Audi and Lexus join the supercar race and give the traditional heavyweights a nudge, writes
W hich of these brands is the odd one out: Aston Martin, Audi, Ferrari, Lotus or Porsche? One answer is the Aston Martin, the only badge that doesn’t build a mid-engined sportscar. The other is Audi, which since its stunning R8 began arriving in September has joined an elite handful of makers that offer a vehicle with the powerplant mounted behind the cabin – the layout of a racing thoroughbred.
The marque missing from that list is Lamborghini, a partner brand to Audi in the Volkswagen group. Audi has already borrowed some Italian expertise for its large performance sedans, which use variants of the V10 engine used in the Lamborghini Gallardo. Eventually, one of those V10s will be available in the R8, too. To begin with, though, Audi’s fitted an engine of its own: eight sonorous, high-revving cylinders arranged in a V, displacing 4.2L and pumping out a whopping 309kW of power – that’s more than most Porsches.
This is Audi’s first attempt at a supercar but, in a sense, it has been preparing to build one for years. It has a motorsport heritage dating back to Auto Union racers of the 1930s, while its quattro all-wheel-drive system started life in rally cars in the 1980s. Audi paved the way for the R8 with eponymous entries in the famous Le Mans 24-hour race, winning five times since 2000.
Through a variety of production models, Audi has also been accruing expertise in constructing cars on aluminium skeletons rather than pressed steel sheets. With the weight saving that offers, it’s an ideal method for making a supercar.
And it all comes together in the R8, which gives Audi something the German luxury leviathans, Mercedes-Benz and BMW, don’t have. With some typically appealing Audi details and hi-tech running gear – including magnetically controlled suspension – it will be a luminescent lure for the brand as it tries to catch up with the two bigger fish. Just 15 a day will emerge from the assembly plant in Germany, and the starting price of $260,000 pitches the R8 right into Porsche territory.
No one outside Toyota knows what the Lexus LF-A will cost because the company has been keeping almost everything about its supercar contender a closely guarded secret. Two years after it first revealed its intentions with a concept at the annual industry curtainraiser in Detroit, it’s still fine-tuning the LF-A design. Another version was unveiled at the recent Tokyo event.
Lexus is still fine-tuning the handling and performance, too, as spy shots on the internet attest. Camouflaged versions of the LF-A have been repeatedly caught testing at the Nurburgring, Germany’s notoriously long, fast and difficult road circuit, which is used by any maker with sportscar aspirations. The pictures led to all sorts of speculation about Toyota’s plans for the car, with suggestions it might employ a hybrid petrol-electric engine mounted behind the cabin.
Since then, it’s confirmed that concept versions, at least, are powered by a 5L V10 under the bonnet, which can develop at least 375kW of power. It’s claimed to have a top speed of 320km/h – faster than the R8.
The LF-A will inject some passion into the Lexus brand, something it lacks despite being the leading luxury maker in the US since 2000. When the LF-A finally arrives in 2008 or 2009, Lexus will no longer be the odd one out.