Porsche 997 vs Audi R8
They’re both part of the same extended family but they’re sworn enemies. Porsche’s 997 meets Audi’s R8 to settle the score and see just who is really boss
There’s a very good reason this magazine is published and it’s the same reason you’re reading these very words; the 911 is the greatest, most successful sports car in history and deserves to be written about, examined, lusted after and cherished. Throughout its seemingly never-ending tenure at the top, rivals have come and rivals have gone; the 911 remaining in constant production despite sometimes stiff competition and even the desires of Porsche’s top brass to kill it off in the Seventies and Eighties.
Even now, every time a new, powerful sports car is even hinted at, the covers of certain car magazines declare it to be a ‘911 killer’ with shouty headlines and promises of it being the one car to knock the evergreen Porsche off its pedestal. And no car, before or since, has represented a threat to the 911 quite like the Audi R8. When the initial road tests started to emerge, it did look like it was game over for Porsche but, three years after the first R8s started to reach customers in the UK, perhaps enough time has elapsed to be able to compare the two without the worldwide hysteria threatening to cloud our judgement.
Anyone who’s read the numerous comparison tests I’ve written about various models of 911 with their contemporary rivals will know that there is no bias here. The 911 doesn’t always win because, as much as I adore the cars, they are far from perfect, no matter what generation we happen to be talking about. And that, no doubt, is one of the reasons we find them so fascinating and worthy of our time and money, whether as an owner or someone who gets a fix from reading about them. Anything perfect runs the risk of being a bit boring, doesn’t it? And nobody could accuse any 911 of being boring, at least from behind the wheel.
What the 911 has always offered has been an engaging experience for the driver, with superb build quality and a relatively high degree of practicality. Yet the car has diversified to the point that, whatever your needs from a sports car, there’s a 911 for you. Thirty years ago it would have been unthinkable for a 911 to be equipped with four-wheel drive, yet the Carrera 4 has become one of the biggest-selling models. It still feels like a 911 but it brings added safety and sure-footedness that many owners are glad of. Yet four-wheel drive was brought to the masses by Audi in 1980 with the original quattro – a car that has come to be recognised as a bona fide trailblazer.
For years the quattro dominated the world’s rally stages and it set a benchmark for how sports cars should behave on the road as well as the forest trail. It meant owners could enjoy decent levels of performance whatever the weather and, as a road car, the quattro was even more practical than a 911 thanks to its normal-sized boot and two decent rear seats. It remained in production from 1980 until 1991, barely changing in its appearance and, in that time, the 911 morphed from the SC to the 3.2 Carrera and then the 964, which, coincidentally, was the first production 911 to utilise four-wheel drive (if you discount the 959).
The quattro drive system has seen active service in almost every roadgoing Audi since its inception, so the company can rightly claim to be world leaders in this technology but it hasn’t always resulted in particularly good drivers’ cars. Safe, yes, but the driving experience in many of them has been a bit lacklustre – even in the mental RS models. But a decade ago, Audi had an ace up its sleeve with a halo model that would cause a sensation; the Le Mans quattro concept, unveiled in 2003 at the Frankfurt Motor Show.
Three years later in 2006, the production R8 was a reality and it looked almost identical to that stunning show car. A year after that, I got my first drive in an R8 when I pitched it against a Carrera 4S on the mountainous roads of north Wales. As far as I was concerned, in 2007, the R8 walked it. I thought the 997 felt – and looked – old by comparison. The R8 was an epic drive. On first acquaintance I took it for a thrashing along a back road close to where I lived and within half an hour behind its wheel I just knew the R8 was the best sports car on the planet. It decimated that road on a full-bore blast that left me shaking, screaming ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ Sounding like Meg Ryan on a first date, it’s a good job I was alone. The following days saw no change in my opinion and a couple of summers ago, when I got to drive a V10 version for a week, I seriously thought the 997 Turbo had been trumped by it.
Handbuilt by a team of 120 of Audi’s best, most experienced workers (over 50 per cent of them are aged over 40 and they’re known as the ‘silver liners’), an average of 20 R8s roll out of the factory each day. It takes 15 times longer to build an R8 compared to Audi’s normal output and the quality of its all-aluminium construction is breathtaking. So yes, the R8 should have been causing a few sleepless nights in Stuttgart; because it is a masterpiece.
Or is it? Was I simply wowed by the newness, the sexiness of this Audi? Was my opinion swayed by practically every car magazine review saying the same thing? How, after three or four years, has it stacked up against its main rival (on paper at least) – the 997 Carrera 4S? It was time to revisit the bloody battle and, fortunately, Specialist Cars of Malton have one of each in stock, both practically the same age. Malton supremo, John Hawkins, is as dyed in the wool as any Porsche nut yet even he has to admit that the R8 is a stonkingly good piece of kit. And trust me, it isn’t just because he is selling this one.
