You know you’re swimming in dangerous waters trying to rationalise a sub-genre in which to fit the Audi R8 RWS and the McLaren 540C when valid arguments can rage (at CarAdvice HQ, at least) about what broader car segment each sits in.
Are these super sports cars? Or merely sports cars? Do they qualify as supercars, which has been argued that, these days, sits a tier beneath properly ludicrous hypercars? Further, does some common purpose of being between them transcend mere pigeonholes? And do labels really matter?
Labels matter to McLaren, the company literally pegging its entry-level 540C as its lowest-rung super sports car (Sport Series), seated below its proper supercar (Super Series) and hypercar (Ultimate Series) vehicles in a neat three-tier model portfolio. Audi, for its part, can afford to be a little looser with the R8 range it specifically calls “supercar”, because the only way from Ingolstadt’s heap king is down elsewhere in the marque’s fold to TT sports cars of varying prowess.
Whatever the marketed case, there’s a particular kinship between the R8 RWS and 540C in format and appeal not necessarily shared with other super sports car segment dwellers such as the 911, F-Type, i8, Evora, GT-R or GTs of the world. When it comes to the ‘budget’ end of buying into classic mid-engined supercar ethos tempered somewhat for everyday use, the top-shelf Audi and bottom-rung McLaren are it.
The premise here is to explore the two options at the tip-in point of buying into the childhood dream of proper, poster-heroic exoticar ownership. For around the $300–$325K mark, here were the only two choices to indulge in a bona-fide supercar vibe – engine located in the right place – aforementioned segment rivals can’t authentically match, at a pricepoint where super-sporting Lamborghinis and Ferraris still remain somewhat unattainable. At least, that was the theory when we were concocting this twin test…
Then we booked our protagonist press cars. The R8 RWS, the first rear-drive production Audi ever, clocked in at $299,500 list, with our Ibis White example’s Misano Red GT stripe its only ($950) option creating a nominal bump up to $300,450 before on-roads. With 397kW/540Nm from its 5.2-litre naturally aspirated V10, claimed 3.7-second 0–100km/h prowess and exotic carbon-fibre and aluminium-rich core construction, the most affordable of the R8 fleet looks to tick the right exotica-for-buck boxes.
Each presents a boast in proof of exotic credentials. For the Audi’s part, it’s claimed half of the R8 RWS’s make-up is shared with the LMS racecar version. Meanwhile, McLaren’s pitch is that the 540C has the same MonoCell II-based body structure and similarly speccy engineering as pricier and more fanciful stablemates, if tempered a little for everyday palatability.
The 540C exactly matches the Audi’s power and torque, if using a quite different twin-turbocharged 3.8-litre V8 powerplant, propelling its own largely carbon-fibre and aluminium form via the rear wheels only to triple figures two-tenths of a second quicker, with merit in its superior performance claim no doubt tied to its more lightweight form: the McLaren is just 1350kg ‘dry’, whereas the Audi is a more portly 1590kg.
In an initial skirmish, on paper, it seemed as if the Macca’s leaner and quicker proposal was a fair trade for what was an extra $25K – ostensibly a slight lease payment tweak – in its $325,000 list price.
However, just before our 540C tester hit the CA garage, the McLaren range copped a quiet pricing realignment. Call it $350,000 list. Then there were options ranging from “special paint” to McLaren Design interior and orange finish on the brake calipers, bumping the price before on-roads to – gulp – $391,160! Which, of course, is not only Huracan LP 580-2 money, but right on next-rung-up McLaren 570S pricing and, to some extent, kind of defeating the purpose of its existence as the price-leading tip-in to the supercar experience.
Of course, crucial to that experience is on-street presence by way of fanfare. Neither of this pair is for the shrinking violets amongst motorists. Visually, it does seem the McLaren gains the initial edge just by the dominant amount of attention it draws, and not merely due to the sight and novelty of those dihedral doors perched skywards once parked. The R8, which has been around in one of two nearly indistinguishable exterior design forms since 2006, is oh-so familiar.
The McLaren, from a company that has only been series-producing cars for less than decade, simply appears more ‘alien’, partly down to its fresher and less-orthodox styling, and partly because any of the Brit breed is a rare sight on local roads.
The sheer rarity of a McLaren in the urban wilderness pulls another neat if unintentional trick: almost nobody knows you’ve bought the cheap one! At least that’s the feedback the barrage of onlookers profess when you’re out and about in one, most of them bypassing the Audi without glancing sideways.
If you want an anonymous supercar, the R8 – which never seems to escape appearing like just a lower, flatter Audi – is surely the preferred choice. The German’s bold red racing stripes in contrast to the Brit’s subdued silver paintwork seem not to make an ounce of difference to sheer impact.
