The last time I drove Audi’s R8 was in 2008. It had the same 309kW 4.2-litre V8 Audi was using in some of its RS models, married to a six-speed manual transmission. While it proved predictably quick and agile in its element, just as important was that it passed the test so many supercars have stumbled over through history: navigating the bumper-to-bumper of crowded city streets. No all-or-nothing in heavy traffic, no thigh workout on the clutch pedal. The R8 proved as easy to live with as an A4. At least until you arrived at Ikea or a potted-palm store.
Honda had already proved you could build a so-called “everyday supercar” in the NSX. Fifteen years later, Audi set off down the same route. Unfairly, the Honda never quite shook off its not-European brand baggage. Ingolstadt was faced with a similar issue to a lesser degree: a prestige brand is still a long way from real-gone supercar territory. Owning Lamborghini provided a healthy leg-up, of course. So did a few years of dominance at Le Mans. It also helped that they’d sunk astrobucks into weight reduction technology, at its apogee in the clever aluminum space frame.
So if any marque was well primed to take on those all-powerful Italians on their own turf, it was Audi. Still, the speed with which the R8 found acceptance and settled into that rarefied sphere was astonishing. Whatever margin of difference there was in performance and chassis dynamics between the early car and the Italians was well compensated by a hefty price advantage. Since then, Audi’s been working on closing that gap on both fronts.
Leveraging its Lambo connection, the company dropped a retuned Gallardo V10 into the R8 bodyshell for model year 2009 (MY09). The result was a hefty hike in power – up from 309 to 386 kW – and torque, from 430 to 530 Nm. That was enough to push the 0-100 km/h (62mph) sprint time down through the four-second barrier that now marks real, grown-up supercars – from 4.6 to 3.9 seconds.
Latest – and greatest?MY13 brought a model overhaul with the arrival of the R8 V10 plus. "Minus" might be more apt, though, given the reduction in weight from the standard (R tronic) V10’s 1,625 kg to 1,595 kg. This hails from a pare-down program taking in a fiberglass reinforced polymer tub, 19-inch forged alloy wheels, lightweight front splitter and rear diffuser and new insulation materials.
Under the hood (well, the rear window, anyway), mods to the engine control unit (ECU) bump power up to 404 kW and peak torque to 540 Nm, bringing the official 0-100 km/h sprint time down to 3.5 seconds. That’s a dog’s hello away from Ferrari’s 458 Italia. For this we can in part thank the gearbox gods. “Golly I’m upset to see the last of that terrific six-speed R tronic single-clutch automated manual,” said no one, ever. In its place, Audi has dropped a new seven-cog S tronic DCT. The 4.2 V8 gets it as well, but retains the manual option, while the V10 is now S tronic only.
As one who enjoys three pedals, I’m not sure that's all it needs, but it’s a very happy marriage for better or worse. My time in the car was skewed towards worse with several days of the wettest June in years in my part of the world. That was useful in proving that the superest variant yet of Audi’s everyday supercar is no less everyday. With the engine in its normal operating mode with the S tronic toggled to auto, the package is as seamless and unflappable as the benchmark CVT Audi puts in its workaday A6 models.
Simplicity of operation is important to the formula. Audi has taken the less-is-more route to satisfaction. Given a quarter of a chance with the ticking of option boxes, German sports car makers can serve up a bewildering array of on-demand powertrain, chassis and steering maps and beyond. It’s a high-quality problem, I know, but so much freedom of choice can get you yearning for freedom from choice after a time.
No such issues here. Aside from the usual ESP Off switch (more conspicuous and easier to reach here than most), there is but one such knob. It says “Sport”, and pushing it caffeinates the throttle and the shift mechanism, dropping the exhaust pitch, amplifying it and adding gunshot blips on the downshift. In short, Sport isn’t that conducive to the urban jam. So unconducive is it that it departs auto for manual of its own accord at every available opportunity. The snarl is a beautiful thing, without even intruding on the terrific Band & Olufsen audio package. But at low speeds, the transmission has no hesitation in letting you know – thunk – it’s not in its element.
They’ve taken the "minus" formula downstairs, forgoing the normal V10’s adjustable magnetic ride for simpler fixed-setting dampers. It’s a tidy compromise, firm without jarring around town, although it’s not short on road noise, especially on coarse and slurpy wet surfaces.
No fancy stuff on the steering, either. Audi’s retained old-school hydraulic mechanicals for the better feel it delivers than the now de rigueur electro systems. It’s well weighted and consistent, but there’s an obvious compromise here in a relatively low-ratio rack, skewed towards keeping it nice on the ‘bahns and ‘stradas of Europe over back-road bend-munching. That said, my rides through a couple of drenched national parks suggest it’s an excellent compromise.
Unsurprisingly for an all-paw model, traction is superb, even in that wet. The quattro package remains unaffected by the changes upstairs, with a viscous-coupled center diff channelling 15-30 percent of the torque to front wheels, and a mechanical limited-slip differential (LSD) on the back axle to keep it hanging on under extreme duress.
Naturally, the bulk of the responsibility for keeping it friendly lies with the chassis and the mechanicals. As it takes corners, you can rely on a car of this caliber to impart a sense that it’s built to pivot around you. The V10 plus imparts it beautifully, its electronic stability control (ESC) calibrated for minimal intrusion. In normal driving, it’s hard to ever tell it’s there, even with a bit of a poke. Unable to put it to the test, I’m taking Audi’s word for it here, that in Sport it gives a little leeway for “safe oversteer,” giving it some pedal on the way out of a bend. That doesn’t sound too far fetched.
Should the thing start heading in an unplanned direction, the carbon ceramic brakes (six-piston front, four-piston rear) are as friendly to lay drivers as the rest of the car. They’re way past anything one needs day to day, but they’re excellent cold, with a nice feel underfoot from the get-go. Oh, and they’re 12 kg (26 lb) lighter than the standard discs.
Grumbles are few. The interior’s getting on a bit, both in form and function. It’ll take an iPod in a special storage space at the back of the console, and there are a couple of SD slots behind the screen, but no Bluetooth audio streaming, even though it’s now standard in much lesser Audis, even base Japanese and Korean minis. There are knobs here I recognize from Audis costing a tenth of this one. Fortunately, Audi makes nice knobs.
Storage? Trunk space up front is a small sports bag and a bit of shopping. There’s room for laptops and jackets behind the seats, tiny door pockets and bugger all else. A couple of drink holders on the console leave drinks fighting for space with elbows.
But you know, it’s doing damn well for its age. This shape is a decade old now, having debuted on the Le Mans quattro concept in 2003, but it’s stayed fresh with little work. Proof? To pick up a child from school in it is to enter a mosh pit of snapping phone cameras and questions about how you afford it.
The R8 V10 plus stays true to the original’s “everyday supercar” charter, pushing up its top end in way that adds great value on a track and some commensurate cachet off it. That makes it a useful high-end envelope-stretcher, especially with a beautiful drivetrain that brings the German closer to Maranello than ever.
Whether it’s worth the very substantial margin over the V8 models is subjective. To drive competitively, undoubtedly yes. Otherwise, I’d be happy with a manual V8. And, at least in my part of the world, the well blinged-up SQ5 you can park in the price gap.