Hand-built in Neckarsulm, Germany, the Audi R8 is the marque's flagship sports car, named after the race cars that dominated endurance racing from 2000-2005. After driving the Audi R8 Spyder and Audi R8 coupe, we can say they drive as good as they look.
The R8 offers a high-revving 430-hp V8 or a V10 with 525 or 560 hp. The engine is mounted amidships and can be seen on display beneath a clear engine cover on the coupe or nestled beneath the Spyder's stowed soft top. The R8 comes with quattro all-wheel drive, massive multi-piston brakes, aluminum suspension components, and a nearly flat floor to help keep it on the ground at speed.
Inside is a finished cabin with controls very much like any Audi. The R8 is stylish but not gaudy, luxurious without forsaking efficiency, roomy enough to avoid feet squeezed off to one side or your skull stuck in the headliner. Seats are contoured to fit a variety of sizes without reshaping them, and you can hold a conversation without an intercom. As one indicator of how far Audi's gone to make the R8 useable as a daily driver, consider the Bluetooth microphones in the driver's seatbelt on the Spyder.
Audi launched the R8 Coupe as a 2008 model and the R8 Spyder was added for 2011. For 2012, an Audi R8 GT Spyder is available, a limited-edition of 333 cars with only 50 destined for the U.S. The R8 GT is designed for track-day events, much like the Porsche GT3 and Ferrari Challenge cars. Lightened by 220 pounds, the R8 GT can accelerate from 0-62 mph in 3.6 seconds and can top 198 mph, according to Audi. Otherwise, there are no significant changes for 2012.
A V8-powered R8 coupe is the lightest of the batch and runs from $114,000. There are plenty of options but only the ceramic brakes used on a track or desert-storming would improve the drive. At the other extreme, a 10-cylinder Spyder fully loaded could cost nearly twice that V8 coupe.
Audi was able to exploit some engineering development from sister-company Lamborghini in the form of the Gallardo V10 engine, transmissions and chassis, but any notion of the two being the same car wearing different badges should be banished. If the Lamborghini is Lucifer in outlandish Milan-runway garb, the R8 has been to finishing school and is donning a classic Navy blazer. The Gallardo drives with more passion, but the R8 costs a lot less.
Exotics and high-performance sports cars vary greatly in style and concept compared to more plebian cars so there is no precise class in which the Audi R8 competes. Cars that might interest potential R8 buyers include the Aston Martin DB9 and Vantage, Ferrari 458 Italia, Lamborghini Gallardo, Mercedes-Benz SL AMG, Porsche 911, Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 and Z06, and Nissan GT-R.
The Audi R8 has a unique look that still looks good five years after its debut. The R8 doesn't change for 2012.
Three separate grilles on the front and more on the rear inhale or exhale cooling air. The grilles on the V10 models are gloss black. Bi-xenon headlights are traced by LED running lights on the V8 while the V10 uses LED headlamps. V10 models are further distinguished by some chrome details and slightly larger grilles with fewer slats.
At the rear, rectangular light inserts echo the Audi TT. Twin tailpipes on either side identify a V8, a single oval-shaped tail pipe on each side a V10. The GT version gets a bigger barrel on each side, air extractors behind the rear wheels, a fixed rear wing, more aggressive diffuser, and a wider, more contoured leading edge.
Aerodynamic function and engine placement define the basic bones of any mid-engine sports car. A low snout improves visibility and keeps the nose to the ground, and the creases above the front wheels keep air moving over the windshield rather than spilling over the sides. At the rear, a pop-up spoiler automatically lifts at certain road speeds or if the engine needs maximum cooling; it can be done manually as well for cleaning. Look underneath and you'll find it almost totally flat as on many race cars.
The R8 coupe's profile is dominated by what Audi calls a sideblade, that vertical slice of bodywork that runs from the roof to the bottom just ahead of the rear wheels. It can be ordered in a variety of finishes, including painted to match the rest of the car. All the scoops and vents are there for machinery cooling or propulsion, and on the V10 the sideblade scoop is larger. Both V8 and V10 come with 19-inch wheels, five twin-spoke on the V8 and five tri-y design on the V10.
