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.
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.