While drawing far more attention to its occupants, climbing into or out of the 540C is actually an easier feat than with the R8 when parallel parked, if only because those long Audi doors really impact room for access, be it the inelegant ‘bum first’ entry or trying to dead-lift yourself using upper body strength during that clambering exit manoeuvre. And, no, the McLaren’s lightweight dihedral doors don’t realistically cause any added inconvenience opening or closing.
Each nestles you low and snugly into cabin structures of carbon-fibre and aluminium construction, their cabins convincingly ‘supercar-like’ in layout and sense of occasion. Win-win. But there are vastly different cockpits pandering to vastly different buyer tastes.
The Audi has a completely asymmetric design, near selfishly driver-centric to a point where, unusually, there’s no central infotainment screen. It’s refreshingly tidy if slightly ‘passenger unfriendly’, highly stylised yet a little too close to Audi convention in switchgear, finishes and surface tactility. It’s nice if not quite special.
Meanwhile, the McLaren favours a balanced design, is a little more flamboyant in theme, and layers on the material richness more lavishly, though, crucially, the veritable sea of stitched Alcantara (dash fascia, headlining) and Nappa leather (most other surfaces) is part of that big-dollar Designer Interior upgrade.
The presentation letdown is the graphically simple TFT driver’s screen, which looks lower rent than the 7.0-inch central touchscreen and isn’t a patch on the R8’s slicker Virtual Cockpit application.
These are cabins skewed for very different preferences, full of delights and near deal-breakers. I’d never had an issue with the R8’s driver ergonomics until now, in the presence of a vastly superior McLaren offering a flatter pedal stagger, better (closer) wheel location with more usable reach adjustment, and better under-thigh support with the cars’ seats set to ideal driving positions.
The Audi has a more ‘hunched over’ default, its pedals awkward to use pivoting your feet off their heels, requiring a leg lift for the touchy brakes. That said, the R8’s seats are comfier and more supportive, free of the 540C’s annoying back-arch hump.
But the Audi wins points back for basic user-friendliness because, for some controls, the McLaren can be tougher to decipher than Egyptian hieroglyphics. How the dash brightness control is twinned with the nose lift kit is nigh on infuriating…
That said, if I had to choose the better-suited cabin for daily driving – don’t laugh, that’s a big selling point for both – or spending long fair-weather hours grand-touring the countryside, it’d be the Macca. That said, both have impressively clear forward and side visibility, and virtually no blind spots in their mirrors, though both demand some trepidation when reverse parking as their in-dash camera systems are hardly pillars of size and clarity.
Sonically, though, the Audi puts on a grander show, despite having a standard exhaust against the cost-optional upgrade in the McLaren. Let’s make no mistake here: the M838TE dry-sumped twin-turbo V8, even here in its most detuned entry-level form, has a crisp and metallic motorsport-like bark, satisfying in its ever-presence, sonorous in its climb to a lofty 7500rpm power peak.
It just lacks the sheer lung capacity, the richness and the roar of the rival V10 that, whether it sits midship here in Audi-land or in Italian corporate cousin Huracan, just reaches into your soul and gives it a squeeze just that much harder, be it at idle annoying the neighbours or uncorking their full accelerative potential when flung towards the far horizon.
The McLaren delivers its energy in a satisfyingly seamless, highly accessible and impressively progressive manner, rapidly building speed and increasing its formidable shove in the back until about 5000rpm, where that turbo V8 really comes on song, sending the traction-control light flickering through to redline and the next, glassy, lightning quick upshift. As an isolated experience, forward progress is dripping with sonic edification and lusty fury. Problem is, it just seems tame and restrained the instant you swap into the Audi.
The R8 – that glorious engine backed by the superb if not-quite-McLaren-silken seven-speed dual clutch – reminds you that, yes, supercar conviction really demands this level of utter sonic and accelerative intoxication. It’s the Audi that reminds you that even the ‘cheap’ supercars should pile on a properly fearsome character when fully uncorked and feel barely on the safe side of genuinely scary once you do.
Frankly, the on-paper stats don’t mirror the seat of the pants experience. McLaren claims the 540C hits its 540Nm peak torque stride from just 3500rpm, hanging on until 6500rpm, the precise point where the R8’s 540Nm finally arrives in full. You’d swear it was the opposite case in practice.
The Audi swings a larger, thicker stick in the low to mid range, is more linear on the throttle and easier to dial in its energy with the right foot. The big V10 feels punchier regardless of engine RPM – an engine of superior magnitude to the turbo V8, which wants to ‘spool up’ and builds energy towards its sweetest spot close to redline.
