What is it?
If you’re one of our UK readers, it has probably not escaped your notice that this week has not provided the optimum conditions in which to test a new variant of a junior supercar.
Still, things on these shores were always thus, and if ever there was a mini-exotic which can deal with, y’know, winter and that, it’s the Audi R8. Yes, the engine is in the middle and the Audi comes on 235/35 R19 front and 295/30 R19 tyres, but the R8 has quattro four-wheel drive and at least we’ve driven one on snow and ice before, when Autocar ran a V10 long-termer.
That car was fitted with a manual transmission, which was just as well because the first-generation R8’s two-pedal alternative – a single-clutch automated manual – was a bit of a sluggard. It was fine on a track if you were going flat out, when it pushed through changes acceptably (albeit with a jolt) at high revs, but its lack of smoothness didn’t seem half so clever on the road.
Of the changes made to the R8 for its mid-life facelift, the most significant, then, is the ditching the automated manual gearbox option in favour of a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. At £2900, it’s also 40 per cent cheaper than the old auto option, yet, conversely, it is a lot more than 40 per cent better.
What's it like?
There are a few things I can’t tell you about how the R8 drives, given the weather we’ve just had, but one of the things I can report is that the new gearbox is very good indeed, certainly when fitted to the (unchanged) 424bhp V8 of our test car.
The speed of the shifts, their smoothness and the way the clutches gently allow the R8 to be manoeuvred around at low speed without clumsy over-revving are very impressive. I’m still no great fan of the look of the lever’s gate, mind – it looks a little, well, ordinary – and the manual overrides are in the ‘wrong’ direction (forwards to change up and backwards for down).
The steering wheel-mounted shift paddles have been revised, though, and they’re quite sweet, diddy things that operate with a pleasing tactility. I’d rather that the steering wheel wasn’t flat-bottomed and the driver’s seat could do with being able to be set lower, but other than that it’s a decent cabin environment. Only small tweaks such as revisions to the instrument cluster, iPod connection and a spot more chrome here and there mark the new model out from the first one.
On the outside, it’s similarly hard to tell a facelift R8 apart from a first-generation variant. There’s a new rear valance and exhaust pipes, but the biggest clue is in the LED indicators that make a KITT-style sideways sweep as they flash. Um. Yeah.
Anyway, moving on, the V8 gets a new 19in alloy wheel design, which brings me to the chassis. Similarly, that’s unchanged, which is no bad thing, because it was fine before and remains so now. The ride at low speeds seems a touch less settled than a Porsche 911's, but there’s no denying the keenness of the chassis. It steers quickly and accurately, and because only between 15 and 30 per cent of the power ever goes to the front (enough to make slippery getaways viable), the balance is sweet.