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Audi sends its mid-engined flagship in search of supercar scalps, and largely succeeds - even if rivals like the Porsche 911 Turbo S provide greater driving thrills

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The Audi R8 did not build the brand. The formidable glaze coating of Ingolstadt’s reputation was baked long before it indulged an impulse to make a bona fide mid-engined sports car.

But when it did, when the result proved exceptional and exciting and idiosyncratic, it was concrete evidence that Audi was indeed capable of almost anything.

The first Audi R8 was launched eight years to compete against the Porsche 911, but now times have changed

Just as it had reeled in the huge lead that greater longevity had given BMW and Mercedes-Benz, so it might now compete with the mighty Porsche.

The R8, in its original V8 format, was an automotive attestation of the boldest sort: the Porsche 911’s status is not sacrosanct and that firm's path to driving nirvana isn’t the sole means of ascent.

Quattro GmbH had conceived of another way and Audi rallied the ambition, expertise and investment required to make it happen.

Now, nine years on from the original R8’s introduction, it has retooled for a second run, tweaking much in a car whose design clearly continues to owe a substantial debt to the look of its predecessor. Its reason for being is slightly different, though.

Porsche has gone from rival to relative, and so the requirement for a more modest V8-powered variant to challenge the Carrera has gone, too.

Consequently, Audi’s 5.2-litre V10 – still naturally aspirated – has become the only engine choice and £119,500 has become the starting price.

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So the R8’s positioning has changed slightly, from sports car to super-sports car – and the move has been a long time coming. It was previewed by the phalanx of more and more powerful run-out special editions of the previous R8 but was ultimately hinted at much earlier, when Audi learnt how much buyers were prepared to pay for the R8.

We’re testing the quickest, most expensive version: the Audi R8 V10 Plus, delivering the same 602bhp as its Lamborghini Huracán sibling. It is, in fact, the quickest car Audi has made. Now, to properly succeed its predecessor, it just has to be the best driver’s car Audi has made, too.

Audi R8 design & styling

The new R8 is, Audi claims, the closest thing to a racing car that it has ever attempted to make for the road.

The original car’s manual gearbox and V8 have been consigned to history – something we regret in both cases – and replaced by an engine range consisting of 533bhp and 602bhp 5.2-litre V10 options and a seven-speed dual-clutch S tronic ’box. For those seeking to make that evocative V10 more vocal, there is the option to have the 533bhp in Spyder form.

The changes to the mixed-metal V10 are legion, among them a hike in compression ratio, a new fuel injection system with both direct and indirect delivery, and the adoption of cylinder shutdown.

With an under-square design, offset cylinder banks and alternating firing intervals for opposing cylinders of 54deg and 90deg, the engine remains unconventional for its type. But that type remains one of atmospheric aspiration, with peak power developed north of 8000rpm, peak revs close to 9000rpm and what Audi hails as a 20 percent improvement in throttle response. 

The car’s Audi Space Frame underbody, shared with the Huracán, is now five percent lighter than it used to be and 40 percent more rigid, gains delivered by mixing aluminium castings, extrusions and sheets with resin-transfer-moulded, carbonfibre-reinforced polymer parts. All external body panels are aluminium.

Audi’s kerb weight claim for the higher-output V10 Plus is 1555kg, but MIRA’s weighbridge put our test car – fitted with more than £10,000 of optional kit, admittedly – at 1730kg, a figure that would suggest some discipline may be required during the ordering process if you want your R8 to really benefit from Audi’s engineering effort.

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The R8’s running gear consists of axle tracks that are wider up front than at the rear, aluminium double wishbones all round and – in the case of the V10 Plus – slightly stiffer springs and passive dampers than the outgoing car had, matched to forged 19in alloy wheels.

The standard steering set-up moves from electro-hydraulic to electro-mechanical power assistance. On the options list are both adaptive magnetorheological dampers and active-ratio dynamic steering – both of which our test car had fitted.

Finally, Audi’s trademark quattro drivetrain for the R8 is now made up of a mechanical limited-slip differential for the rear axle (locking up to 45 percent under power and 25 percent on the overrun), and a multi-plate clutch packaged inside the front differential that’s capable of apportioning more power to the front wheels than the previous viscous coupling could and reacting more quickly. 

INTERIOR

Inside the second generation Audi R8

To drive, the previous R8 hardly dated at all and remained compelling right up to the knockings of its long lifecycle. But the same could not be said of its interior, which had fallen beneath the high standards of its maker’s reputation.

But that negligible blot on the model’s copybook is wholly eradicated by its replacement. The look and feel of the cockpit, even its smell, have been rigorously updated to produce a clear highlight for Audi’s current line-up.

A large cargo box and little cabin storage would be a discouraging factor against buying an R8 for me

The R8’s cockpit is spanned by the ‘monoposto’, a large, curved arch of trim that borders the centre console and door trim on either side of the driver’s seat, encompassing the instrument cluster and steering wheel and intended to give the impression of being in a race car.