Both look good. Really, really good. The 997 is, to my mind, perhaps an over-familiar shape but that’s because there are so many of them on the roads. And that’s because they’re so damned good. The R8 still manages to cause a sharp intake of breath, however. It looks every inch the supercar and is way better looking than it often appears in magazine photographs. Low, squat, aggressive, still futuristic, it excites the senses long before you take a seat behind the wheel or fire up its V8. Will I still be thinking the same thing in 20 years’ time? Hard to say but, if history is anything to go by, there’ll still be a 911 variant produced two decades from now and it will look pretty much like this one, while the R8 likely will be a distant memory.
But in the here and now, this Audi definitely gets my vote. The cab-forward design accentuates the mid-engined layout, the LED running lights grab everyone’s attention and the contrasting side-blades help break up the bulk of the rear-three-quarter section. It’s a design that looks as though it means business but there’s a problem for photographer Earey; the R8 is still, he moans, ‘just’ an Audi. And there are plenty of people out there with the same, nonsensical prejudice.
There are many ways to counter this ludicrous line of reasoning. Let’s just say a Land Rover enthusiast sees a Cayenne ploughing through the rough, perhaps coping better than his own pride and joy, and he sneers saying it’s ‘just a Porsche’. These days a badge actually means very little and it won’t be long before idiots start referring to Porsche’s as jumped-up Volkswagens. That’s happened before but now Porsche is part of the VW empire it’s bound to start cropping up with more frequency.
Volkswagen Group owns Volkswagen, Audi, Seat, Skoda, Bentley, Lamborghini, Bugatti and now has a 49.9 per cent stake in Porsche. VW also has its beady little eyes on Alfa Romeo so, as you can see, it really is nothing short of an empire. And a company with VW’s resources is able to further the development of the cars manufactured by its subsidiaries in a way that would be impossible without its massive financial clout. I digress, however, because if anything should see off the R8’s detractors (most of whom, it has to be said, have never driven one), Audi’s dominance in the Le Mans 24-Hours is it.
Racing improves the breed – any Porsche 911 owner knows that – and, while Audi’s endurance cars have utilised diesel engine technology, the racing knowhow attained
by the company was always bound to have some sort of impact on its road cars. So, between the four-wheel-drive development since the original quattro and the more recent success on the track, Audi has a firm foundation for building a world-beating sports car. And if anyone moans about there being no heritage with the R8, well just remember that the company’s history stretches back more than a century…
So now that’s off my chest, it’s time to get to grips with these two wonderful cars. Today, as luck would have it, the weather reports have got it entirely wrong. The east coast of Yorkshire was supposed to be dry, unlike the rest of the sodden country. Brilliant. But if my past experience with these cars is anything to go by, rain and standing water won’t get in the way of a good time. So I pick up the keys to the R8 and take my seat.
From here it’s obvious that Porsche needs to move with the times. The R8’s cockpit is an exercise in proper sports car ergonomics. It’s airy, well laid out and everything’s nice to the touch. The open gate for the manual stick shift is just so Lambo, but it works. I feel like I’m in a truly special car where the driver is the focus of attention, while the 911’s cabin architecture is rather bland in comparison. True, the dials and controls are mostly stock Audi but there’s nothing wrong with that because the company has turned interior design into an art form and no matter what you look at or brush a finger against, it’s difficult to think how they could improve the sheer quality on offer.
Igniting the mid-mounted V8 results in a deep, delicious rumble. It’s essentially the same engine that Audi fitted to the RS4 – itself a serious performance car – and immediately I can feel the unit’s muscularity. The clutch is light to operate but not overly so and the open-gate gearshifter does take some getting used to because you need to be very positive and accurate with your selections. Anyone not used to it will moan that it’s awkward and robs you of precious time, particularly at speed because you’re concentrating on getting the lever into exactly the right position. They’re quite right but after a few days it becomes second nature and you can swap cogs as easily as in any other car.
Clearing the urban traffic I head out to the countryside’s empty roads with Earey behind in the Carrera 4S. I’m immediately at ease, meaning I can push this car much harder, much sooner than the 911. The grip on turn-in is tenacious and the steering, while not as communicative as the Porsche’s, is still scalpel sharp. The engine is a little too muted for my ears but you can always hear it and, when you work it to the redline in any gear it sounds brutal. Take it easy and it’s quiet and refined.
When cornering hard there’s none of the 911’s famous twitchiness, meaning the twists and turns of these fantastic stretches of road can be enjoyed to the max. There’s no body roll, no nervousness – it seems unstickable with the electronic nanny switched on yet I know from previous experience that smoking powerslides are available when conditions permit thanks to a huge chunk of power being sent to the rear boots. Although the same can be said, of course, about the 997 whether it’s rear or four-wheel drive.
The R8 devours mile after glorious mile and I am convinced; this is the car that’s bloodied the 911’s previously unbroken nose. As an exercise in re-familiarising myself with the joys of
the Audi, it’s worked a treat and it doesn’t take long for me to fall back in love with it.
