It had to happen sooner or later. For 45 years, the Porsche 911 has sat steadfast on its throne as the best sports car in the world, refusing to let any competitor subvert its dominance. But with the sublime Audi R8, the 911 faces the real possibility of having to trail in its wake. Now the initial hysteria surrounding Audi's first proper supercar has ebbed sufficiently, it's a good idea to spend some quality time with both to see which one really does come out on top.
What is it about the 911 that gets under the skin so deeply? First of all, there's that shape. It's still the same overall look as Ferry Porsche's 1963 original and there's something primeval about it. It's a manly car and carries with it a reputation for biting when the driver makes a mistake. The location of its famed flat-six engine has never changed; it remains slung out beyond the rear wheels. This makes for incredible traction, making any 911 quick off the mark.
However, having all that weight so far back has also caught out thousands of drivers. Lift off the throttle mid-corner or dab the brakes injudiciously and the shifting weight often results in a pendulum action where, in the blink of an eye, you're spinning like a top-which can result in certain death on a public highway. The laws of physics always seemed to make the 911 a bit of a flawed gem and, perversely, this is another major appeal. Getting it right can take years of practice, but the rewards are immeasurable.
The latest (model 997) generation has finally addressed many of these handling foibles and even the entry-level Carrera is as good as almost any car could hope to be: safe, fast, reliable and pretty practical. I'm a true believer. But then. Within half an hour behind its wheel, I knew the R8 was the best sports car on the planet. Not the fastest, or the loudest, just the best. In that time, I experienced an epiphany on a favorite challenging road. It's a four-mile ribbon of weaving, undulating asphalt combining large sweepers, long straights and crazy blind bends. This Audi decimated it on a full-bore blast that left me shaking, screaming: "Yes! Yes! Yes!" It's a good job I was alone. I was in love, looking for any excuse to get back in and floor it. But there was only one way I'd get to the bottom of this whole 911 versus R8 thing: get them together for a full appraisal. And here we are, on the deserted mountain roads of north Wales, with a Carrera 4S and a stunning black R8. Game on.
I know these roads extremely well and have piloted dozens of 911s here, mostly at speeds that would have me locked up if ever I was caught. These two are as close in specification as could be hoped for, with both employing four-wheel drive. The C4S has the optional Power Kit which boosts power from 355 hp to 381, which is still some way short of the R8's 414 hp. Adding the Power Kit also bumps up the 911's price by $16,900, bringing the total price to less than $3,000 shy of the R8's $109,000 MSRP.
After a long and hard thrash, the Porsche manages to frustrate and shine in equal measure. Its steering is still superb and its diminutive proportions make it feel more nimble, but the brakes feel lifeless and the power deficiency is noticeable. 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 grips and goes with a seemingly unending supply of traction. They say familiarity breeds contempt, but I can honestly say that's not what's happening here.