Really, though, the focus is now on the standard fitment of Audi’s Virtual Cockpit, which replaces the previous R8’s analogue dials with 12.3in of contrast-rich TFT screen.

The display’s flexible, razor-sharp renderings make space for the rest of the interior to maintain its glossy, uncluttered look, with nothing allowed to upset the familiar cohesion of soft-touch furnishings and brushed metal modernity.

The old R8’s steering wheel was a simple, multi-function affair. Now it’s polka-dotted with function buttons. The rather rudimentary S tronic gear selector has been swapped for one with the heft on an airliner throttle.

The centre console display has gone, of course, and with it much of the previous R8’s conventional switchgear. The Virtual Cockpit is operated via steering wheel remote controls or the latest MMI rotary interface on the centre console.

But all of this makes the R8 no more complicated to operate than the latest Audi TT; this is both the likeable thing about it and, ultimately, its limitation.

Neither the inventiveness applied by BMW to the BMW i8 nor the flair lavished on the McLaren 570S is bettered by Audi’s buttoned-down aesthetic – no matter how high the R8’s perceived quality levels may be. The R8 is a fine place to sit, and remains so for hours on end, but the same is true of virtually every other Audi product on sale. The R8’s wow factor is conspicuously short-lived.

Although it takes a little bit of getting used to, the Virtual Cockpit is one of Audi’s better ideas. For all the moments it seems to risk becoming cluttered (there’s now an awful lot of features to squeeze into a comparatively small space), the simple fact that the road remains in the same eye line is undoubtedly a boon to safety.

Eventually, usability is great, too — once you’ve cottoned on to the occasions when you really need to be scrolling left and right to find the particular option you’re looking for.

Interface aside, the R8 gets the range-topping version of the MMI system as standard, meaning that it’s about as well equipped as the class gets in terms of navigation, infotainment and connectivity. Processing speed is clearly top notch, and there’s an integrated wi-fi hotspot to go with a variety of Audi online services. For audiophiles, a 13-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system is on the options list.

As for the equipment levels, the V10 Coupé and Spyder get 19in alloys, LED headlights, dynamic rear indicators, automatic lights and wipers, autodimming, heated and folding wing mirrors, heated Nappa leather seats and climate control, while those concerned about dinging their precious super car will be pleased to know that front and rear parking sensors come as standard too.

Opt for the more bullish V10 Plus and expect to find tauter suspension and springs, ceramic brakes, adaptive headlights, fine Nappa bucket seats and stainless steel pedals. 

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

The 5.2-litre V10 engine in the Audi R8

The R8’s engine plays a hugely dominant role in its mystique; it’s almost as if the V10’s dramatic sound and fury have been artificially amplified for the benefit of owners who’d rather walk than consider a rival with a smaller, less mechanically exotic engine.

They haven’t, of course – not, at least, by anything as simple as a sound symposer or by playing warbling noises through the stereo speakers.

The R8 could have used the connected feel of the old car’s wonderfully metallic manual six-speeder

But in a much cooler and more calculating sense, the car feels like its every component has been fettled and optimised in order to produce as much visceral speed from that V10 as Audi could possibly manage.

The seven-speed S tronic gearbox seldom seems to waste a nanosecond between ratios and is calibrated in its more sporting automatic modes to hold onto lower gears very determinedly indeed.

So even though the car’s power delivery is inherently less flexible than that of its turbocharged rivals, on the road you’d be amazed if those rivals were any faster.

And when you need this car to pick up and go, whether you leave it to kick down or select its lower ratios yourself, it really accelerates hard – not as effortlessly as some of its competition, but every bit as quickly.

It’s a big scalp for Audi that, despite losing out from a standing start by a solitary tenth of a second, the R8 V10 Plus outsprinted the benchmark Porsche 911 Turbo S to 100mph by almost half a second.

It’s actually as close to the performance level of the McLaren 650S as the car that, for decades, has set the standard for the sub-supercar class on accelerative punch.

You can’t afford to be afraid to use every last millimetre of accelerator pedal travel and every available revolution of the crankshaft if you want to tap into that violence.

But that’s not to say the R8 makes it difficult to wring out its maximum – not remotely. Engage launch control mode and the driveline hooks up with the road surface with merciless efficiency.

The tacho needle promptly rushes around to the 8700rpm redline and then never strays more than 2000rpm from it, as the gearbox throws ratio after short-stacked ratio downstream of the crankshaft and the car erupts forwards with somehow equal smoothness and savagery.

The brake pedal feel is a touch disappointing, with initial over-assistance affecting the progressiveness of the optional carbon-ceramic stoppers of our test car. Outright stopping power is strong but not outstanding, but resistance to fade is excellent.

RIDE & HANDLING

The Audi R8's ride is firm, yet reactive...

Having been in possession of one of the simplest, most instantly gratifying and incorruptible driving experiences given to a sports car in recent times, the R8 couldn’t have gone through a starker change.

