For decades, the all-season sportscar throne had been held by the 911 Carrera 4S, as there was no credible rival to match its combination of daily usability and breathtaking performance. But all that changed in 2007 when a pretender to this throne broke on to the scene. With its high-revving V8, exotic looks, and exceptional performance, the mid-engined Audi R8 was a potential game changer, but fell short of usurping the all-paw 911, mostly owing to its erratic R-tronic gearbox. Now that Porsche has upped the game with the 991 Carrera 4S, and Audi has thrown a smoother-shifting S-tronic gearbox into the equation, have things changed? We get the incumbent and the aspirant together so that the issue is settled once and for all.
Sony’s 911 Carrera 4S
The rear-wheel-drive Carrera is an incredibly capable machine, and the rear-engine layout — along with Porsche’s Active Stability Management (PASM) system — makes sure that grip is aplenty. Although you’d imagine that makes the 4S rather redundant, the fact is traction is something that’s always welcome in a car that’s likely to be driven hard most of the time. Plus the 991 generation Carrera 4S has an outright advantage over its predecessor; it looks similar to the two-wheel-drive version. In fact, with its wider haunches, larger air intakes and the mildly tweaked rear design with the interconnected taillights, it looks even better than the regular Carrera.
It’s typical Porsche fare inside the cabin, which gets a lot of Panamera-style buttons and boasts impeccable build quality, materials and ergonomics. My test car had the optional 14-way electric sports seat, which was comfortable and highly supportive and it was easy to settle into the best driving position.
Behind me is the same 3.8-litre flat six that powers the standard Carrera, making 400bhp and 440Nm of torque but which, for some reason, sounds better here. Power is channelled to all four corners through a seven-speed PDK double clutch gearbox, which sends most of the juice to rear wheels as you take off, but transfers it to the front as you hit the fast track.
Wheel spin is virtually non-existent and progress is linear yet unbelievably composed. The flip side to this is the absence of drama that the R8 has in abundance and that the spectacularly quick acceleration doesn’t seem as spectacular.
But that’s not to say that the overall experience isn’t rewarding. The gain in weight is effectively counterbalanced by the increased traction, and the immediacy and precision of the car’s responses to your inputs, the sublime dynamics, the fluency with which it progresses and the distinctively raspy engine note — especially with the optional sports exhaust system — combine to make your time behind the wheel as gratifying as you’d expect in a 911.
But the real relevance of all-wheel drive becomes apparent when you go overboard with your heroics out of a bend or hit a sand patch. In such situations, the Carrera 4S can switch the power between front and rear as needed. The all-wheel-drive system kicks in at just 100 milliseconds to send torque to the front through a multiple-plate clutch before going back to the classic rear-drive experience once you exit the corner.
The standard Carrera is itself a thoroughly practical sportscar. But the Carrera 4 takes this up a few notches by helping you enjoy the power, performance and the sheer mechanical brilliance of the 911 with the added reassurance of four-wheel-drive traction. It could perhaps be faulted for being too precise and therefore lacking in emotion. But that doesn’t take anything away from the fact that the 911 Carrera 4S remains the quintessential everyday sportscar.
Imran’s Audi R8
In this region, the slush box rules and that is borderline criminal. A manual is my preferred choice because of the involvement and feeling of being at one with a car that only a row-your-own can provide. But the seven-speed S-tronic in the 2013 R8 is so flipping good that if I never see another manual again, I really wouldn’t care. Usually, it is the engine that is the heart and soul of a car but I’d say it’s the gearbox that defines Audi’s revised baby supercar. The previous automated manual, which would lurch you forwards and backwards with every gearshift, has been ditched and this twin-clutch newbie is simply astonishing. It swaps cogs within a blink of an eye, is always in the right gear and when in Sport mode, blips down through the ratios so splendidly that you’ll fall head over heels for this 430bhp beauty.
But there’s so much more to the R8 than just a fab gearbox. For starters, just look at it. It’s still as fresh as it was when it first hit the scene six years ago but it’s been revised a tad; the single-frame grille has been painted high-gloss black, the new bumper features air inlets bearing three crossbars each, the rear LEDs feature integrated indicators (you can also spec LEDs for the engine bay like our test car), while the large diffusor has been pulled upwards and the exhaust features two round tailpipes. It wipes the floor with the 911 in terms of visual drama. Measuring 4,440mm long, 1,900mm wide and just 1,250mm high, the R8 looks like it’s about to pounce — overall, the exterior is far more aggressive than before. Its aluminium space frame weighs only 210kg while the unladen total is just 1,560kg, which means when you add a naturally aspirated 4.2-litre V8, the R8 flies.
The powerplant is ferocious and produces 430Nm of torque and can propel it from 0-100kph in 4.3 seconds. The mid-mounted, dry-sumped version of the RS4’s 4.2-litre FSI V8 is engineering at its best. Hang about; the 5.2-litre V10 promises to be even better, which is a scary thought because this entry-level motor is sublime. It features a launch control mode that holds revs at the precise point that enables a maximum-attack standing start, before depositing the engine’s huge power figures to the road. Throttle response is instantaneous and it handles impeccably.
It’s extremely agile and has more than enough cornering grip thanks to its four-wheel-drive system, which has a rear-biased torque delivery. It devours twists and turns and corners like nothing else I have ever driven.
The hydraulic steering, though pretty heavy, is precise and the anchors bite hard to bring proceedings to a sudden halt. The chassis features double wishbones forged from aluminium and specially tuned springs and shocks. Although the ride is generally firm but can become a little tiresome if you’re just pottering around town, on a twisty stretch it is the ideal set-up.
This isn’t just an all-out racecar; it’s refined too. The interior is upholstered with a combination of Alcantara and fine Nappa leather and also sports a delightful mix of piano black, and satin chrome trim. So, second time around,
has it done enough to keep the 911 awake at night?
It’ll take a heck of a car to knock the Porsche off top spot. It’s been leading the way as one of the greatest handling sportscars for decades and with the 991 4S, it’s just got even better. But as an overall package it’s lacking, visually — it isn’t as eye-catching as the baby Audi, not by a long way. And the R8 has made a massive improvement mechanically; the S-tronic is superb and matches the PDK punch for punch.
They’re both extremely quick and smooth but the R8 sounds devilishly good when in Sport mode and begins to drop through the gears. The Carrera doesn’t offer nearly as much aural pleasure, but it does have a much better steering and it’s
a far easier car to live with.
We get the feeling every time owners of a Carrera see an R8 in the next lane, they’ll wish they were behind the wheel of it. Would the R8 driver feel likewise? We’re not so sure and that’s because it matches the 911 in almost every department and when you consider it’s almost Dh70,000 cheaper (it even packs the navigation system plus MMI operating logic and leather interior while the bells and whistles cost extra on our 911 bringing its price up to Dh503,750), the Audi begins to make more sense.
And for that reason, the R8 is the one we’d have.