The R8 Spyder features a fabric folding top, available in a choice of three colors, with buttresses over the engine cover. It's power-operated and can be opened or closed in about 20 seconds, and done so at up to 30 mph. The buttresses help direct air around the rear of the car but they don't actually sit on the paint and won't scratch it. The silver panels behind the headrests are engine bay cooling vents, replacing those that run down the roof pillars on the coupe. What the Spyder loses to the coupe is the clear engine cover that lets onlookers admire the beast within.
The Spyder has an electrically lifted rear window (with defrost) to limit some noise and buffeting, and a drop-in wind-blocker closer to the headrests for further reductions. We found with just the window it's possible to converse at legal speeds with the top down, and lowering the window with the top up adds engine intake sounds to the exhaust noise.
The coupe has a minor advantage in cargo space and fuel capacity. Coupe and Spyder have a small 3.5-cubic-foot trunk up front, a compact but deep well that might hold your carry-on duffel or a half-case of wine. The coupe has another 3.1 cubic feet of storage space behind the front seats for soft-sided bags or a minimal golf bag. On the Spyder that space is consumed by the folding top.
Inside, the Audi R8 is roomy and civilized. The seats are low to the ground and getting in requires a wide step, but the cabin looks more conventional than the average exotic car, and downright familiar to any Audi driver.
Powered and heated sport seats provide plenty of comfort and rely partially on the encapsulating doors and console for lateral retention. They are not as confining as some sport seats that assume a 30-inch-or-smaller waist, and not as heavily bolstered and contoured as some Audi S or RS sedan seats. Not only do 6-foot, 4-inch adults fit inside, their feet fit in the footwells, a common pinch point in mid-engine cars.
With a range of power adjustment, a good dead pedal, and a manual tilt/telescoping steering column, it's easy to get a suitable driving position and a good view of the instruments. Forward and rearward visibility are good, while rear quarter vision is better in the coupe with the small rear side windows and slightly compromised with the convertible top up. The available rearview camera can help the driver spot objects or people behind the car when backing up.
The seats are available framed in leather with alcantara centers or upholstered in full leather. Both cars can be enhanced further with leather for the dashboard and upper door panels. Spyders have specially treated leather to keep cooler than regular leather in strong sunlight. Aluminum style cabin trim is standard; upgrades include carbon fiber and piano black, the latter high-gloss that suggests it might be a good idea to test drive in the sun top-down before ordering one that way. Audi's cabins are well regarded and if there's a weak point in the R8's cabin it's the plastic console trim.
All the instruments, including oil temperature and electrical condition, are in a pod ahead of the driver with a glare-free covering. The steering wheel foregoes an excessively thick rim and has redundant-control thumbwheels and switches, but the flat-bottom shape is not ideal for urban driving or ribbons of mountain roadway that require more than a turn of the wheel. Flat-bottom steering wheels are better suited to formula cars. A proper handbrake is immediately right of the driver, much preferred over the electronic kind.
The manual shifter has a slotted metal gate like Ferraris of yore; R-Tronic cars use paddles on the wheel.
The navigation screen is easily seen in direct sunlight, with or without polarized lenses. The audio/navigation system is a standard Audi part and reasonably intuitive, and the climate controls are right out of the TT. Bluetooth and iPod integration are well thought out, detailed to the point the Spyder driver's seatbelt has three microphones in it for hands-free calling with the top down.
Cubby storage space is moderate in the coupe, smaller in the Spyder.
Trunk space in the R8 coupe and convertible is 3.5 cubic feet. The coupe offers an additional 3 cubic feet behind the seats.
The Audi R8 V8 Spyder can accelerate from 0-60 mph in about 4.6 seconds and manage 186 mph. All the other models are even faster. An R8 V10 coupe can perform the same feat in the high 3-second range and can top 195 mph. Spyders carry more weight so they are not quite as quick yet still plenty potent; you'll be illegal by third gear. The R8 has been compared to Acura's NSX of 20 years ago as a supercar without all the drawbacks. The NSX wasn't fastest in class, nor is the R8. It turns out some drivers have higher priorities than outright speed.
Although it uses an aluminum chassis, the R8 is no featherweight: All-wheel drive, solidity and luxury add up to a weight of 3600-3900 pounds. That's Nissan GT-R territory. The fiercest acceleration in the competitive set comes from the Porsche 911 Turbo S which explodes to 60 mph in less than 3 seconds and continues the momentum as unabated as a V10 R8. But the 911 can't match the sound from either of the R8's engines, and the Ferrari 458 could cost six digits more. Both the all-wheel-drive 911 Turbo and rear-wheel-drive 458 offer more sophisticated 7-speed dual-clutch gearboxes and weigh about 200 pounds less than a V10 R8.
