Much-improved gearbox and enriched spec makes the Audi R8 even more technically impressive, although it still lacks supercar allure

What is it?

It’s a mid-life facelift for the Audi R8 super-sports car. If you want the abridged version, it consists of new LED headlights, a new gearbox, some extra standard equipment and a small price hike. No changes to either engine or suspension, though; Neckarsulm isn’t fixing what it rightly considers ain’t broke.

There are a few exterior styling updates for the R8, of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em variety. All cars now get a new rear valance design with two large-bore exhaust pipes (previously, you could tell a V8 from a V10 by the smaller quad pipes of the former). There are also new LED taillights with indicators that ‘sweep’ from one side to the other, instead of blinking. Something done, you suspect, for sufficiently moneyed  David Hasselhoff fans who model themselves on TV’s Michael Knight. To everyone else, it’ll look a bit naff.

Inside the car you’ll find a few more matt-finish aluminum trims around the cabin than were there before, and a slightly more generous kit list that now includes iPod connectivity, Bluetooth, sat-nav and heated nappa leather seats.

But otherwise it’s the same R8, complete with cocoon-like driver’s seat, a slightly high but otherwise excellent driving position, and a typically German if slightly conservative cabin ambience.

What's it like?

In most of the ways that matter, still brilliant. And in a few of the ways that it wasn’t as good, much improved.

The aura of must-have novelty that surrounded the R8 when it arrived on the scene in 2007 may have long since evaporated, and the case for its private ownership weakened slightly as a result, but five years haven’t dimmed by one iota the genius of the R8’s dynamic responses or the distinctiveness of its positioning.

A new Porsche 911 is now a smarter place to put your money, it’s true, and a Ferrari 458 is a better driver’s car. But a Porsche 911 isn’t a proper aluminium spaceframed two-seater, and it doesn’t have a mid-mounted engine that might have graced something made in Maranello 20-odd years ago. And a mid-engined Ferrari is no longer a £100,000 buy.

That, in a nutshell, explains the uniqueness of the R8 in the current market. Most sports cars at this price point have monocoque bodies and front-mounted engines, and tend to make better grand tourers than out-and-out handling machines. In order to buy a hand-built car as stiff as the R8, you have to spend proper supercar money. Except in this case, 911 money will do.

And if you’re wondering how much difference a proper spaceframe and a beautifully smooth and powerful V8 engine revving to 8000rpm makes, well, all you need is to approach a sequence of corners while at the wheel of the R8 to find out.

The R8 may be wrapped very cleverly by a thin outer layer of idiot-proof understeer, but this car’s handling is basically so agile, and its directional responses so tenderly adjustable, that it provides road-based involvement and track-based thrills you simply don’t find every day.

This is an easy car to drive and a forgiving one to take liberties with, and neither thing is to be taken as a given in a mid-engined car. But dig deeper and it’s also a seriously absorbing track thoroughbred with rewards as rich and addictive as any.

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Audi’s quattro drivetrain isn’t the biggest aid to understanding the way this car goes around corners, particularly if you’re used to quattro drive in Audi’s cooking saloons and hatchbacks. The R8 couldn’t handle less like an all-paw A3.

That’s because it’s predominantly rear-driven, with a viscous coupling sending only 15 per cent of engine power to the front wheels under normal conditions and up to a maximum 30 per cent when excess slip is detected out back. What results is a car that steers, corners and even drifts just as freely as any rear-driver you can compare it with, but it's also a car with traction to burn, and can make its way well enough along a snow-covered lane when needs must.

The best news to come out of the 2012 facelift is the replacement of the R8’s six-speed automated manual gearbox by a new three-shaft, dual-clutch, seven-speed S-tronic automatic transmission that addresses the biggest criticism you could make of the car hitherto. The two-pedal R8 now punts its way through traffic in smooth, unobtrusive fashion, and snaps through full throttle paddleshift changes in manual mode with a barely perceptible interruption in drive.

What’s more, the premium that Audi charges for an auto R8 has dropped by 40 per cent. The auto is twice as good, then, and it costs almost half as much.

Should I buy one?

If what you want is simply the best-handling sports car you can buy for less than £100,000, and the prospect of having only two seats and getting 22mpg doesn’t discourage you, then yes.

A new Porsche 911 probably has a bit more character, is a bit more usable on a daily basis and should cost you a bit less. But it’s not dynamically flawless, which is a startlingly accurate description of the Audi when all is said and done. The R8 is nothing less than the junior supercar done to perfection.

This car is so good, in fact, that it wants for some of the little motive foibles that us drivers often like to think of as ‘charm’. Trust Audi to make a sports car capable of stimulating the deepest recesses of your conscious mind and making you feel like hero at the wheel, but also of leaving you a little cold at the end of the day. The R8 has all of the dynamic ability of the full-blooded exotic, but still lacks some of the mystique.

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Audi R8 V8 S-tronic

Price £94,475; 0-62mph 4.3sec; Top speed 187mph; Economy 22.8mpg; CO2 289g/km; Kerb weight 1585kg; Engine V8, 4163cc, normally aspirated; Power 424bhp at 7900rpm; Torque 317lb ft at 4500-6000rpm; Gearbox 7-spd dual-clutch automatic

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.

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Cobnapint 3 November 2012

Bit late in the day

Its a pity they didn't give it this gearbox when the R8 first came out. It might have stood more of a chance against the PDK's of this world.

I drove a manual R8 V8 a couple of years ago and expected to come away saying 'wow'. But I didn't.

Now the shock factor of the R8's looks have gone away, I doubt it will make much impact on its sales figures. The car, after all, still rates very low in the practicality stakes, and whether you can use the extra power on our crowded roads or not is still open to question.

blowntoaster 2 November 2012


Excellent First Drive Review. 

Really excited about the new R8's autobox. Can't wait to have a go in one of these. 

Great one Matt...

BriMarsh 1 November 2012

They sound fantastic

But it's a shame about the badge.