It is now as complicated to configure to your own preference and the demands of what’s under its wheels as any rival we can think of.

The stiff springing makes the car easy to spin, while the power pushes the car wide quickly on exit

It was, at least, in the case of our test car, with its active damping and steering options. Even without them, the R8 V10 Plus comes with an Audi Drive Select system with five modes – Comfort, Auto, Dynamic, Individual and Performance – with the last of those intended mainly for circuit driving and split up into sub-modes for dry roads, wet roads and snow.

Really, only one of those modes does what it says on the tin particularly well and sets the car up optimally either for keen road or track driving – and it’s the Individual one, which is just a front for more complexity.

The R8’s firm springing and light, muted, variably direct steering somewhat undermine the idea that it can be driven as a comfortable GT, and those active systems only compound the car’s problems in Dynamic and Performance modes, exacerbating both the reactive firmness of the ride and hyper-sensitivity of the tiller.

Take time to experiment and you’ll find that you can engineer in a passable sense of measure to the ride and both greater consistency and a little feel to the steering, by dialling down the R8’s adaptive systems. What you end up with is a liveable, albeit still wearing, ride compromise and handling that combines agility with security more than adequately.

But the tactility of the old R8’s steering, the fluency of its response to a bumpy road, the way its handling blended smart, confidence-inspiring turn-in with predictability under power… that’s all notable by its absence.

The handling balance is there, but vague steering feedback makes it hard to tap into it with much confidence, and the drivetrain’s willingness to allow you to adjust the car’s cornering line with power seems to vary, too.

The R8 is a sports car with a great deal going on between its gearbox and four contact patches, and although the previous one managed that complexity very well, this new one brings even more of it — and also makes it a more opaque part of the handling experience.

Our track testing was done in greasy conditions and with Performance mode (wet) engaged. All three of the Performance modes in effect freeze the variability of the active steering system but seem to do so at slightly too fast a ratio for the optimal meeting of high-speed agility and stability.

The torque vectoring system also interferes with the car’s surefootedness on entry to a corner. It seems to trail an inside brake in an attempt to sharpen up turn-in, but more often than not this only serves to unsettle the car.

Once it’s turned in, the R8 generates huge lateral grip but communicates its margins only averagely well. It resists understeer keenly, tilting into a tail-slide with power but keeping a smooth line thereafter can be tricky. Greasy conditions cost the R8 an undeterminable amount on lap time.

It coped well but could be more stable under braking and more predictable when it breaks traction. Wide tyres and stiff springs take away most of the advantage accrued by four driven wheels. Stability controls keep everything secure.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

The second generation Audi R8

Audi’s genius in getting shot of the lower-priced V8-engined R8 is that it can charge practically whatever it likes for the new V10 model without really having its value for money called into question.

The car’s positioning makes perfect Volkswagen Group sense, too. Any brand of Porsche Porsche 911 Carrera is going to be cheaper, with the Lamborghini Huracán costing significantly more.

CAP expects the R8 to have strong residual values, outperforming the BMW i8, but not as strong as the 911 Turbo S

Running costs won’t matter much, either, which is good, because the R8 Plus’s 287g/km CO2 emissions and 23.0mpg combined fuel economy have it bringing up the rear.

Most drivers won’t average that, of course, and we reproduced the claimed efficiency only in gentle touring mode.

The lower-powered version, when it arrives, ought to prove marginally less thirsty, but it does without the Plus’s gloss carbonfibre exterior accoutrements, bucket seats, sportier suspension and Performance driving modes – and, lest we forget, the monster power output.

We would opt for spending the extra on the V10 Plus powertrain, and we would recommend trying an R8 without the dynamic steering and passive suspension, as the Lamborghini Huracán, the Audi’s cousin, certainly benefits without these additions.

 

VERDICT

The second generation Audi R8 with the V10 engine

There are lots of references in the new R8’s press material to technologies and know-how borrowed and adapted from Audi’s racing machines.

Some of that transfer from track to road, we fear, may have been misplaced. The driving experience here feels like the effect of too great an emphasis on bald speed, responsiveness and grip – in outright terms, on track and in the split second you flick a paddle or flex a pedal.

It grips and goes even harder but wants for the previous R8’s delicacy

The car is a visceral, singular tribute to power and performance, noise and revs, grip and traction. It’s hugely exciting to drive but not quite rounded, communicative or usable enough for the kind of everyday driving to which super-sports cars are put.

We applaud Audi’s apparent ambition with this car and a lot of its execution. But we also regret that sight has been lost – or at least temporarily obscured – of what made the original R8 so great. And it wasn’t launch control or lateral g.

We are impressed overall with the second generation Audi R8, especially with its looks, performance and sound, however, it still falls short of the BMW i8, Porsche 911 Turbo S and the newest addition to McLaren’s Sport Series – the McLaren 570S.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Audi R8 First drives