It's 2007 and we’ve just been assaulted by the excellence of the Audi RS4, but still, the R8 is a revelation. A revelation because it proves that Audi can make a world-class sports car. We didn't doubt it knew how to; we just didn't think Audi's people thought it was important enough to do. Thank heavens that they did.
The first R8 arrived with four-wheel drive, an aluminium structure and a naturally-aspirated 4.2-litre V8 engine that revved to the heavens. It won our Britain's Best Driver's Car contest - easily. A larger V10 was added later, and that was superb, too.
This second-gen car, then, has a hefty amount to live up to, which might explain why Audi hasn’t opted to change the formula too much.
There’s still an aluminium monocoque, only with carbonfibre-reinforced plastics in key places to increase rigidity by 40% and reduce weight by 15% over the old model. The V10 engine is back, too, though not the V8. Shame.
We always thought that the V8 was the marginally sweeter-handling car. The V10 remains in 5.2-litre form but with more power than before. In its standard guise it receives 532bhp or, as tested here as the V10 Plus, it gets 601bhp. With a top speed of 205mph and a 0-62mph time of 3.2sec, it’s the fastest production Audi yet. Cor.
The V10 still sends its power to all four wheels and exclusively through a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox; there is no manual option. The quattro four-wheel drive system no longer has a viscous coupling to divert power around, but instead uses a multi-plate clutch that can divert 100% of power to either end.
The observant among you will be aware that those mechanical elements sound remarkably similar to those of the Lamborghini Huracán, and that’s because they are. We’ve been left a touch cold by the blisteringly fast but numb-handling Huracán thus far. Let’s see if the R8 can go one better.
I’ll level with you early: it’s splendid. Really, this is a terrific car. For one, it’s still as easy to live with as it ever was. Visibility is good for a mid-engined car, and the interior is lovely in the way Audi knows how interiors should be. Ergonomically it’s sound and the all-digital instrument binnacle is crisp and clear, which lets the rest of the dash be clean, too.
There are two seats only, with a small shelf behind that I suspect can take golf clubs if you have to. The engine is in the middle so there’s a small boot at the front. And the R8 rides well enough to push most road lumps out of the way, probably as well as a Porsche 911 Turbo does and, I suspect, better than a Mercedes-AMG GT or Aston Martin Vantage can manage.
Right, that’s the sensible bit out of the way. The V10 engine is a mega piece of kit. On start-up it’s rather antisocial. In fact, it is most of the time, but that’s the rub if you want a car which makes peak torque at 6500rpm and peak power at 8250rpm on the way to an 8500rpm red line.
And, you know, I rather like a car that has one of those, especially when it’s naturally aspirated and has a superb throttle response and hard, hollow noise – increasingly so if you put the drive modes (of which, inevitably, there are several) into their grumpiest settings and turn up the exhaust.
The seven-speed dual-clutch ’box is as slick as we’ve come to expect them to be, and if you listen carefully there’s a lovely pneumatic-sounding ‘pssht’ on downshifts, a bit like a racing car. Goody.
And it handles. Our route involved some roads in southern Portugal – mostly well surfaced – and the superb Portimao race circuit. I fear the ESP-off button was disabled on the cars we used on track, leaving that safety net in place, but in the most liberated drive mode the R8 still allows a little slip at either end.
It's enough to tell you that, like the Lamborghini Huracán, there’s a touch of stabilising understeer early in a corner; but also that the R8 has a degree of throttle adjustability and agility that the Huracán can only wish for.
Keep the nose planted on turn-in by trailing the brakes into a bend and the Audi is inclined to pivot around its middle, just like the old one did, and drive its way out on the throttle. The brakes – carbon-ceramic discs as standard on the Plus – are superb, too.
What’s not so good? Not a lot. Our test car had dynamic steering – the system that gives you quicker steering at lower speeds than at higher speeds. These systems are getting better, and they work – the R8 is stable on a motorway and feels agile at manoeuvring speeds – but they still don’t supply a natural feel. A Porsche 911’s rack is better.
And, if you were being really picky, you might mourn the passing of that original V8 R8, with its lighter engine giving even greater agility and handling purity. But the R8 has been all about the V10 for a while now. In that guise, the car previously occupied a quiet little niche of its own, above most 911s and below most exotic supercars, even though it had the pace of the faster cars. It still does, actually. In fact, it doesn't let up.
These days I’d put the Mercedes-AMG GT into the area the R8 finds itself, while McLaren will drop the 540C and 570S in there as well soon enough. The R8 has to be good, then, and it is. It feels more visceral and alive than the Porsche 911 Turbo, and although it’s less raucous and caricatured than a Mercedes-AMG GT, its handling is the more accomplished.
The new R8 does all the things the old R8 did superbly well, and tweaks the competence up by about 10-20% in every key area. It turns out that Audi still knows how to make a world-class sports car and still thinks that it's an important thing to do.
Audi R8 V10 Plus
Price £134,500; Engine V10, 5204cc, petrol; Power 601bhp at 8250rpm; Torque 413lb ft at 6500rpm; Gearbox seven-speed dual-clutch automatic; Kerb weight 1630kg; Top speed 205mph; 0-62mph 3.2sec; Economy 23.0mpg; CO2/tax band 287g/km, 37%