Maybe I had a little extra karma to spare. Maybe the gods looked down on me and smiled. Maybe I’m just one lucky son of a gun.
Either way, I’ve spent the last two weeks with two very stripped-down sports cars: the 2014 Porsche 911 and the 2014 Audi R8. Both cars arrived in their most basic forms: manual transmissions, base engines, and very, very few optional extras.
This got me to thinking, “Which of these really is the better sports car at its core?”
I’ve driven the wildest versions of the cars already – Audi’s R8 V10 Plus at nearly $200,000, and the Porsche 911 Turbo S, which was optioned into the same territory – and both cars were legitimate supercars with totally different personalities.
But what happens when you take away all of the carbon ceramic brakes and dual-clutch automatics? The extra cylinders and forced induction? The high-end sound systems and rare breed leathers? Neither of these cars came with radar cruise control, keyless start, or even a sunroof.
I sought out to determine which set of enthusiasts was right: The Classic Collectors or the Techie Neophytes.
This one is totally subjective, so I’ll just start by saying that I love the mostly-unchanged-since-the-1960s lines on the Porsche, but the Audi really gets me all hot and bothered.
Based on the cars that orbited me on highway, with drivers trying their best to snap photos without crashing, my guess is that the R8’s ultra-modern design won over the hearts of Atlantans, too.
However, I polled my friends only to find a very different result. Sure, the Audi R8 had guys crawling all over it, drooling over the glass engine cover, and fawning over the LED headlights. That wasn’t enough, though.
The gents who knew something about cars talked about how the Audi had started to age and look long in the tooth. Two of the women in my life (including my mother) mentioned that the R8 looks like a Hot Wheels toy, rather than a car they’d want to drive every day. Somehow, the R8 has come across as too trendy, and while it would be fun to own today; marrying its design wasn’t something most folks wanted to do for the long haul.
On the other hand, the 911’s understated looks earned unanimous praise across the board. However, it was a praise steeped in household knowledge of the brand and long-earned respect, rather than some of the wild excitement we earned with the Audi.
No, I don’t think anyone noticed me on the highway in this car; there are just too many on the road, and it’s hard for folks to differentiate between models. But that inability to tell the difference between cars was a selling point to my friends, since they felt like this base 911 would likely look as cool as a brand new Porsche in 15 years.
Admittedly, no one thought the Porsche was worth its $100,000 price tag, and most thought the Audi cost significantly more than it did. That didn’t stop the Porsche from becoming the darling of the group.
Winner: Porsche 911
In the past Porsche has been known for its driver-centric interiors and relatively crappy fit and finish, giving the brand a reputation for sports cars, rather than luxury machines. That’s shifted dramatically since the debut of the Panamera and its influence on the rest of the Porsche lineup – for better, not worse.
On the flip side, just about any Audi’s best quality will likely be its interior. The brand uses high-grade materials and simple, intuitive technology to really amplify the travel experience for driver and passengers alike, so you’d think Audi would have this one in the bag.
And it does.
Granted, this particular Audi R8 came with a $6,500 leather package upgrade, so it’s hard to say if a truly base R8 would’ve sized up against the 911. The Porsche had soft-touch materials throughout and nice enough leather. Even then, it didn’t feel much nicer inside than a BMW 4 Series. The 911 does come standard with a full-color, multi-function screen in the gauge cluster that’s especially useful, but the rest was pretty standard issue.
The R8 came with black, quilted leather and white contrasting stitching, and that leather covered every surface. There were fewer buttons inside, too, making the Audi a more straightforward driving experience. I’ll admit that I missed the convenient storage of the 911’s rear seat (because you’re fitting people back there, I promise), but the R8 just felt cozier and better-built inside – something that I hope the engineers at Porsche learn as they settle into their VW Group brand experience.
