Audi R8

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It’s more refined than the original, but also a touch less involving  | by Andrew Frankel

There are few car launches I remember more clearly than that of the original Audi R8, and not just because a Nevada state trooper let me off the possibly custodial sentence to which I was entitled because the car I was driving was “just so damn cool”. I shared with a similarly seasoned old stager and we just kept looking at each other, our expressions saying all without the need to resort to anything as structured and limiting as words: “This is an Audi, right?”

That was eight years ago and now there is an entirely new R8 to drive, and much of the philosophy has remained: it’s still almost entirely aluminium, still has four-wheel drive, still places a normally aspirated multi-cylinder motor behind its driver. What’s changed most is our perspective. Back then the original R8 had little trouble standing out from a long and less than noble line of unimpressive high-performance Audis. There were exceptions – I guess the original Quattro being by far the biggest and best – but nothing to suggest there was any real desire within Ingolstadt to add genuine driver involvement to its long list of brand strengths. By contrast, the early days of this R8 will be spent fighting to put fresh air between itself and the monumentally capable and likeable car it is trying to replace.

And that is Audi’s fault. It is a very clever company and knows its customer better than anyone, but I still think the fact this R8 resembles so closely its predecessor is a missed opportunity that may be interpreted as laziness, a lack of imagination, complacency or some combination of the three. To me it is not like a Porsche 911, which simply could not carry the badge if it did not look a certain way: an R8 has a lot less than a decade of heritage to support, which means so long as it is a mid-engined two-seat supercar, an R8 can look any way it chooses. And Audi chose for it to look slightly smoother but slightly less distinctive than before, but really very little different.

The bigger change is that you can no longer buy an R8 with an eight-cylinder engine or, indeed, a manual gearbox. And of course there will be those of us who merely drive these cars and wail about V8s handling better than V10s, while gnashing our teeth that we’re no longer trusted to change gears by ourselves. But the owners – the people who actually spend their money to buy these cars – voted with their feet long ago. An eight-cylinder manual R8 is a lovely idea, and one that almost nobody would buy.

So we’re left with the full 10 and, in the case of the ‘Plus’ specification car I drove, 601bhp. Does that sound as surreal to you as it does to me? To me one of the delights of any R8, including this one, is its accessibility and ease of use, yet here is one you’d be delighted to use as your daily driver, and it has the power of an LMP2 prototype.

Nor is it shy about saying so. If you want to see a mass migration of local avian wildlife, thumbing the R8’s starter button on a cold, crisp morning will do it almost as well as a 12-bore. It really does blast into life before, a few seconds later, settling down to a more muted but still purposeful rumble. The cabin is not beautiful but is very nicely finished and as ergonomically sound as you might expect. Were it not for the fact that it dumped a cup of rainwater on my right leg as I swung the door to get in, I might have thought it close to perfect.

The R8 is a wonderfully easy car to drive slowly, which is crucial because in truth that’s what most of them will spend their time doing.

Although it shares its engine, transmission and much of its structure with the Lamborghini Huracán, there is something soothing and reassuringly normal about the R8, something its sibling lacks, something that makes you comfortable about just loafing along in the traffic and not feeling guilty that you’re making inadequate use of the resources put at your disposal.

But do not doubt them when you do. All the praise in the world to Audi for sticking with a normally aspirated engine, because however hard you try with turbos, you simply cannot mimic that shrieking, relentless crescendo of sound and the sheer sense of occasion as you watch the needle sweep past 8000rpm accompanied by the kind of music that, as a small boy, made you fall in love with cars in the first place. This is a massively fast car, sufficiently so that driving it quickly and safely is far more about holding it back than egging it on.

Indeed it is quicker and more capable than the old V10 R8 ever was and Audi should be praised for taking what were already fairly lofty standards and pushing them onto a new level. Will owners therefore be disappointed to learn their new R8 is nevertheless somehow less involving than the old, that so much feel has gone out of the steering and that, particularly in bad weather where you might expect the all-wheel-drive R8 to excel relative to rear-drive supercars, it no longer inspires the confidence it once did? Some might, but I think many more will neither notice nor care.

It will be interesting to see over time how this second-generation R8 comes to be perceived. It has gained a great deal in raw pace and will slip into your lifestyle even more easily than before. But it has lost a little charm and I don’t just mean because of the deletion of the V8 engine and the manual gearbox. Were this a Ferrari, that would be a disaster. But an Audi? I suspect that, as ever, the company has done its sums well and the car will succeed. And if posterity judges it to be one of the less lovable of what will presumably be many R8 generations, that is not a problem that need bother Audi now.

Besides, I expect that much like Porsche builds most 911s for people who only really like the image of 911 ownership, and just a few GT3s for those who genuinely want the experience too, Audi will go the same way. Faster though it is, this more sanitised, less entertaining R8 creates more conceptual space than ever before for a genuine, hard-core driver’s version to push Audi’s brand further still and put bedrock under the still shaky foundations of the firm’s reputation as a proper sports car manufacturer. Who knows, they might even re-introduce a manual gearbox. And don’t laugh: Jaguar has done it with the F-type and Porsche is about to do it with the GT3R we will see in March. Until then, however, this R8 is a much more accomplished but slightly less lovable car than the last. Call it two steps forward and one step back: progress, in other words.

Factfile

Price £134,500

Engine 5.2 litres, 10 cylinders, normally aspirated

Power [email protected]

Torque 413lb [email protected]

Transmission seven-speed double clutch, four-wheel drive

Weight 1555kg  

Power to Weight 386bhp per tonne

0-62mph 3.2sec

Top speed 205mph  

Economy 23.0mpg

CO2 287g/km