The new second-generation Audi R8 supercar is on its way, so how does the current 5.2 FSI quattro V10 stack up?
The CarAdvice team recently had a 2015 Audi R8 V10 Plus in the Sydney garage – a car that is one of the final examples of the first-generation supercar from the German luxury brand.
That’s right: despite the fact production of this generation model has already ceased, and with the full knowledge that a new version is just around the corner, it was time to see if the ‘old R8’ still offered something worth considering. This was a car that people had told Anthony and I about time and time again, yet neither of us had spent any more than about 15 minutes in one.
Here’s what we thought.
I mean, any car with a V10 engine producing 404kW of power and 540Nm of torque sending grunt to all four wheels through a high-tech seven-speed dual-clutch transmission is bound to have weapons-hot status. Hell, I’d just gotten out of the Lamborghini Huracan – which shares a parts bin with the new-generation R8 – so my expectations were high.
The engine is epic. The way it screams through to 8500rpm and the fact the engine is just behind the driver’s seat makes for an experience that is hard to find elsewhere. The noise, particularly in Sport mode, is phenomenal.
The gearbox clips through the cogs with a level of intelligence that betters some of its peers, and at speed the paddleshifters come into their own. Fingertips are all that's required for a rev-matched downshift or perfectly sharp upshift, but I do wish I’d had the chance to drive the six-speed manual with its well-known gated shift pattern.
There’s immense traction on offer for high-speed driving, and the car always feels stable and predictable – never twitchy, never fidgety. At low speeds – on the way to our closed road location, for example, or driving in traffic on the way to work – the car is perfectly comfortable and amenable, too. It doesn’t matter there’s no adaptive suspension on the V10 Plus, because the lighter steel-sprung setup never offers up discomfort – just a firm-edged level of assuredness.
The brakes – carbon ceramics as standard on the V10 Plus – are likewise excellent, with good feel through the pedal and plenty of meat.
Bits I wasn’t so keen on? Well, the interior is the most notable.
That’s not to say it’s a rubbish cockpit – far from it. The R8 was at the cutting edge when it was introduced in 2008, and again sat towards the top of the field for interior execution when this latest update was revealed in 2012.
But a lot has changed in that time – and Audi is partly to blame for its own cars feeling old. The German maker really does push the envelope when it comes to infotainment, new interior treatments and cockpit technology. I don’t think there’s a brand out there that is at the same level in terms of in-car innovation.
As such, the media system’s controls and finishes all feel a bit too old for mine. I couldn’t buy this generation R8 knowing what the brand has done with the latest TT, and knowing what to expect from the second-generation model that was revealed earlier this year.
Another issue with the interior were the racing bucket seats. I’m too broad across the hips to fit in them comfortably (and I’m not alone), so after a few days driving I had a sore lower back from squirming to try to find a comfortable position.
I also thought the quattro all-wheel drive system robbed the car of some steering accuracy when pushing hard. Understeer is always an issue in cars that send some or all of their power to the front wheels, and that was certainly the case for the R8 – although the more the tyres warmed up, the more compliant and playful it became, even pitching between understeer and power oversteer at times.
What did I learn from my time in the R8? For a brand’s first effort at a supercar it was mostly special, and that I can’t wait to drive the new one.
My history (or lack of) with the Audi R8 takes a slightly different road to my colleague’s unfortunate lack of drive time.
My beef is less about time behind the wheel than it is about the seven long years that have passed since my first and only steer sampling Audi’s super sports car.
It was 2008 and CarAdvice co-founder Alborz and myself had put it all on the line to fund a trip to Europe to video high-speed drives in a handful of the world’s fastest road cars. One of those was a supercharged version of the V8-engined R8 from long-standing German tuner, ABT Sportsline GmbH. We didn’t know it at the time, but the PR guy had handed us the keys to Christian Abt’s very own company car.
Right from the get-go, this Bavarian speed spree had all the hallmarks of one of those especially memorable experiences. On the way down to a picturesque Bavarian ski village, we clocked an astonishing 321km/h. But here’s the thing, while it naturally felt like warp speed on a public road, the R8 remained utterly stable and completely unruffled as the speedometer needle climbed from 250km/h on up. But the best was yet to come.
Back then the R8 was offered with a manual transmission only - one that felt much more like a bespoke fluid-drive camera mechanism than a six-speed gearbox. I still rate it as the smoothest and most refined shift action – ever.
If I had any doubts as to the validity of Audi’s commitment to building a proper 911-rivalling sports car, they would be summarily dismissed upon the completion of a single flat-out run up the mountain pass, with the same ABT PR guy, riding shotgun.
It wasn’t just about the explosive point-to-point speed, especially on the corner exits. What was even more impressive was the R8’s grip and composure when driven at the limit – on cold tyres and a bitterly cold afternoon.
The car’s supreme levels of balance and poise left us all gobsmacked. And it was such an easy supercar to manage, even at full tilt. It felt ‘right’ from the very moment you climbed aboard. Audi had built an extraordinarily good sports car, and one that was as easy to punt as an S4.
Stepping into the latest, though, soon to be replaced, 5.2 FSI Plus quattro, is oddly familiar. Meaning, not much has changed over the last seven years. Updates are subtle, and there’s none of the latest cool kit, such as the tricky, all-digital instrument screen that you’ll find in the new TT and upcoming Q7. It’s no deal breaker – as you still get stuff like LED lights and rear indicators that sweep rather than just blink, as well as all the usual tech features you would expect in a halo car from Audi.
It’s still supremely comfortable, with great seats and one of the most liveable cabins in the supercar class.
However, the R8’s piece de resistance is, of course, its turbo-free, Lamborghini-sourced V10 engine. The view through the mid-mounted glass window that displays this exquisite piece of Italian engineering is hugely impressive - trumping even the Ferrari 458 in this measure.
We can also thank Lamborghini CEO, Stephan Winkelmann, for sticking with large displacement V10s and V12s to power his cars. The end result is an engine note to rival Andrea Bocelli belting out Nessan Dorma in the Turin Plaza. There’s nothing quite like it – at least, for this kind of coin.
Perhaps the biggest change made with the latest R8 Plus was going from an uninspiring, robotised-manual gearbox, to a super-responsive seven-speed dual-clutch unit - and the effects are felt straightaway. Work the right-hand paddle and the upshift is direct and immediate. It’s the same story downshifting into a tight turn; two or three gears in rapid fire, drill the carbon ceramic brakes, and you’re no sooner back on the power for a fast, early exit.
Not only is the R8 Plus extremely quick in a straight line, but its cornering competency is also highly developed. It’s carrying 50kg less mass than the standard R8 quattro, so the Plus is more precise and there’s more front-end grip on offer. There’s still a hint of understeer if you charge in a tad too hot, but it won’t upset the car’s balance and still feels completely natural.
After a full day behind the wheel of one of the final versions of the first-generation R8, a few things haven’t changed; this is still a seriously underrated supercar with head-turning appeal, and it's entirely usable as a daily driver.
That said, the next-generation R8 looks to be more revolution than evolution, and with a focus on performance, it should be an absolute cracker and a worthy successor for Audi’s throne.
I can’t wait to drive it.
Video and photography by Mitchell Oke