For decades, one sports car has stood head and shoulders above all others whenever discussion turns to the title of ‘the most usable, the most reliable, the most liveable’. One sports car capable of a run down to the shops en route to a track day thrash. That sports car is the Porsche 911 and it held the title on its own for so long, other manufacturers didn't even bother competing.
Porsche owners sniggered into their Teutonic coffee mugs (resplendent with a Porsche crest, usually) at Lamborghini, Ferrari or Maserati drivers who had to deal with day-to-day quirks for that fleeting but ultimate rush of speed or street presence. "Not in my 911," they thought.
The R8’s all-round ability, comfort, reliability and durability, reinforced by blinding speed and a bellowing V8 or V10 soundtrack, rocketed the Audi to the top of the list and reminded the Stuttgart manufacturer that it wasn't going to have the mantle all to itself in future.
Now, CarAdvice is at the daunting Portimao racetrack outside Faro, Portugal, to get behind the wheel of the newest iteration of the Audi R8, the forthcoming 2016 model. Getting behind the wheel is easy too - this is a liveable sports car remember.
One thing that has always struck me every time I’ve driven an Audi R8 on track in Australia is just how incredibly easy a sports car it is to drive fast. That thought comforts me on my sighting laps as I get a firsthand look at the blind turn-in points and significant elevation changes of this daunting Portuguese circuit.
CarAdvice has tested the outgoing R8 extensively in Australia - on road, on track, in driving rain and around town. We’ve covered it all. But we’ve never tested the R8 quite like this: flat out on a lightening fast, undulating World Superbike race course. Thankfully, our first batch of laps is scheduled before the sun sets, but we're here for high-speed night time running. The reason? Audi's engineers want us to sample the car's new laser headlights.
We've had plenty of exotica through the CarAdvice garage over the past 12 months including the Lamborghini Aventador and Huracan, Ferrari California T and various incarnations of the Porsche 911 to name a few. What’s become increasingly apparent is that modern design and technology has ensured searing speed and performance doesn’t have to come at the cost of daily driveability, but the R8 appeals on a different level despite other manufacturers starting to catch the likes of Porsche and Audi. The R8 is less show pony and more subterfuge. Less look at me and more prowling through the shadows. It’s a sports car for the discerning driver.
Let’s see if the latest model can live up to the legend Audi first introduced back in 2006.
Before we arrive at the racetrack, we get to sample the all-new R8 on the roads around Faro and up into the hills on the rural outskirts. I strap myself into a piercing blue V10 Plus - straight to the most-powerful model, of course - select 'Comfort' mode for the suspension and press the steering wheel-mounted button that liberates the exhaust note. There’s an immediate change in pitch and volume and I know, even at idle, that I’m going to love the soundtrack... even if the locals don’t.
Manoeuvring the new R8 around town, you’re immediately reminded of how well mannered its predecessor was at low speed. There’s no jerking or hesitation, no nasty shunting through the gearbox and there's a perfect amount of weight to the steering. You still get the benefit of proper steering feedback even at sedate speeds - a hint to what the R8 is capable of. Few cars at this end of the spectrum can deliver such a reassuring driving experience from the get-go.
A freeway on-ramp provides us with the first opportunity to stretch the V10’s legs. Snap the left paddle shifter back two gears to third, bury the accelerator pedal and the speed piles on relentlessly up to an indicated 140km/h in a very short burst. The 0-200km/h sprint, dispatched in 9.9 seconds, is lightening fast and the top end of that we won’t experience until we hit the track. The popping and crackling on downshifts, followed by a vicious snarl that becomes a bellow as the revs rise, cements the idea that the exhaust will never be in the ‘quiet’ setting while I’m behind the wheel.
The other factor that slaps you in the face within that first acceleration burst is the brutal efficiency of the seven-speed S tronic dual-clutch transmission. It matters not which drive mode you select, the shift is so fast, there’s no discernible loss of forward momentum. It's almost like you’re playing a video game, such is the rapidity of engagement. The smoothness of the shift is worthy of mention here, too. There’s less of the savagery you sense in the Huracan at the limit, just ridiculously fast forward progress.
Our highway run does illustrate one of the R8's only negatives, copious tyre roar at speed. Between 100-140km/h an enormous amount of tyre roar is evident especially on coarse-chip surfaces. Buyers won't consider it a deal breaker, but the optional 20-inch wheels fitted to our test vehicle don't help the situation. Interestingly, the launch vehicles are all fitted with Michelin rubber as opposed to the standard issue Pirellis - apparently the Michelins are better able to cope with the track torture they will cop later on. The other negative - depending on which way you look at it - is the lack of a V8 version. That void shifts the price spread for the R8 and also shifts the playing field a little for the model.
You’d need to be completely devoid of emotion not to be intoxicated by the incredible engine note that accompanies the V10’s surge of power. Turbos be damned. The crisp throttle response, immense low-down urge and linear power delivery combine with that engine note to seal the deal for natural aspiration. As we trundle through small villages, we get countless thumbs up from the locals and requests to blip the throttle so they can hear the V10 engine in all its glory. Turbocharging may well be the inevitable way of the future, but let’s rejoice in a rev-hungry naturally aspirated engine while we still can.
