When launching a new product, especially in a previously unexplored landscape, successful marketing is often grounded in creating hype and interest. However, when the campaign is hinged entirely on hype and the product lacks substance, it all tends to fall horribly flat.

Case in point is General Motors South Africa’s extensive over-hyped campaign for the locally built and very disappointing HUMMER H3. First month sales (234 units, July 2007) put the H3 at number 29 on the best-sellers list. In August, it fell to number 31 (231 units). Almost a year later, GMSA is averaging roughly 50 units a month (56 units in March, placing it at number 70).

There are, however, success stories; Audi is living proof that hype-based strategy works if the product lives up to expectations. By the time their R8 supercar was launched locally, there was so much hype on the street that the R8 simply had to be brilliant.

Brilliant is putting it mildly though. During the four days I spent with it, I was unable to find any single word to truly describe this engineering masterpiece from Ingolstadt. Most of the people who flocked to the R8 whenever I parked at the shops, the petrol station or even at my apartment seemed content with uttering an awed profanity when seeing it up close…

Photographs really do the R8 no justice. In the metal, it is probably one of the most beautiful designs I’ve seen. From that menacing single-frame grille and the narrow headlights and sexy LED daytime running lights at the front to the wide muscular rear, the all-aluminium bodied R8 is sheer automotive art. Not surprising then that it walked away with the 2008 World Car Design of the Year award.

I immediately felt comfortable inside the R8. Instrumentation, controls and dashboard layout is traditionally Audi and quite similar to that of the TT. Audi has been criticised for this, but I think there is merit in familiarity. The cabin is by no means big, but has ample room for its two passengers. The seats are impressive: they’re adjustable in just about every way and provide extensive support under extreme driving conditions.

Fitted with the same 4.2-litre V8 engine as the RS4, it takes copious amounts of self-restraint to not turn every occasion into an extreme driving exercise. You have 309kW of power and 420Nm of torque under your right foot; immediately available and literally screaming at you to unleash all of it right then and there.

…as Julia Roberts’ character from Pretty Woman said about the Lotus Esprit: “it corners like it’s on rails.”

With the engine placed in the middle of the car (i.e. right behind the driver), the V8 provides a stirring soundtrack whether idling or driving at illegal speeds. The sound is subtle and utterly seductive inside the car, but for those on the outside, it’s quite a roar. It’s downright sexy, really. (One bystander asked me if I get an erection when I drive it. He was himself obviously aroused by it… but quite straight unfortunately).

Forget about Audi’s claimed performance figures. Once you’re behind the wheel, these technicalities become completely irrelevant. Start it up, put it into first and hold on for dear life: if you push it, the R8 will go to 110km/h in first gear. If that doesn’t give you at least a semi, feel free to push it through all six gears.

I got it to 275km/h with ease and if I weren’t so lightheaded at that stage, I am positive that it would’ve gone straight to Audi’s claimed top speed of 301km/h. A word of caution though: do not try this on any road with bumps or minor irregularities. (On a bumpy road, the R8 becomes so ‘busy’ that it’s completely unnerving.) Again, it is no surprise that it took home the 2008 World Performance Car of the Year award.

You can throw it into any corner at just about any speed; the R8 sticks to the road in masterful fashion, or, as Julia Roberts’ character from Pretty Woman said about the Lotus Esprit: “it corners like it’s on rails.” The R8 thrives on open roads with hills and twists and is an extremely rewarding drive. Whether you’re chasing an ambulance in peak traffic or cruising to the corner shop for bread and milk, it’s an all-rounder du jour.

Depending on your restraint, fuel consumption will either surprise or bankrupt you: “Normal” urban driving will give you a respectable average consumption of 12-litres/ 100km, while spirited (read: maniacal) driving will push it to an average of 25-litres/ 100km. I filled it up twice in four days at a cost of close to R1 000.

At R1.3 million a pop, Audi is obviously not averaging the type of sales volumes HUMMER achieved. But it’s when you take pricing into consideration that their average sales figure of 10 units a month over the first six months starts testifying to the success of the hype (12 units in October 2007, down to 8 units in March 2008).

If you’re planning to spend a million odd on a car, the R8 makes an immense amount of sense. Compared to its cousins, it offers similar (if not better) performance: Consider that it’s half the price of the Lamborghini Gallardo, and if the R8 is Angelina Jolie, the Porsche 911 would be Winona Ryder – dull-looking and past its sell-by date…

The R8 cannot be summarised in a paragraph, but I’ll try: It is completely and utterly gorgeous and that V8 sound behind you is more exquisite than any symphony composed. Its speed and power is spine-tingling, with its handling better than anything I have experienced. Yes, Audi’s R8 is a supercar in every sense of the word.

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