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Drives: Yep, That's My Engine. Nice Lighting, Huh?

Audi R8

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."

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