It’s hot for our road drive - 38 degrees at its warmest - and the cabin of the R8 remains comfortable and cool. Our test vehicle is fitted with the fully adjustable electric seats and there’s plenty of adjustment for both driver and passenger. On-road visibility is also excellent and exercises like reverse parking, are no more difficult in the R8 than they are in an A3. The crystal clear reverse camera image in the centre of the 'virtual cockpit' digital display assists here too.
There were few genuine criticisms you could level at the outgoing R8, but one of them was the reality that small interior details didn’t feel quite special enough to match the design and performance of the car. Audi has listened to that feedback and the R8 now has a bespoke feel inside the cabin. The steering wheel, for example, manages to ooze racecar cool without dripping in useless, fiddly and difficult to decipher switchgear. The shift paddles and climate controls are both beautifully designed and functional. The fitment of virtual cockpit for the R8 has - just like it did with the new third-generation TT - resulted in a clean centre console design, something you may not fully appreciate until you see the car in the flesh. I’m a traditionalist at heart, but the virtual gauges are so beautifully designed, I can’t argue the case against them.
On public roads, the R8’s ride remains impressive. It’s stupendously capable at the limit as we’ll find later, but able to soak up bumps and ruts with ease. Sharp potholes will result in heftier kickback through the wheel and a little shimmy from the taut chassis, but the average fare you’d experience around town in Australia is no match for the R8. Our test vehicle has the optional Audi Magnetic Ride system, and while we opt for ‘Dynamic’ mode on track, there’s no reason to shift out of ‘Comfort' on the road. You won't be driving fast enough (outside of Germany anyway) to explore the outer limits of the suspension system.
I complete a 90km road loop in the lesser R8 V10 and, as expected, the performance deficit is hardly noticeable at legal road speeds. There’s slightly less theatre, no race-spec fixed rear wing, a subtle difference in exhaust note, and a little less brutality under heavy acceleration, but the 'basic' V10 nails the brief of making the driver feel special and all for less outlay. While the appeal of the range-topper is obvious, you won't feel like a second-class citizen if your budget doesn’t stretch quite that far.
Portimao is the kind of circuit that won’t get easier after short bursts of laps in bunches, so I concentrate more on the epic outer reaches of the R8 V10 Plus’ performance rather than trying to string together the perfect lap. The elevation changes here are as significant as on any track I’ve driven, the corners just as technical and the braking points crucial if you want to string together a seamless lap, which is why time would be the key.
Straight away, the R8’s quattro AWD system comes into its own. The R8 manages to skirt the balance between the best parts of a front- and rear-wheel-drive platform despite being all-wheel drive. Before we head out, I select ‘Dynamic’ mode, which still allows plenty of power sliding if you’re so inclined. If all cars were this easy to coax into a controlled slide, we’d all be WRC drivers. It's forgiving too, never feeling snappy, or like it's about to get away from you. The balance is exceptional.
The 20-inch Michelin tyres bite viciously into the tarmac at speed and I don’t register a sound from them. The R8’s steering and braking is so razor sharp, you can use the most minor of inputs for both to set the car exactly where you want it for the corners. Such is the braking force generated by the carbonfibre rotors fitted to our track cars, you can brake significantly later than you think, plunge deeper into the corner, wash off speed rapidly, point the nose at the apex, and rocket out the other side. Hang the tail out for good measure, too, if you’re a bit excitable with the throttle. It’s the braking ability that most astounds me on my track sessions though. Consistently, I brake earlier than I need to, struggling to get my head around the incredible stability and efficiency of the system.
The R8 remains incredibly easy to drive rapidly. You won’t emerge from a track session in a lather of sweat aching from every joint. You will, on the other hand, emerge with a stupid grin on your face, even if you’ve taking the slow way through every corner, such is the mind-blowing soundtrack. The harsh reality is that no turbocharged car can bellow and wail with the appeal of a highly tuned naturally aspirated engine, and the R8 is up there with the very best of them. The chequered flag that halts each of our track sessions is the only thing that wipes the smile off my face all day.
We complete three laps in pitch darkness too, just to sample the optional laser headlights. The track isn’t floodlit either, and in between aiming for the red glow of the lit cones at the braking points, I marvel at the skill of Le Mans drivers who have to do this for hours on end. The R8 is way too capable to experience its best in the dark, even though the headlights are amazingly powerful.
Following the madness of the track, we return to the airport via the urban route, straight through the centre of Faro in morning rush hour. It’s a none to subtle reminder of just how urbane the R8 can be when the time calls for it. I miss a turn off deliberately, so I can eke out one more freeway blast before I hand back the keys. The R8 is just that kind of car.
I have tremendous respect for the outgoing Audi R8. In any form it impressed the CarAdvice team with its tractability that shadowed such impressive outright performance for those willing to venture onto the closed confines of a racetrack. A replacement needed to meet certain standards to live up to that first iteration. In fact, I think with the release of this second generation, the original might become one of the great super sportscar bargains on the second-hand market.
However, this new 2016 Audi R8 is a beast, there’s no doubt about it. Its blend of power, precision and stupendous performance is almost impossible to resist. The sharper styling, subtle changes to the interior and incredible pace you can liberate on track ensures the R8 experience is more intoxicating than it’s ever been. Truly great cars don’t come along very often and we should revel in them when they do - the 2016 Audi R8 is one such car.
Read about five interesting Audi R8 facts here.
Read the full 2016 Audi R8 specs breakdown here.