It's always been slightly off the radar for supercar buyers, but the new Audi R8 is one of the best, at least, dynamically.
Take a good look at the latest generation Audi R8, because it could, quite possibly, be one of the last naturally aspirated petrol V10 supercars unleashed on the planet.
Apart from Lamborghini with its Huracan, all other rival manufacturers of exotica including Porsche, Ferrari and McLaren, have moved to forced induction (turbochargers) in order to extract maximum power with minimum emissions from their production cars.
Audi, in particular, has already paid something of a price for its decision to stick with a turbo-free powertrain for the R8 – but the payoff has come in a succession of more powerful tunes, along with ever bigger displacement engines over the years.
When the original R8 launched in 2007, it packed a 4.2-litre V8 that made 309kW. Two years later Audi turned up the heat by adding a 5.2-litre V10 version to the line-up - armed with 386kW.
Still feeling out-gunned, Audi introduced the heavy-hitting V10 plus with 404kW and more torque. It was fast too, able to clock 3.5 seconds-flat for the 0-100km/h sprint.
Perhaps the biggest change to the new-generation R8 is that Audi decided to permanently ditch the V8, in favour of an all-V10 line-up in an effort to stay with the ever-growing turbo team.
That’s not to say that even Audi, and dare I say, Lamborghini, may eventually be forced to embrace the concept of fewer cylinders and multiple turbochargers to keep pace with competition. But for now at least, cars like the Audi R8 and Lamborghini Huracan exist in a rarefied space and should be universally celebrated and thoroughly enjoyed.
The entry-level $354,900 5.2-litre FSI V10 engine boasts 397kW/540Nm, while the $389,900 V10 plus punches out an impressive 449kW and 560Nm of torque.
The latest R8 itself is a direct result of the knowhow learned from Audi’s LMS GT3 racing program and, well, the performance claims speak volumes: capable of reaching 100km/h from a standard start in 3.2 seconds, before topping out at a ballistic 330km/h.
It’s the fastest production Audi ever built, which is why we’re in Europe to have a bit of crack in the last bastion of speed – the German autobahn.
That’s not to say the standard 5.2-litre R8 is slow in any way. On the contrary, it’ll still got 397kW and 540Nm of torque and needs just 3.5 seconds to smash the 0-100km/h sprint (same as the Porsche GT3 RS). Top speed is 320km/h – it’s still a major-league supercar by any measure.
But for an additional $35,000 for the ‘plus’, you get more poke, ceramic brakes and even more lightweight carbon-fibre bits – worth every cent, in my opinion.
Opportunities to wind up an Audi R8 V10 plus to speeds that would see you fined, jailed, and confined to Uber rides for the term of your natural life in Australia, don’t come up all that often, even for motoring media. When they do, you need to scramble or one of your colleagues will happily crawl all over you to claim the prize.
Confession time. I’ve always been a big fan of the R8, ever since Alborz and I drove an ABT-tuned version in Bavaria, just prior to the 2009 launch of the V10. The car belonged to endurance racer and ABT boss Christian Abt, which was specially prepared with a raft of enhancements, including a whopping-great supercharger.
It was mind-blowingly fast – we hit 321km/h in no short time - but also brilliant in the tight twisty stuff. Even when tyre grip ran out it was still remarkably easy to manage under big loads. We still rate it as one of the best sports cars we’ve ever driven.
I also respected the design of the original. It was unique, taking little or no cues from rivals - past or present - and it had presence. It also set the design language for the future Audi line-up at the time.
That’s also true of the new second-generation R8, but I can’t say I’m completely sold on this latest styling effort. The smooth, flowing lines are no longer there, replaced by sharp edges – function over form, I suspect.
The once-signature carbon-fibre side blades have been split in two pieces, and are now less impressive for it, in my opinion. Certainly, it’s a more clinical approach to the design process.
Mind, it’s still got presence, no doubt about it. It’s also a significantly more sophisticated car than its predecessor benefiting from lessons learned with Audi’s success in GT3 racing with its R8 LMS cars.
For starters it’s hand built by quattro GmbH in a bespoke factory at Böllenger Höfe in small-batch volumes alongside the Lamborghini Huracan – sister car to the R8. Of the 1300 cars that drive off the assembly line each day at Audi’s Neckarsulm-based factory nearby, just 15 are R8s.
The total time taken to build an R8 is around one week, including painting and final 50km shakedown on the high-speed autobahn and surrounding windy roads.
