Audi + Airbnb: What it's like to live in a car commercial

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Audi + Airbnb: What it's like to live in a car commercial

Miles from civilization, in a lonely stretch of Death Valley, lies an unlikely sight: a sleek contemporary home – all glass, concrete, and metal – and a pair of equally modern 2017 Audi R8 V10 Plus coupes. You might have seen the combo in a TV commercial that ran during the Emmys, a spot that had us asking an obvious question: What are these objects doing together, smack in the middle of nowhere? Audi partnered with Airbnb to offer the home and the cars to seven guests. Somehow, we became lucky number eight.

The spot, entitled “Desolation,” promotes the carmaker’s flagship alongside what ended up being an extreme rental property. The idea to build the three-bedroom, 1,200-square-foot house came from Italian writer and author Fabrizio Rondolino, who was long smitten with American desert. The home was built in 2010 using prefabricated construction by San Francisco-based architecture firm nottoscale. It’s a spare elevated structure, with floor-to-ceiling windows cinematically framing the sky.

To set the four-wheeled mood, images of the R8 sit where family photos would go, and a laser-cut aluminum sign over the entrance announces it as the “Home of the R8.” In acknowledgement of the remoteness, a satellite phone sits charged up with clearly printed dialing instructions. An Easter egg from the ad – two jars of Leadfoot Coffee – hides in plain sight on the kitchen counter.

Audi and AirbnbAudi and AirbnbAudi and Airbnb

You can rent houses like this elsewhere on Airbnb, but here’s where gearheads start paying attention: The two Audi supercars counter the architectural tranquility with a combined 1,220 horsepower and an opportunity to rip through the desert at obscene speeds (not to mention several other extras you don’t get with a standard vacation rental; more on that later).

Seven three-day/two-night stays were offered through an extremely limited Airbnb listing. The buzz surrounding the campaign was so strong that the place booked up in less than six seconds. For what you get, this was a steal. The per-night price of $610 – a reference to the V10’s horsepower figure – wouldn’t begin to cover the behind-the-scenes logistics needed to coordinate and execute this marketing exercise. I was the sole member of the media invited to experience the Audi Airbnb and got to spend a weekend in this desert playground to see what it was all about.

My weekend began when an Audi rep met me and my family at Las Vegas International Airport following a quick flight from Burbank, California. We were driven in a Q7 from Vegas to the Rondolino residence. Over that two-and-a-half-hour drive, we saw the clutter of the city fall away and our eyes became accustomed to the rhythm of the desert terrain.

The house is just as unexpected in person as it seems in the ad, though a few things differ from the commercial depiction. For starters, you won’t be driving an R8 up to the residence because the rutted, half-mile dirt “driveway” is better suited to a dirtbike than a low-slung sports car. And if you were to somehow bring an R8 up to the house (say, on the back of a truck), you’d have to park it under the blazing sun; the garage in the ad was a CGI creation, as was the surrounding cracked desert landscape. The plot is actually dotted with vegetation.

Audi and Airbnb

After our first night in this desert outpost, I was picked up at the crack of dawn to spend some quality time with the R8. At a dry lake bed seven miles down the highway, I was greeted by a formidable support team that included mobile mechanics, logistics coordinators, and an EMT and ambulance on standby, just in case. I was offered a lead/follow drive on public roads through a scenic stretch of Death Valley, but I made a special request to stay on the lake bed instead – after all, wouldn’t you rather slide across the dirt than play by the rules on the road?

This isn’t an in-depth review of the redesigned R8 – you can read our first drive for that – but I will say this: the second-gen car adds some much-needed aggression and character while keeping a strong connection to its refined roots. First off, you’ll notice the cleanly creased exterior lines, the delightfully snarly exhaust note, and the Virtual Cockpit, which efficiently packages digital gauges and all multimedia functions where analog gauges normally go. Some design choices confound, like the large shifter that seems less at home here than in the rest of Audi’s lineup. (The R8’s sister car, the Lamborghini Huracán, gets a cleaner, more supercar-appropriate center stack.) But the soul of the R8, its V10, is wonderfully eager to rev and sounds better than ever, especially when the sport exhaust is activated.

