At the dawn of the 2000s, Audi’s arrival as an upmarket player was already noted but the brand wanted to highlight the high performance of its models. Their plan was to release more and more high performance versions of their lineup, to engage factory team cars in endurance racing beginning in 1999 and, more surprisingly, the decision to launch a supercar to demonstrate the technological advancement and skills of its engineers in Ingolstadt: the Audi R8.
In the 90s, Volkswagen created a series of brands whose market positions were studied very precisely: SEAT for young people with a sporty temperament; Skoda for the low-cost buyers (more for a lot less expensive); Volkswagen for the value and Bourgeois buyers; Audi for the premium, high end market; Lamborghini for the ultra sports segment; Bentley for luxury; and Bugatti to occupy the superlative ultra high end market (Porsche was not yet part of the group). In the organisational chart, Lamborghini was a subsidiary of Audi. So to launch a supercar to wear the four Audi rings, wouldn’t that be stepping the Italian firm’s turf?
The Le Mans Quattro Concept Car to celebrate Audi’s victories at Le Mans
At the 2003 Geneva Motor Show, the ‘brand of the Bull’ presented for the first time its Gallardo, co-developed with Audi (in particular its Space Frame chassis), but whose engine was an “in-house » Lambo creation. Just a few months later, at the Frankfurt Motor Show, it was Audi’s turn to present an evocative concept car: the Le Mans Quattro Concept celebrating the victories of the Audi R8 at Le Mans in 2001 and 2002. This concept was based on the Gallardo platform, and borrowed as well its V10, 5 litres engine with 610 horsepower, but fitting it with the distinctive Audi styling and especially by incorporating the Audi Quattro all-wheel drive.
The presentation of this concept astonished many observers: would the Le Mans Quattro make it into Audi’s production lineup? The question arose because it clearly would come into direct competition with the Lambo Gallardo within a relatively narrow marketplace. Despite this possible cannibalisation, the top brass at Audi wanted to strike a big blow in the market, although losing to Bentley at Le Mans in 2003, the R8 was back on the winning trail in 2004.
The R8 from concept to production
So the decision was made at Audi to begin the development, despite the risks, of a super car to be dubbed the ‘R8’ in honour of the racing prototype that was victorious at Le Mans. A sign of cockiness on the part of Audi? Perhaps but Audi was determined to capitalise on the Le Mans victory and management validated the R8 project launching its development in 2004. As a precaution, the V10 Lamborghini was abandoned in favour of the V8 FSI engine designed for its RS4 model. With a displacement of 4.2 litres producing « only » 420 horsepower it gave up approximately 200 horsepower to its Italian cousin while still retaining the same gearbox and the same aluminium platform.
With 2 fewer cylinders than the Gallardo, the R8 scheduled arrival on the market for late 2006 was announced at a substantially lower price than the Gallardo: 119,000 euros for the R8 vs. 165,000 euros for the Lambo, and that despite the R8’s Quattro four wheel technology. While the Audi name might have been less prestigious, not everyone loves the exuberance of the Bull. The Gallardo, signed by Giorgetto Giugiaro and Luc Donckerwolke, had sharper lines, while the R8 sported a rounder figure, visually more “technological”, accented by its Xenon LED headlights.
First the V8, then the V10 and the Spyder version
The car was presented at the end of 2006 and sales began in early 2007. Contrary to early fears, the two German-Italian cousins did not step on each others market segments. The Gallardo carried on its good momentum while the R8 made a hot start. Again the top brass was reassured, and so much so that a 5.2 litre, V10 with 532 horsepower made its appearance in the R8 range in 2009, not to mention the Spyder version in 2010. Audi’s risky bet paid off: the R8’s success tore up its market, all the while adding to the aura of the ‘Four Rings’, year after year. A philosophical question remained between those who preferred the presumed charm of Italian version or the annoying idea of German quality and technology.
Lambo had never sold as many cars as the Gallardo, 14 022 units, while Audi exploded off the charts with 26 037 copies of the R8 sold through 2015: the two cousins exceeded 30 000 total units between them. That’s not bad for what was a brand revival on one hand and a test shot on the other. The challenge will be for the Huracan and the 2nd generation R8 to do as well. The good news of such a high number of units sold: there are R8s for all budgets and for all tastes. But not to forget that these are high-tech cars which will always cost more to maintain than any 205 GTI.