But I have to be objective – this is a comparison, after all. So at the first opportunity I swap cars for the 911. The two could not be more different – in the 997 there’s a danger that familiarity can breed contempt because I get frustrated that the design has stayed resolutely unchanged for so long. Yet judged by its own merits there’s a lot to like. The controls are intelligently laid out, the quality is high and there’s an airiness that even the R8 cannot match. It might not get the pulse racing but it’s still a lovely environment and makes the driver feel at ease because, well, you can see out of it.
The seating position is superb and the stubby gearlever feels wonderful – it’s like the car is tailored to your frame, no matter what your own physical dimensions happen to be. It makes you want to drive. Hard. So that’s exactly what I set out to do. Clutch in, key turned and the flat six barks into life, settling down to its raspy idle in just a couple of seconds. Blip the throttle and it’s possibly more vocal than the R8 but it’s an entirely different sound. Metallic, slightly flatulent and quite unique, even at a standstill.
Selecting first gear, I’m convinced, once again, that this is one of the most wonderful transmissions in any car in production right now. Slick, easy and precise – every change is a joy. As I change through the ’box, the Carrera feels every bit as urgent as the R8 and, even in the pouring rain, manages to feel poised and focused. It’s easy to drive hard and fast and, as the cabin fills with the sonorous delights of that 3.8-litre flat six, my confidence builds, like being in the company of an old friend. I manage to reach my own limits long before the Porsche reaches its own – it’s absolutely brilliant.
However, it isn’t perfect. The steering is still superb (although not quite so razor-sharp as that in a rear-wheel-drive 997) and its diminutive proportions make it feel more nimble, but the brakes feel lifeless compared to the epic stoppers fitted to the R8. They require a far heftier shove to get the same sort of retardation. And the rear engine still makes its presence felt inasmuch as I don’t feel quite as confident flinging it into a sharp hairpin as I do in the R8, which just grips and goes with a seemingly unending supply of traction. But that’s not necessarily a flaw – it could be viewed as just difference in character and character is what the 911 is all about, isn’t it?
As the hours roll on, I swap cars time and time again. I’m having a great deal of difficulty in coming up with a clear winner here because each has so much to offer even the novice driver. But a winner must be declared, without resorting to drawing straws and I’m starting to feel that the 911 is really beginning to show its age now. For a first attempt at building a road-going supercar, the R8 shows how accomplished Audi has become over the past 20 years or so. While the Porsche 911 has been steadily refined over the decades, resulting in an extremely competent machine, the Audi R8 is all new – unhampered by compromises with engine layouts and enthusiast nostalgia. They started with a clean sheet of paper and if Porsche could do that, too, then the 911 would no doubt be a completely different animal.
It’s difficult to say what Porsche will end up doing with the 911 range a few years from now. The flat-six configuration offers compact dimensions and a unique soundtrack but Porsche admits there’s not much more that can be done to eke out more power from it. So will the 911 end up with a rear-mounted V8? Will it stay as it is until buyers get fed up? Will the legislators force it out of existence? Who knows?
It’s a legend, the 911, that goes without saying. It will have grown men and women obsessing over it decades from now because it’s a magical thing and perhaps cars like the R8 are too clinical, too capable, too perfect for you ever to contemplate owning one. But that’s judging cars by their personalities rather than their abilities, and I need to be impartial here.
I find myself sucking air through my teeth, shaking my head and scratching my stubbly chin like I’m Alan Sugar when he’s making his final choice on The Apprentice. I sway one way then the other but I have to come down in favour of only one and, like it was when I first drove these two back-to-back, the R8 clinches it but by a more narrow margin than before. It boils down to this; the R8 is more exciting, just that bit more able and that bit more encouraging when the speed is piling on. But it’s an extremely close call, almost too close for comfort and when the 998 emerges at the end of the year the tables could very well be turned once again. I can’t wait.
Spec: Audi R8
Compression ratio: 12.5:1
Maximum power: 424bhp at 7,900rpm
Maximum torque: 430Nm at 4,500-6,000rpm
Brakes: 380mm discs (front) and 356mm discs (rear)
Wheels & tyres: 19×8.5J, 235/35ZR19 (front ) and 18×10.5J, 295/30ZR19 (rear)
0-62mph: 4.6 sec
Top speed: 187mph
Spec: Porsche 997 Carrera 4S
Compression Ratio: 11.8:1
Maximum power: 350bhp at 6,600rpm
Maximum torque: 400Nm at 4,600rpm
Brakes: 330mm discs (front) and 300mm discs (rear)
Wheels & tyres: 19x8J, 235/35ZR19 (front) and 19x11J, 305/30ZR19 (rear)
0-62mph: 4.8 sec
Top speed: 180mph
This was taken from issue 74, for all Total 911 back issues visit www.imagineshop.co.uk/