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The Weird Shifter That Made Audi’s R8 Sports Car a Legend – Wired
Posted: Friday, April 17, 2015
Most journalists long ago stopped discussing the Audi R8. It’s a danger that comes with the car business: Focus on the Next Big Thing, you can lose sight of recent achievements. But I started thinking about the sports car again this week, sparked by a review and eulogy from Jalopnik’s Patrick George of one of the last first-generation R8s.
The R8, Audi’s first true sports car, was launched in 2006. When new, it was revolutionary, a $100,000 halo car and a daring challenge to the Porsche 911. Audi sold more than 50,000 and made a pile of variations. After nearly a decade of production, the first generation of the car is saying goodbye. It’s to be replaced next year by a fresh version based on the Lamborghini Huracán.
Before we turn to the new generation, though, there are lessons to be learned from the old, about how to make something that’s fresh, different, and daring. And how a shift lever made popular in the 1960s can do you a ton of good in the 21st century.
Long before it hit showrooms, the mid-engine, two-seat R8 was aimed dead at the Porsche 911. This was an act of astounding hubris. The Porsche had a sharp chassis, charming idiosyncrasies, astounding traction from its rear-mounted engine, and the weight of more than 40 years of history. Audi specialized in all-wheel-drive sedans and coupes, mating performance to comfort, the practicality of four seats, and a big trunk. It had little but rally success (barely relevant with a car like this) and a series of recent, if record-breaking, wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The latter helped give the new car its name.
If you go up against an established champ, you either have to beat it at its own game or make your own win. Audi had no real alternative but to do something totally different. So the R8 threw practicality out the window. So the R8 threw practicality out the window, down the fire escape, and into the street, where it was run over by a city bus. The interior held two people and maybe a purse.
The two trunks—the engine lived in the middle of the car—were of decent size, but as a package, the Audi didn’t encourage schlepping the family around. It encouraged fleeing the family at redline and shacking up with a jackbooted German gal named Ilsa. It was styled like nothing before or since, obviously Teutonic, and everything an expensive sports car is supposed to be.
Before driving the R8, most journalists thought the 911 would eat it alive. Audi had no experience doing anything like this. The Porsche was just too involving, too steeped in history. None of that, they thought, could be replicated from a clean slate.
From a sales standpoint, the R8 didn’t topple the 911. From any other angle, it was a raging success. In an age of homogenization and outsourcing, it felt like it came from somewhere. Rather than trying to out-Porsche Porsche, the car’s engineers chose unique ground—purposely distant steering, a focus on ride quality, and a relaxed, rear-biased, all-wheel-drive chassis. The R8 shared components with the Lamborghini Gallardo (the Italian company, like Audi, is owned by Volkswagen) but with a smarter interior and a much lower price. It cost a bit more than the base 911 Carrera and offered similar performance, but it felt a hundred times more exotic.
Much of that was because Audi paid attention to the details. The finish and styling cues, the pleasing little a-ha! moments like exposed carbon side panels and an interior dappled with satin aluminum. A cabin so isolated and comfortable, it made the 911’s seem like torture on the highway. “Whatever this is,” an R8-driving journalist friend once told me, “The Germans don’t do this.”
Most of all, it was a stinking hoot to drive. Don’t underestimate how difficult that is to achieve. An astonishing number of companies get it wrong, in part because emotion is hard to quantify. You can’t turn a sexy fender into a spreadsheet value, and you can’t justify buttery steering in a PowerPoint. Through careful engineering choices, the R8 was more refined and less manic than a 911. It wasn’t perfect, but buckling in felt like being let in on a secret.
About That Shifter
For a brand on the rise, still reinventing itself in the long wake of a recall debacle and anodyne cars, this was risky. It was also the smartest choice possible.
Which brings us back to the most striking detail in the whole package: the R8’s gated shift lever, offered only with a six-speed manual gearbox. In the 21st century, developing and building a gated manual was a conscious and deeply odd choice. Italian cars, mostly Ferraris and Lamborghinis, used similar setups for years. The design, which turns a car’s shift pattern into a series of uncompromising slots, was developed to help drivers cope with sloppy transmissions in the heat of competition. The result could be cantankerous and difficult to use, but people liked it anyway.
The Italians ditched gated shifters in the last decade, as exotic-car customers stopped buying manual transmissions. The Gallardo was available with a gate until 2013, when the car was discontinued. Neither Ferrari or Lamborghini now offer one, selling only paddle-shifted automatics.
Audi’s engineers, in typical German fashion, made theirs the best-working gated shifter in history. They rethought the concept to be slick and nearly friction-free, with none of the flaws. Unlike in Italian cars, the lever didn’t touch the gate you saw. It just appeared to, instead using a hidden, lower gate as a wear point, to keep the upper one pretty. Even the clack of the lever snapping into the lower gate had been optimized, just loud enough to be heard over exhaust and road noise. Driving the car smoothly still took skill—my first time in a manual R8, I botched every shift for a mile—but when you finally got it right, you felt like you’d won the world. The knob was hefty knurled aluminum, the shift gate anodized. Each changed temperature with the weather because it was real, unforgiving metal. The 911 gave you plastic and leather. Every time I touched the R8’s shift lever, I wanted to hug it.
As the old R8 leaves and the new one arrives, I don’t mourn the car itself. The 2016 model, shown above, is styled a lot like the first one. Like its peers, it won’t have a manual gearbox, just a paddle-shifted automatic. It may or may not be a piece of original thinking, because car executives are a conservative bunch, and there’s now a legacy to be minded. There’s speed metrics to be met and something to be lost. I mourn the shifter, and what it encapsulates: the feeling of a chance being taken.
It’s a shame. Metrics are inherently ephemeral. Conservative is comfortable. If you really want to make a dent, chase the different. Chase the risk. Chase Ilsa and the gated shifter. You might fail, but remember that history tends to forget those who don’t even try.