Being seen around Hollywood behind the wheel of the "Iron Man car" isn't bad for the ego, but after cruising around Los Angeles in the Audi R8, I couldn't wait to take it to the edge of the desert near Indio and let it fly on a long stretch of roller-coaster asphalt. I had had a good look at the 420-horsepower direct-injection engine -- it's hard to miss, sitting in the middle of the car, illuminated by LEDs under a panel of glass like some kind of science museum exhibit -- and I wondered if it was really worth the pedestal treatment.
The R8, which accelerates from 0 to 60 in 4.4 seconds and has a top speed of 187 miles per hour, did not disappoint. It was a thrill to drive, even on gravel roads -- but especially on open swaths of pavement. As I weaved in and out of a handful of weekend drivers on the 29 Palms Highway, the car seemed to share my wish that the road was mine alone. Unfortunately, as I discovered, it does rain in Southern California; fortunately, the drenched hills turned out to be a perfect test of the R8's pavement-gripping all-wheel drive.
The R8 comes with either a manual transmission or an R tronic automated manual transmission, which allows automatic shifting or manual shifting via the stick shift or paddles on the steering wheel. With its carbon fiber side blades, a taut aluminum body, and a single-frame grille, the R8 presents a dramatic package, but it's almost practical enough for day-to-day driving. Especially if your daily commute takes you through the desert, where the unencumbered blacktop is no mirage.
Sticker Price: $109,000 for manual; $118,000 for the R tronic; $136,850 as tested
Vital Stats: 4.2-liter 420-hp V-8 engine; 317 pound-feet of torque; 13/18 mpg
Good Stuff: Who doesn't love an engine with its own mood lighting? The cockpit is spacious, with 45 inches of legroom. The optional 12-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system drowns out traffic with noise-canceling technology.
Drawbacks: In the R tronic's automatic mode, there was a shifting delay at low speeds. Plus, it's a gas glutton. While gliding past some enormous white turbines on the highway, I felt some pangs of guilt.
Second Opinion: "With its sumptuous interior, exotic looks, and tight handling, the Audi R8 is tough to beat," says Trisha Hessinger, a Vitesse driver in the American Le Mans and an automotive expert on the HGTV and DIY networks. "It can be driven aggressively to a very high standard and smoothly as an everyday car."