This was my first time driving on a dry lake bed, and the experience can only be described as surreal. The horizon seems never-ending, yet the sensation of speed is dramatic – sitting this low to the ground, the cracked texture of the lake bed gives you the feeling that you’re rapidly approaching something. With all electronic aids off, gunning it triggers a bit of unsettled yaw motion, but once you get the hang of it, the slippery/slidey/tail-wagging feeling is actually quite fun.

Audi and AirbnbAudi and AirbnbAudi and AirbnbAudi and Airbnb

The R8’s dual-clutch gearbox plays exceptionally well with the V10, banging off quick shifts with ease. The seat-of-the-pants feeling of hard acceleration is sensational, but with no visual points of reference, 90 mph doesn’t feel all that ludicrous. Gun it from there, and the R8 glides ahead, a slight fishtail perceptible, pressing forward until the end of the lake bed becomes visible, weakening my pedal-pegging resolve. I saw an indicated 150 mph before I lifted, at which point a mildly disconcerting wiggle appeared before quickly being corrected once all four wheels had a moment to settle back into traction.

Straight-line speed on a dry lake bed is one thing, and drifting is entirely another; as I learned that morning, going sideways on this dusty playground is a massively addictive game. Unlike in slick winter driving, where snow and ice blend almost invisibly into each other, the desert texture is reassuringly consistent, allowing the driver to focus entirely on vehicle dynamics instead of changing terrain. In the R8, it takes a stab of the throttle and a quick steer/countersteer maneuver to initiate a drift, and once underway, it’s easy to hold a consistent sideways slide. The revviness of the V10 demands diligent upshifts in order to avoid hitting the 8,700 rpm redline. (Unlike the Huracán’s shift paddles, the R8’s move with the wheel, requiring some quick thinking when your arms get crossed up.) Once you’ve found the sweet spot of the power band, which happens to be disconcertingly close to that rev limiter, this mid-engine two-seater is almost impossible to spin.

And yet I do my darnedest to try until I’m gently reprimanded by an Audi handler. “Could we please, uh, limit the high revs and hold off on further drifts?” I’m asked. “We’ve had issues with dust ingestion into the engine.” Perfectly understandable, since the high-speed slides form massive dust clouds that are gulped by those big ‘ol side intakes and, you guessed it, diverted straight into the airbox. I beg for one more drift for the camera before returning the R8, which subsequently sounds like it needs to clear its throat. Not good. The Audi tech kills the engine and, unsurprisingly, the car won’t start again. In a display of my hosts’ seemingly endless hospitality, I am offered R8 number two for road use while number one’s lungs are being unclogged. I spend the next hour blasting up and down Nevada Interstate 267. After, it’s time to retire to the house.

The clean expanses of optic white walls, airy skylights, and pale manufactured hardwood floors deliver a pleasantly minimalist respite from the desert’s warm earth tones. At the same time, they feel familiar after spending the day in the R8’s purposeful, leather-lined cockpit counters the harsh surroundings. Enveloped by the sparseness of the desert and the 40-acre lot on which it resides, the modernist home feels welcoming.

The Audi team was warm and hospitable, treating my family like they were, well, family. An in-house chef was booked to prepare three meals a day during our stay, but we gladly accepted two in exchange for leftovers and more privacy. A concierge lined up activities to keep my wife and five-year-old son entertained while I was out driving, including lunch and pool time at the nearby Inn at Furnace Creek. However, they opted to stay at the house and paint watercolors of the landscape. The package also included a visit from an astronomer, who set up three telescopes and pointed out the stars and planets to my space-curious kid (and his equally star-struck parents). Seeing those bright stars up close at night was some pretty magical stuff, and they followed us indoors as we settled in for the night looking out the large glass windows. It all evoked the feeling that we were the last people on earth, mirroring the positively lunar experience of blasting across the Nevada desert in the 3,572-pound car.

Audi’s Airbnb mash-up offered a rare opportunity to savor horsepower and desert stillness in a way that brings out the unexpectedly zen-like aspects of both. Sure, you can dismiss this pairing as the experiential marketing one-off that it was, but for the nature-loving car fiend that lived it, it was a match made somewhere in that star-filled sky.

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