Winner: Audi R8
It’s pretty obvious where Porsche focuses its attention when you look at a car’s window sticker. You’ll find more bullets in the 911’s engine description than anywhere else. That’s because Porsche is notorious for nickel-and-diming its customers for each individual option on the list. Fancy seats? Sure, that’s $2,320. Wheels that don’t look undersized? Great, that’s another $3,000. Oh, you want your key to match your paintjob? Awesome, that’s another $300.
With that in mind, you can customize a 911 to the end of the world and back, making your car unique among other Porsches on the road today. What you get in the base $84,300 price is pretty simple, and it’s easy to add $50k in options from here:
- A 3.4-liter, horizontally-opposed six-cylinder engine
- A seven-speed manual transmission
- 19-inch wheels (that look too small)
- Xenon headlights
- Bluetooth (but no steering wheel controls)
- Warm and fuzzies for finally buying the Porsche you wanted as a kid
Audi offers similar standard features, albeit with a few more conveniences. That might sound like a sham, since the R8 starts at $115,000, but since the average Porsche buyer adds almost half of the car’s value in options to the sticker price, they tend come out pretty evenly. The base R8 comes with:
- A 4.2-liter V8
- A six-speed manual transmission with a sexy gated shifter
- 19-inch wheels (that don’t look to small for the car)
- LED headlights
- Navigation and Bluetooth (with steering wheel controls)
- Tony Stark and/or rapper status upon purchase
Performance really is the category that should separate good sports cars from fantastic sports cars, but that’s also the category that really differentiates the Porsche 911 from the Audi R8.
The Porsche is a rear-engine, rear-drive absolutely brilliant machine. In its most basic form, its engine produces 350 horsepower and only 287 pound-feet of torque, which really isn’t all that impressive.
However, the engine is one of the most refined you can buy at any price, and it’s just enough to make driving the 911 fun at any speed. There are larger engines and turbocharged models with all-wheel drive as you climb in price, but I found the stripped 911 to be engaging and delightful the entire time.
The suspension was exceptionally responsive and the tires were surprisingly grippy under hard corners. The Porsche fits like a glove, like an extension of your body, as you drive around town and into the countryside. And I can’t say better things about the manual transmission in the 911. It’s simply one of the easiest, most precise manuals available at any price.
Jumping into the Audi is a different experience altogether. Its V8 produces 430 horsepower, and it feels faster off the line. That’s partly in thanks to its standard Quattro all-wheel-drive system, which allows you enter and exit corners more aggressively, and even drive in inclement weather … if you’re feeling brave with your paint.
Similar to the 911, the Audi is very easy to drive and feels smaller on the road than it actually is. However, that handsome gated shifter also turns out to be one of my few complaints about the car. It sounds cool as you clink from gear to gear, but the throws are longer between those gears, and each gate takes longer to access than it does in the Porsche.
If you’re looking to drag the two cars, they’ll hit 60 miles per hour in the same amount of time (4.6 seconds), so it’ll mostly come down to whether you prefer the riding-on-rails feeling that comes with Quattro, or the exacting, driftable rear-wheel-drive dynamics that come with the Porsche.
You’d think we’d break even here with a win for each and two ties, but I’m going to break some hearts and choose a personal favorite. The 2014 Audi R8 has the deadly looks, handsome interior, and monstrous traction that many car enthusiasts are going to enjoy, and I think those folks should certainly consider keeping it on the short list.
However, I want to believe that such edgy design has a shorter shelf life than classic lines. And there are times when the Audi just feels too planted for my taste; I like to know a car’s limits. And, honestly, never reached them with the R8.
That said, the Porsche 911 would be the car I’d choose tomorrow, and I could be made happy with a nearly stock model, too. Chances are, though, I’d find my own $50,000 in options to layer onto the price tag. Then it would cost as much as any nicely equipped R8 on the market, too.
There’s a different kind of cool factor that comes with Porsche ownership. Even a $200,000 911 looks more subdued than a stripped R8, but I think that’s part of the magic of it.
Both cars come standard with all the sporting prowess you need to enjoy yourself behind the wheel, but the Porsche – with it’s rear-wheel drive and killer manual transmission – stole my heart.