By way of comparison, for an A8 the build process is approximately three days, and for a high-volume car like the A6, the factory needs just 24 hours to complete the car.
The latest R8 also marks the first time that Audi has used carbon-fibre for structural components such as the rear bulkhead, the B-columns, and the tunnel. The result is a body weight of just 200 kilograms – ten kilos lighter than the previous iteration – while torsional rigidity is up by 40 per cent.
Drill down into the detail, and you’ll find a host of other engineering enhancements like the quattro all-wheel drive system. Unlike the previous system, there is no fixed distribution, as the front-to-rear torque transfer is now fully variable, depending on what drive mode you’ve dialled up.
There’s also a new electromechanical power steering system, Audi’s magnetic ride system and double wishbone suspension on board. Aerodynamics represent a big leap forward too, with full-flat underbody for reduced drag, as well as a rear diffuser and fixed rear wing that generates more than 100kg of downforce at 300km/h with the V10 plus.
And despite a host of standard kit such as Audi’s virtual cockpit, Bang & Olufsen audio, and a totally new interior design the new R8 is actually lighter than its predecessor by up to 50 kilograms.
The V10 plus also adds plenty of beautifully finished carbon fibre accents to the exterior, 20-inch forged alloys, sports bucket seats, Alcantara headlining and ceramic brakes – all of which help keep the car’s weight to a minimum – in this case, 1555kg.
Inside, it’s all business, though beautifully crafted and presented. The highlight, besides the expansive full-colour digital instrument display, is the heavily contoured flat-bottom steering wheel embossed with an array of buttons including Drive select, Race mode, Start/stop and a ‘loud’ button for the intoxicating exhaust note.
The driving position is reasonably low set, and the standard sports seats are superbly shaped and generously cushioned. The knurled HVAC knobs are beautifully fashioned and a stylish addition to the R8’s quality fit-out.
The very instant you fire up the 5.2-litre V10 that sits directly behind the driver’s head, you’re well aware that the R8 is something special. I can’t say whether the mechanical symphony differs from the Huracan – if so, it’s very subtle.
It doesn’t take long before we’re weaving in and out of traffic from Munich airport heading north towards Audi’s production facility in Neckarsulm. It’s low-speed stuff, but nonetheless, a good opportunity to explore the R8’s ride comfort over roads much less smooth than the near perfectly built autobahn.
I would argue the level of compliance built into this chassis is exceptional for a car as potent as this Audi supercar. Left in Comfort mode (not for long I hope) the R8 rides better than most of its rivals – right up there with the Porsche 911 in it’s ability to absorb the bumps without upsetting the car’s composure.
Seems we’ve got some single lane cross country driving to do before we hit the high-speed stuff. That said, I’m in convoy behind a colleague in the standard V10 model, and he’s not hanging about. Time to arm the R8 with a more aggressive drive setting – mandatory for these quick overtaking manoeuvres on a two-lane stretch, which require cat-like reactions and immediate throttle response.
There’s only a small gap up ahead in the on-coming traffic, but the R8 in front decides to go, so I react in the same way, and positively drill it. There’s no pause, no hesitation, just sustained rocket-like acceleration, even down in the rev range. There’s a real purity to this V10 engine. It’s ferocious, yes, but power delivery is always so evenly measured, even under full throttle.
It also produces one of the best barks in the supercar business, urging the driver to run it up to 8500rpm – or a little bit further, if, like me, you love the sound of the engine, as I truly do.
And the sound gets better with each pull of the right-hand paddle shifter – as you bang through the gears of the scalpel-sharp seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. This is a very sound gearbox that spontaneously reacts to each and every input.
It hooks up all four without any fuss, too. The new, more sophisticated quattro system puts the power down like no other, and the Pirellis bite hard into the black stuff. It’s also tremendously composed under big loads.
Same goes for the variable power steering. It’s quick, precise, and intuitive, and there’s a nice robust weight to it, almost natural, even. There’s also absolutely zero slack on-centre, and more feel through the steering wheel than any Audi I can remember from recent times, bar the latest A4.
And that’s exactly what you want while hurtling along the autobahn at speeds up to 250km/h plus. The derestricted zones are as busy as ever these days, but we still managed to hit 245km/h, with the R8 feeling aerodynamically sound and rock solid through the sweepers.
The new-generation Audi R8 V10 plus is a brilliant car in every respect. It’s mind-blowingly quick, makes all the right noises, and handles like it’s on rails. Precisely what a supercar should be.
The new R8 line-up will be in local showrooms by June.