December 2015 issue of Top Gear magazine.
The 911 Turbo is the original everyday supercar. It’s the template for others to copy, the light that guides the way, arguably the reason Audi built the original R8 and why we now have a McLaren 570S. The methods may be different – no one else seems convinced that slinging an engine behind the rear axle is a good idea – but the results are the same: stellar speed, everyday usability. After 40 years on sale, those are still the two key selling points for anything that challenges it.
And aren’t these three closely matched? Each costs around £140,000, scoots to 60mph in a shave over three seconds, has a top end around the 200mph mark, a boot of around 150 litres and two seats. Except the Porsche, where the kids get to join in the fun as well.
Technically, apart from the fact all have twin-clutch gearboxes with paddles to pull, they go about power production in different ways. Both McLaren and Porsche have 3.8-litre, twin-turbo engines, eight in a vee for the 570S, six horizontally opposed for the 911, while the R8, a V10 Plus with harder suspension and shorter gear ratios, relies on nothing but natural aspiration to aid its 5.2 litres split between 10 cylinders. Just to digress for a moment, the fact Audi has carried over the V10 surprises me.
Firstly, because it’s not a clean and efficient engine; secondly, with BMW giving us the stunning hybrid i8 and Mercedes-AMG the brutish, belligerent GT, I thought Audi would be braver, would move the R8 on, try to claim back technological momentum. Instead we get entrenchment: a car that looks similar to its predecessor and has a very similar set of specs. Not that I’m complaining about natural aspiration – far from it, as we will see – I’m just surprised Audi didn’t bow to the inevitable and go turbo.
No one is shocked when we compare notes from our journeys here and discover the Porsche has used the least fuel, the Audi the most. What does surprise is the gulf between them. Flanking the 25mpg McLaren, over the course of 1,200 miles, the R8 V10 Plus has achieved 18.0mpg, the 911 Turbo S a frankly astounding 31.0mpg. The same story will be reflected over the next two days: we’ll emerge from the Serra da Estrela with the Porsche having returned 13.8mpg, the McLaren 10.3 and the Audi 8.4. In our defence, the roads are very, very good…
We’re parked by a sculpture carved into the rock that we’ve instantly christened The Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies. It’s a frighteningly dated reference that reveals my age and has the youngest member of our crew utterly flummoxed. The pared-back McLaren looks the lightest – and it is, by a considerable margin. Despite the crisp creases, the Audi alongside looks heavy and bloated, the Porsche, a porker. Naturally. And yet both have something about them. Later I follow the 911 and am struck by its broad, planted, muscular stance, and when I see the R8 howling around a corner, low, wide and fully lit, I just think… phwoar! There’s something in its cab-forward proportions that’s eager and very nicely judged.
What really surprises me is that while the McLaren looks the smallest, it’s actually the longest and widest of these three. The reason it feels a tiddler is that, inside, it is. Driver and passenger are shunted into the centre in cosy companionship, pressed forwards further within the cabin. In the Audi you have space, both in front and around you. And you have style. It’s got a jaw-droppingly beautiful cabin, all effortlessly executed surfaces, stunning screens and dazzling, jewel-like trinketry, just the right side of pure decadence and artistry. It’s Pagani, by Audi.
Shame, then, that the pedals are too far up the footwell for genuine comfort. But that’s it, the one criticism. There’s no car here I’d rather spend time in, and for an everyday supercar, that matters. In comparison, the Porsche feels bland, a workaday 3-Series, and the McLaren, for all its improvements, doesn’t have the quality, artistry and craftsmanship. Though it does have a fabulous driving position.
But the Audi feels big on the road, which makes it harder to deploy its considerable force. And when you do, you have less confidence in its responses. The problem here is the optional £1,200 Dynamic steering – it’s too light and the variable-ratio rack means that the steering becomes suddenly darty as you turn in. It’s therefore hard to accurately predict your trajectory around corners. At least until you have a fiddle with the endless settings and work out Comfort steering is more progressive, if even lighter.
However, you can turn the magnetic dampers up to maximum Dynamic and not feel the wrath of the road. It is genuinely supple. So supple, in fact, that you don’t feel you’re getting all the information you might want. The Audi communicates in broad brushstrokes; the McLaren, in finely textured detail.
The 570S isn’t harsh – it’s just positive, and no more uncomfortable than the Porsche. But in terms of mindset and approach, what’s rapidly becoming clear is that the 570S is more GT3 than GT. It wouldn’t, we all agree, have been as easy on the schlep down, and the next day, when the wind howls and sheets of rain sweep the landscape, it’s the one that needs the most circumspection – rear-wheel drive and Corsa tyres ensure that. But it’s worth pointing out that this particular 570S is in a very sporty spec: one-piece moulded seats, 13-grand’s worth of exterior carbon, Sport design interior. If it were mine, I’d back the spec off a bit. It wouldn’t diminish dynamics, but it would enhance habitability.
If not quite to Porsche levels. It’s such a deceptive car, the 911 Turbo. You see them around, they appear sensible and familiar, and people you know who talk about cars say they’re not as responsive as a standard 911. And they’re right. Visually, it doesn’t thrill me, at £140k it’s a hill of money, and so you chronically underestimate it.
But, jeez, it’s fast. It has at least as much real-world pace as the others, feels more together and cooperative on a difficult road than the Audi and gets about the place in a far more addictive, compelling manner than you expect. You can drive it deep into corners on the superb PCCB brakes, and use the vast, vast torque to come piling out the other side. It drives with real conviction and harmony. Doesn’t quite have the clarity and communication of the McLaren, the stellar steering, chassis and brake feel, but it’s deeply capable, convincing and amusing. What it doesn’t do is get under your skin.
The beguiling Audi is inferior to drive but for one very important asset. Its drivetrain. The V10 reminds us why we love naturally aspirated engines. Its response, pick-up and reach are majestic, it curdles the air around it. If I have an issue with it, it’s that the buttercream note and delivery are so soothing and mellifluous that it never seems to be working that hard. I always preferred the old R8 V8 – it was slower, but had a more savage engine.
You have to work the V10 hard to get the best from it, but the rewards are there. In the Porsche, as long as you have 2,100rpm showing, you’re away with all 553lb ft engaged. The turbos are big and take a second to spool up, but they don’t half shoulder the mid-range aside. I prefer the McLaren’s approach – sharper, fizzier, shriller blowers that not only react faster, but get more and more forceful at high revs, the engine’s flat motorsport blare hardening to a tungsten point. It’s got a top-end hit neither of the others comes close to matching. And a chassis of rare talent. The 570S scythes along these roads, an instrument of dissection, picking them apart with its accuracy, balance and finesse. Neither can match its urgency, nor come close to its intoxicating involvement.
One thing brings it home. It’s night and we’re tumbling back down the mountain, McLaren leading, Audi behind, Porsche already dispatched to find an eatery. When we reach the bottom, the Audi is heaving and puffing with the effort, standard carbon-ceramic brakes smoking. The McLaren? Fitter, leaner… it’s barely worked up a sweat.
The best car here, then? To drive, undoubtedly. To live with? No. The Audi has a sense of occasion to match it and a far better appointed cockpit. The Porsche hits the outer limits of real-world speed and practicality better. So it all depends where you place the tipping point, where your wants as a driver give way to your needs as an owner. For us, it’s the McLaren. Every time.