Audi gets a grip 

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Road cars – Andrew Frankel

There’s a new feeling apparent in the German manufacturer’s products, and it’s about offering driver satisfaction as well as technical excellence

Like many of you, I shall doubtless trot down to Le Mans this summer, more in hope than expectation that it will for once produce an epic race. Every year I promise I’m going to give it a break, but the statistics show that’s one promise I cannot be relied upon to keep: I’ve missed one in the last 12 and that was only because I was racing somewhere else myself.

Sadly, I think the race has never been more dull. For that it would be easy to blame Audi. Every winner this century has had an Audi engine, and were it not for Bentley’s victory in 2003 (albeit against no works Audis), every win would have been by an Audi too. Fact is, when the works team has been around, no-one else has ever looked like winning.

In certain years it has appeared that the Audis have had some opposition, notably from Pescarolo this year. I don’t believe it. From what I know about the Audi approach, I don’t think that, after their debut year in 1999, the works Audis have truly been pushed at Le Mans. Indeed I think the team’s bigger problem is not making its cars go fast, but persuading their drivers to go slow. Audi people will tell you that the last thing they want is to steam-roller a race against inadequate opposition as they did last year, and that they’d much rather come out on top only after a tense, 24-hour fight with other heavyweight teams. Sad to say, but there are few more boring headlines in the motorsport arena than ‘Audi wins Le Mans. Again’.

You might ask why, after six wins in seven years, they do not simply call it a day and go and do something more interesting instead. Perhaps it’s because Porsche, Jaguar and Ferrari have all won the race even more times, and they won’t feel they have left their mark until all records have fallen; but I think it’s simpler than that. There’s nowhere else to go.

Audi has long stated its philosophical objections to Formula 1. It’s already racing its Le Mans car in the USA in ALMS and it’s up to its ears in the DTM, the only touring car championship commanding any influence. So if it is to hope to convince the world that Audis are for young, sporting types who really appreciate driving, at Le Mans it must stay.

In fact you could argue that the imperative to keep racing is even greater for Audi than BMW and Porsche. One of Audi’s problems is that for many years people like me have been telling people like you that if you really appreciate driving, Audis are among the last cars you should consider. Great to look at? Usually. Great to be seen in? If that’s what you’re into. Great to drive? Hardly ever.

But things, at last, appear to be changing. I recently drove from the Severn to the Menai bridge in Audi’s hot new S8 saloon in company with a Maserati Quattroporte and a 514bhp Mercedes-Benz CLS 63AMG. To my complete astonishment, it was the Audi I preferred. It helped that it rained a lot, giving the all-wheel drive Audi a considerable advantage, but even when it was dry it more than held its own.

Then there’s the RS4, the superfast version of the A4 saloon, estate and convertible with a manic 420bhp V8. And while Audi has never struggled in making its cars go fast in a straight line, this one goes round corners beautifully too. Compared to the relentless mediocrity of recent Audi chassis, this was a revelation.

Most recently I’ve been trundling around in a new TT, the car whose predecessor encapsulated the very essence of all that frustrated and annoyed me about Audi’s inability to produce a decent driving machine. And while it doesn’t look quite so fantastic as the old TT, I don’t really care: I sit on the inside looking out and would much rather it was worth driving. And it is.

For a start, its body contains more aluminium than steel which means, by the increasingly corpulent standards of modern cars, it’s actually quite light. And that means it’s also quite quick. The 2-litre four cylinder 200bhp basic car weighs just 1260kg, the 3.2-litre V6, 250bhp range topper just 1410kg, despite 4WD. Compare that to, say, the 1630kg of the Alfa-Romeo Brera. 

And, at last, it actually feels connected to the road surface in corners. With the old TT, it was only because the ride quality was so awful that you felt in touch with the ground. There was little or no feel through the steering and even less via the seat of your pants. This TT isn’t going to scare Porsche, but it is a massive and welcome improvement. In the past I’ve never been able to recommend a TT to anyone who cares about driving but, to a certain group who are not driving die-hards, I’d say it will now suit well.

But the big challenge is still to come. Later this month Audi launches the R8, its most sporting road car ever. By pricing it at £75,900 it is stating very clearly that it has what it takes not just to match the car it’s most closely aimed at, but to beat it hands down. That car is none other than the Porsche 911 Carrera S, and not only is it probably the finest allpurpose sports car money can buy, it’s over £10,000 cheaper than the R8. The Audi will have to murder it to justify that. I don’t know any better than you if it’s possible, but one thing’s for sure: it’s going to be fun finding out.