I’ve driven the 540C back to back against its gutsier big-brother 570S before, and the bent-10 Audi nemesis seems a more fitting match to the latter in sheer thrust stakes, regardless of what the claimed stats might otherwise suggest.
Braking-wise, each offers enormous retardation from its steel disc braking system, but the R8 has a slightly off-putting, touchy and bitey road car take-up, whereas the 540C requires measurably more pedal pressure under foot: more motorsport inspired, and ultimately more accurate, if one that demands more user effort. Neither brake tuning is necessarily better or worse, but the degree of difference is surprising.
Where the McLaren comes to the fore is the instant you tip this pair into corners. The 540C clearly feels lighter on its rubber feet and is more nimble in nature. Back to back, by the seat of the pants, the Brit feels the sharper dynamic sports car experience.
Some of this is vibe and ambience. The 540C has more ambient noise in the cabin, and doesn’t cushion occupants from environmental discomfort as the Audi seems to do. It’s less comfortable too, because its tyres slap across the cat-eye road reflectors the R8 absorbs, and there’s even an alarming amount of rack-rattle as the McLaren’s nose fidgets across mid-corner road imperfections.
But it’s the agility of the McLaren that impresses most. It returns more response to smaller and more detailed driver inputs than the R8 does. Aided in no small part by the superior driver ergonomics, that extra liveliness rewards in the level of engagement from behind the wheel. Proof of that lithe nature is demonstrated in the compact nature of the rubber on which it sits: how the 540C generates such grip and accuracy with mere 225mm front rubber – narrower than Golf GTI rubber – is quite remarkable.
The Audi’s 245/305mm 19-inch Continental combo plies more rubber to terra firma than the McLaren’s staggered 225mm 19-inch front and 285mm 20-inch rear Pirellis, but its slightly more benign dynamic nature lacks a little in adhesive bite and tangible edge.
As a default state, the R8 is more measured and more planted at the rear than I expected from Audi first rear-driven production car foray – and, frankly, given the energy on tap with the right foot, it’s a preferable godsend.
I know the R8 can be a lively beast in ideal situations – the quattro V10 Plus version off its hook at Eastern Creek’s South Circuit epitomises the giant go-kart cliché and is an absolute hoot. But on a back road at anything like legal pace, the flagship Audi cautiously and perhaps wisely maintains restrained decorum that’s fun if a little benign.
Different electronic manipulation of the rear axle seems to return different dynamic traits. The Audi’s electronic diff lock, which modulates individual rear wheel braking to promote traction under acceleration, pays the biggest dividends under throttle.
The McLaren’s open differential with Brake Steer, by contrast, brakes the inside rear wheel to help rotate the car in the corner. Engineering semantics, you’d think, but that’s the difference between being able to deliver a convincing supercar experience on the confines of a back road, to one where you sense full dynamic potential is best left for the larger expanses of a racetrack.
The head-scratcher, then, is how the R8 rides and behaves so much nicer and more comfortably in a public forum given it’s fitted with one-mode-fits-all passive suspension, while the adaptively damped 540C is so damn fidgety and terse by comparison.
Much has been made about how nice and easy the Brit breed is to live with, but it can struggle and become fatiguing across Australia’s particularly crook road surfaces, with occasional severe jolts and hard slapping in places where the Audi seems to steamroller ground acne.
It turns out that the two most fiscally accessible supercar experiences on sale are very different animals in so many ways. Each has glowing highlights and areas for improvement, and I can’t help feeling that there’s a superior buck-banging mid-engined exotic if you mixed certain elements of both.
I’d take the McLaren’s lightness and engagement, yet stick Audi’s lustier and sonorous V10 in the mid-rear, if integrating the Brit’s brakes and Brake Steer function trickery. Inside, I’d keep the McLaren cabin layout and control and pedal placement, but integrate the R8’s seats, its Virtual Cockpit and controls, but leave the 540C’s material choice and that look-at-me dihedral door system. I’d take the McLaren’s agility and blend it with the Audi’s noise suppression and ride comfort.
If that looks like something of a draw on merit between two very different horses for courses, then perhaps it is. Each player in this niche of a niche sub-genre will endear itself to one buyer or another, purely because these are machines of pure indulgence, and that alone ultimately polarises when it comes to buyer tastes and preferences above any rationale.
But it’s ‘budget’ and ‘everyday’ parts of the term ‘budget everyday supercar’ where the R8 RWS fulfils all requirements more emphatically. And takes the win in this twin test.
Impressed with the R8? You could buy one, sure, or you could hook into an Audi Driving Experience day at the track. Take it from us: this thing is a blast, and a deserving winner in this close-fought comparison.
Click through to our photo gallery for more images of these two hotties, by Sam Venn.