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.
Climbing into the Audi, 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 so Lambo, but it works. I feel like I'm in a truly special car and the 911's cabin architecture is hopelessly bland by comparison.
Outside too, the look of the R8 is completely modern-futuristic. It's as though a spacecraft has landed. Not a single head fails to be turned by it, whereas the 911 is so ubiquitous that it's now almost (dare I say it?) a bit boring. Firing up the mid-mounted V8 results in a deep, delicious rumble. As I edge out onto the empty road, I'm immediately at ease. I can push this car much harder, much sooner than the 911. The grip on turn-in is tenacious and the steering, while not quite as communicative as the Porsche's, is still scalpel-sharp. There's none of the 911's twitchiness. The twists and turns of these fantastic stretches of tarmac can be enjoyed to the max. As the R8 devours mile after glorious mile, I'm convinced: this is the car that bloodies the 911's previously unbroken nose.
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 911 has seen a steady refinement over the decades, resulting in an extremely competent machine, the R8 is all new, unhampered by compromises with engine layouts and enthusiast nostalgia. Audi started with a clean sheet of paper and Porsche needs to do that too.
The next generation of 911 will be even better than this one, with a new DSG-style sequential transmission that should be revelatory. But after that, Porsche should junk the whole rear-engined flat-six thing, confine it to the history books and show the world a truly groundbreaking new car. Audi might soon be building R8s with V10 engines. And if it brings its turbocharging know-how into the mix, it'll be all over. Game, set and match.
For now, the Porsche 911 is still a brilliant car. But it's time to face facts: the R8 is better. Over to you, Stuttgart.
2008 Audi R8
Mid engine, all-wheel drive
4.2-liter V8, dohc, 32-valve
Peak Power: 414 hp @ 7800 rpm
Peak Torque: 317 lb-ft @ 4500 rpm
0-60mph: 4.5 sec.
Top speed: 187 mph
Cars That Threatened To Topple The 911 (But Didn't)
Every time a relatively affordable and properly fast car has been announced, car magazines throughout the world run headlines like 'Target 911' or 'Watch out, Porsche.' The 911 has been under attack since the early 1970s, when Ferrari's flawless 246 Dino squared up to Porsche's 2.4S model. That 911's rock-solid reliability won the day, but the competition never went away.
After the Dino came the ungainly 308 GT4, which was mid-engined and even had a couple of rear seats. It wasn't enough and was followed by the unspeakably beautiful 308 and 328 models-the closest Ferrari ever came to mass production.
The 911 outlived them all, yet its biggest threat came from within. Porsche wanted the 911 dead and planned to phase it out during the 1970s with the 928-an admittedly superb GT car but nowhere near as thrilling as the old-timer. 911 sales remained strong and the 928 faded into the shadows, finally killed off in 1995 with the awesome GTS.
Recently, Aston Martin's V8 Vantage has tempted 911 fanatics to stray and who can blame them? The Vantage is one of the sexiest-looking cars ever built. But it's a bit fragile and doesn't feel as fast as even the least powerful 911. That's just been addressed with the revised, more powerful and sharper Vantage, so let's see what happens.
From Japan has come Nissan's GT-R: a direct challenger to the 911 Turbo. It practically matches the blown 911, no matter what statistic is mentioned, and is half the price. But it's a bit vulgar and bit, well, Japanese.
So when Audi announced production of the show-stopping R8, we were prepared for magazine headlines about going for the 911's jugular. What we weren't prepared for was Audi giving the iconic Porsche a sound kicking. Who'd have thought it?
2008 Porsche 911 Carrera 4S
Rear engine, all-wheel drive
3.8-liter flat six, dohc, 24-valve
Peak Power: 381 hp @ 7200 rpm
Peak Torque: 306 lb-ft @ 5500 rpm
0-60mph: 4.5 sec.
Top speed: 184 mph