Car Talk Goes Mid-Engine

Jamie Lincoln Kitman

Jamie Lincoln Kitman | May 30, 2013

You don’t hear a lot about what we call “supercars” on Tom and Ray’s show. Which is fair enough. Most people don’t own Ferraris, Lamborghinis, McLarens, Paganis or any other hyper-expensive sports car. There are levels of power and performance that the majority of the population will never even once in their lifetimes experience.

In a good year, maybe 6,000 supercars of all description are sold in the United States. So, in this nation of 315 million persons and 15 million annual car sales, perhaps that’s one reason for a car show, even one as misguided as this one, to have distinctly NOT focused on the exotic machinery. How many do-it-yourself-type people are going to call and ask for the brothers’ advice on synchronizing the four triple-choke Weber carburetors of their Lamborghini Muira? And what kind of radio would that make?

Which brings up a related reason for the silence; we already know what the brothers think about sporting machinery. Ray doesn’t touch the stuff and Tommy still thinks an early Fifties MG-TD with 52 horsepower is the bee’s knees, even if it has been sixty years since his sports car of choice became hopelessly, irrevocably obsolete.

Obsolete, schmobsolete: Tommy cruising in 52-horsepower style.

Of course, the downsides of automotive obsolescence are overstated. To our way of thinking, Tommy’s on the right track. The most direct route to automotive fun lies in old things that don’t go very fast and don’t pose much of a danger to others. They seem deathly fast, but they’re not. Fast, that is. Deathly maybe. But they’re engaging and a lot of fun when driven at ordinary, or even sub-ordinary speeds.

All that said, I’ve had occasion as a professional car-tester to drive some of the latest, greatest and fastest supercars the world builds and I can’t lie to you. I like supercars. And I’m not going out on a limb when I say most Car Talk listeners, even the most zealous Prius drivers, would enjoy a spell behind the wheel of one of these babies.

Going really fast is fun. But supercars are fun not just because of that, or in the way that comes from summoning all of one’s focus and nail-biting concentration to keep a decrepit MG going 45 miles an hour while headed in a generally straight line. Rather, it’s the focus and nail-biting concentration needed to safely exploit even a tiny fraction of their possibilities. These cars can hit sixty in the neighborhood of three seconds and then keep on going to nearly 200 mph. They’re capable of pulling more than two G’s during lateral cornering, and their full measure of performance can rarely be accessed outside of a racetrack -- not that some won’t try.

Today’s standard issue Ferrari, for instance, the 458, is typical of the driver-focused, two-seat sports cars of which I speak, in that it is preposterously rapid (3.4 seconds to sixty) and outrageous to look at. It has a mid-engine configuration, meaning its race-worthy V8 powerplant is located behind the driver in the “middle” of the chassis, race-car-style between the car’s two axles for maximum handling poise. This can severely compromise interior room and largely eliminates the possibility of a back seat, but, hey, it helps the car go faster and sports cars have always been inconvenient.

Once upon a time, major manufacturers like Fiat (X1/9) Toyota (MR2) and even Pontiac (Fiero) released inexpensive sports cars that utilized the mid-engine layout, too. They had many fans but the formula didn’t stick in the popularly priced world. One would-be iconoclast of the latter day, Volkswagen, announced plans a few years back to launch an inexpensive mid-engine platform which it would share with its Audi and Porsche relations. But it cancelled the whole project for all three brands the other month, bringing much sadness to fans of affordable mid-engine cars and to all who rue the inexorable march upmarket that so many makers take in favor of courageously sticking around to tempt the mass market with something left-of-center and new.

Ah, well, back to supercars. The 458 is absurdly fast and capable, delightfully tactile, wonderfully fruity, and, well, yes, one starts sounding a lot like a wine bore very quickly. Suffice it to say, if you ever get a chance to drive a 458, take it. But, let’s be honest, you probably won’t get the chance. And the cost of buying one is $230,000 minimum.

At 115 grand, the Audi R8 is cheap - well, in a relative sense.

Statistically speaking, your odds ought to improve slightly but meaningfully if you set your sights on the bargain-priced, but equally rare Audi R8. Despite its exotic specifications (and full-time four-wheel-drive), the R8 clocks in for 2014 at a mere $114,900 in un-optioned 430-horsepower, manual-shift, V8 form. That's pretty cheap for a mid-engine car that goes 188 mph, makes extensive use of aluminum and shares a basic structure with the Lamborghini Gallardo (whose prices starts at $191,900 excluding tax and rise quickly.) Make your R8’s specs exotic, such as with a new 550-horsepower V10-Plus, and you might spend more – try $180,000 and up – but it’s still a comparatively cheap proposition.

In fact, having just come from a day driving the entire R8 line as a guest of Audi in the canyons around Malibu, I’m here to say the lowly R8 V8 coupe has to be one of the great supercar values of our day. Sixty comes up in a hardly leisurely 4.2 seconds with the V8. If you opt for the way more expensive V10-Plus, that drops to 3.3. But we think the V8 is an economy worth stooping to enjoy, as its mere 188 mph top speed – versus the ten-cylinder, 550 horsepower V10-Plus’s 198 mph maximum – really ought to be adequate for most of your driving needs.

Launched in 2008, five years ago, which is a long time in car years, the R8 has been treated to a modest update for what is being billed as the 2014 model year (on sale now). From here it is expected to do another five years of business. That’s an eternity in car years, but supercar development is fitful, as the volumes are low and the investment funds must be tailored to suit. We have no doubt that the R8 will continue to seem relevant and appealing when the year 2019 is upon us.

The R8's phenomenal grip comes in handy on roads like these.

The R8 is comfortable and unusually practical for a mid-engined supercar, at the same time as it is unusually super, with astounding grip thanks to its Quattro four-wheel-drive system, extraordinarily quick-gear changing abilities with its newly optional S-tronic, double-clutch manu-matic transmissions, plus interior fittings and finish that continue to seem both highly evolved and highly resolved. The thing is really well screwed together. Which, given the generally sketchy standards of supercars, is in fact almost impossible to believe.

So far ahead of its time was the R8 of 2008 that it did not and does not have competition in this low end of the supercar market – except from its cousin, Porsche, with the rear-engined 911, which is quite a different car. Audi’s parent, the Volkswagen group, has only just acquired compete control of Porsche, with which it was always related. It will be interesting to see where the company’s interest in maximizing common structures will take it – could there be a Porsche version of the R8 one day in the future?

Pick an R8, any R8 ... from cool blue to pull-me-over-now-officer red.

Until then, as we experienced in the Malibu Hills, the R8 has the poise to make safe, fast driving easy – whereas Porsche’s 911, well-behaved as it has become, makes the whole business of driving fast harder.  The R8 has one antecedent – the Acura NSX of the mid-1990s, a mid-engine model with a V6 that came awfully close to humbling contemporary Ferraris for half the price and some great multiple of enhanced reliability. Acura is threatening to return with a new NSX so if Audi sees any danger looming on the horizon, that is it.

One thing’s certain: just like the R8, when the new NSX arrives, you won’t hear about it on Car Talk.

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