Ten into eight will go

Audi has fitted a Lamborghini V10 into its R8 and created a gem of a supercar

Credit crunch or not, there seem to be no limits to Audi’s ambition. From being something of a bit player among premium brands as little as 15 years ago, it’s long since overtaken Mercedes production numbers and is now homing in on BMW. Until the market went south last year, Audi’s board predicted it would be 2015 before they made more cars than their rival down the road in Munich, but as Audi’s sales and marketing director Peter Schwarzenbauer told me with only the faintest vestige of a smile playing on his face, “now we think it will be rather sooner than that.”

Over the next couple of years we’re going to be deluged by new limousines, city cars and off-roaders, all bearing the famous four rings, but for now the extent of its aspirations can best be measured by this, the new R8 V10, a car which had VAT not been cut by 2.5 per cent would have gone on sale for over £100,000.

Even at £99,575, it’s a hitherto unimaginable amount of money to pay for an Audi, the same give or take a very few pounds as a 911 Turbo.

But set aside issues of badge snobbery and examine the product itself, and on paper at least it appears that if any supercar deserves almost £100,000 of your money, this one does.

The R8 itself needs no introduction. Despite a reputation for producing disappointing driver’s cars that has stuck to Audi like gum to a shoe, its very first attempt at a supercar appeared to have been created by a company for whom such cars came as second nature. That it was as easy to drive and live with as a 911 (if you could cope with just two seats) was clearly impressive but not entirely unexpected: that it also was better to drive was frankly shocking. It became that way because it was designed, developed and largely hand built not by Audi per se, but its ‘quattro GmbH’ offshoot, which is to Audi what AMG is to Mercedes or ‘M’ to BMW.

And now the credibility of the R8 has been established beyond doubt, the time has come to turn up the heat once more and push still further the boundaries of what is possible while on board an Audi. It has been done by taking the 5.2-litre V10 engine already found under the rear deck of the Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4 and squeezing it into the engine bay of the R8. Remarkably, the motor weighs just 35kg more than the 4.2-litre V8, which it complements rather than replaces, yet it has raised the R8’s output by 104bhp to 517bhp.

Make no mistake, this engine is one of the greats. Using direct injection and a hair-raising rev limit of 8700rpm, it possesses a character all of its own. The uneven firing intervals (54 and 90deg) add to the offbeat voice inherent in any V10 to create a yowl as sonorous as it is smooth. It produces 80 per cent of maximum torque at idle, and the curve does not dip below that mark until peak power is passed at 8000rpm to provide perhaps the widest real powerband of any car on sale. Third gear will take you from little more than trotting pace to 110mph in one seamless, relentless shove. Opt instead for all-out acceleration from rest and, aided just a little by its four-wheel-drive configuration, it will hit 60mph from rest in 3.8sec regardless of whether you choose the standard six-speed manual gearbox (which you should), or the still jerky and unsatisfactory semi-automatic paddle shift transmission. Top speed is just shy of 200mph.

Because the R8 was always designed to take this kind of power, remarkably little has needed to be done to the rest of the car to cope with it. The aluminium spaceframe structure has needed no further bracing, the suspension components no reinforcing. Even the brakes and the tyre specification come over unchanged from the eight-cylinder R8. The only significant alterations are an increase in spring rate of 20 per cent at the front and 22 per cent at the rear, a different rear anti-roll bar, and some detail work to the suspension bushing, meaning the usual upward spiral of unsprung mass when cars are given a lot more power to deal with has been almost entirely avoided.

Surprisingly, the weight distribution has only shifted two per cent rearward, with just 56 per cent of its mass sitting on the rear wheels. Nor has Audi felt the need to alter the distribution of torque between the front and rear axles, so never less than 65 per cent of available energy is still being fed through the rear wheels.

The conditions in which I drove the R8 V10 could scarcely have shown its talents to better effect. You need the utmost confidence in your machinery to drive a car of this potential at speed in driving rain and on part-flooded surfaces, particularly on the legendary Ronda road that leads from Marbella towards Klaus Zwaart’s Ascari race resort in Spain. But on these roads it seemed as assured, predictable and communicative as its less potent sister. I’d rate the steering as better than a 911’s and the bite and feel of its Pirelli tyres as exemplary.

On the track and with the stability systems disengaged, it needed more care and not just because in places there were rivers running across the asphalt. If you drove it very smoothly and accurately it impressed as much as it had on the road, but if you took even quite small liberties or were occasionally careless with how early or suddenly you reapplied the throttle, it would not hesitate to remind you that you were driving a very powerful and quite heavy car in extremely difficult conditions. The problem is largely that until the limit is breached, it’s so reassuring that when it does issue a short, sharp rebuke, it comes as something of a surprise. Following Audi’s official instructor around the track at what seemed like escape velocity, I was gratified to see the back of his R8 snap out of line too.

I feel inclined to forgive the car such small indiscretions, even if I don’t recall their presence in any track miles I’ve completed in standard Audi R8s: the weather was truly awful, and this is not a track-orientated car.

Instead it is a car that expands the already vast ability envelope of the R8 still further. In all normal uses I can see no penalty that has been incurred in the installation of the V10: it still rides beautifully, it’ll still fit your life as well as the R8 always has. This is not a breed apart like a 911 Turbo is to a 911, it’s the same car but with its performance amplified to a level that surpasses the merely thrilling and reaches a place that’s entirely enthralling.

Does this, then, mark the end of Audi’s ambitions for the R8? Don’t believe it for a moment: it has already demonstrated an R8 with a 5.5-litre V12 diesel stuffed into the back and that remains very much a production possibility. In the meantime it is busily readying its GT3-specification R8 V10 racing car, and rumours of a stripped out road racer in much the same vein as the Porsche 911 GT2 show no signs of going away. For now, though, it should be content with the news that the greatest all-round supercar a five-figure sum can buy has four little rings on its nose. Even five years ago that would have been unthinkable; in five years time who knows what kind of cars Audi will be producing. One thing seems sure, however: it will be fun finding out.