Despite identical cylinder dimensions each R8 engine has a unique note. The V8 sounds more threatening at idle, more musclecar in the midrange, and singing as it passes 8000 rpm. The V10 has a quieter, more subdued purr at idle, more mechanical midrange and syncopation, and simply wails approaching its 8700 rpm limit. Both must be revved for maximum power, the larger engine more so, yet there is such an abundance of power and proper gearing they can be driven around town very briskly while behaving as sedately as a limo.
Regarding fuel economy, let's just say it's about what you'd expect for a silly-fast car, and the 21-to-24-gallon tank won't last as you think it might. If you want to be green and fast simultaneously, the 911 Turbo is better in that regard.
The nearly direct-drive (1:1 top gear) 6-speed manual uses a gated shifter with quick throws that make a metallic click through the light action, not unlike a small-bore rifle. It's simple to drive and a joy to operate even in traffic, causing us to wonder why, even at this price, anyone pays $9,100 for the optional R-Tronic. So our recommendation is to go for the manual.
The R-Tronic is not an automatic transmission but rather an automated 6-speed manual that does the clutch and shifting for you. The R-Tronic relieves the driver of two-foot coordination. It may be better around a racetrack because it shifts so quickly, almost violently, and you can keep both hands on the wheel, but on most public byways it's clunky, slow and doesn't feel much more advanced than a Smart's transmission. We've found that partially lifting off the gas when changing gears will smooth things somewhat. We've also found this type of transmission awkward when maneuvering in and out of tight places that require moving fore and aft, such as pulling into a tight parking space or garage; it lacks the precision and speed of either a manual or an automatic in such situations.
Every R8 is all-wheel drive. Quattro in the R8 sends 90 percent of the thrust to the rear wheels, giving the R8 the feel of rear-wheel drive. In certain conditions, quattro can send 30 percent of the power to the front wheels. You can haze the rear tires around a track but in general every horsepower the engine doles out translates directly to forward motion. It also gives the R8 a slight advantage in putting power down in a corner or helping it get around one quicker.
One word of caution about quattro: Since slowing is done by brakes and tires, the R8, like any all-wheel-drive car (including the 911 Turbo and Nissan GT-R), does not stop any better than a car with similar brakes and tires. Maybe even a foot or two longer because of the added weight.
With the heaviest part of the car right behind the driver and low to the ground, the R8 changes direction quickly and easily, in the process feeling lighter than it really is. Sticky tires generate big grip and corners become mere changes of scenery out the windshield, with no drama, wiggle, and little mid-bend correction needed.
Brakes require just a light touch to erase a lot of speed and leaning on them hard should not be done with anything heavier than a tissue loose in the cabin because it may not slow down as fast as the car. With relatively large, high-compression engines, there is noteworthy engine braking available merely lifting off the gas.
Sophisticated shock absorbers constantly adjust in milliseconds and help the R8 offer that precision and grip without any sense of harshness, even on the tighter V10 model. The R8 GT does not come with them and it is significantly stiffer. Many lesser two-doors don't ride as well as an Audi R8 and those that do don't handle as well. Lighter mid-engine cars may change direction better (the Lotus Elise and Ferrari 458 come to mind) but the R8 is extremely well sorted out so it's easier to find the limit, and that is perhaps the R8's greatest virtue; you don't have to be a skilled racer to drive it quickly.
The Spyder felt as tight and solid to us as the coupe, with no squeaks or groans on bad roads or severe-angle driveways. The Spyder felt no less weather-tight than the coupe, and we couldn't hear any more wind noise. Bear in mind the R8 is insulated but with 430 ponies at your ear it's never luxury-car quiet. Cowl shake, which can cause a windshield to vibrate, was absent on the Spyder, and the inside mirror was completely stable.
The Audi R8 is fast and agile, stops quickly and draws admiring stares. And it does so with daily livability and turn-key reliability. You could drive one of these to the office in the rain, go parts shopping, then do a few laps at your favorite track all in one day, changing nothing more than the radio station or iPod track. The R8 is an exotic that doesn't need to be treated like one.
G.R. Whale filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report after his test drives of R8 Spyder and coupe models with V8s and V10s in Southern California.