The first ever rear-drive production Audi was never going to be something average – you could bet your life on it. The most obvious visual feature of the 2018 Audi R8 RWS, though, is that it doesn’t look any different to the AWD Audi R8.
Whether that’s a good or bad thing can be debated for hours, but the most affordable R8 doesn’t look any cheaper than the most expensive R8 – that’s the rub. And as you’ll see when you read Curt’s comparo, if you desire affordable supercar-nudging performance, it doesn’t get much better than this R8.
Never has a ‘sensible’ supercar decision been so readily apparent. Well, seemingly anyway.
So, what is this RWS acronym all about? Firstly, RWS doesn’t stand for rear-wheel steering. It does, in fact, stand for rear-wheel series. Strange? A little. Does it matter? Not really, no. What matters is the way in which a historically AWD performance car responds to a more traditional RWD execution. At CarAdvice, we’ve always loved the R8 for being AWD after all.
The RWD philosophy is even more interesting given the power on offer. For some time now, the prevailing logic has been that vehicles of this ilk have achieved power-generation levels that now reach well beyond the capability of two driven wheels. Generating power is one thing. Containing it is another skill entirely.
Porsche, Audi, Lamborghini, even Mercedes-Benz with the E63 and BMW with the M5, have all shown a predilection for harnessing thunderous power within AWD platforms. Take emotion out of it and it’s safer, more predictable, more useable and, well, more sensible. And yet, here we have Audi stepping away from decades of tradition to offer a more traditional platform – at the most evolved end of its food chain.
As ever, the proof will be in the driving.
Resplendent in 'Bin Chicken White' (or Ibis White as it is known in the Audi world – they don’t have Bin Chickens in Ingolstadt, clearly) with a Misano Red offset race stripe, the R8 RWS starts from $299,500 with an added $950 for the stripe. I could quite happily save that $950 and tell myself I got a sub-$300K bargain – before on-road costs, of course. Some people love the stripe, some don’t. Personally, I don’t think it adds anything to the sense of visual theatre already on offer, and I quite like the understated cleanliness of an R8 sans stripe.
So yes, it’s the most affordable Audi R8. However, and this hurt a little when we worked it out, the front driveshafts, propshaft and multi-plate clutch are not the only areas where Audi has saved money. It has also saved money in badge production. Why? The ‘1 of 999’ badge proudly fronting the dash, which made us feel so special, isn’t quite as it seems…
We weren’t in fact driving number one. No, we were simply driving one of 999, which means every R8 will be wearing the same badge. Money saving? Is that a little cynical of me? Perhaps. Will Audi be delivering more limited-edition models that can wear the same badge, thus garnering an even more extensive bulk discount? Hmmm.
The Audi’s cabin is an exercise in understated luxury and execution. The seats, the leather trim, Virtual Cockpit, the distinct lack of buttons and garnishing, all make the interior seem classy and cool. We’ve always loved the way the Audi’s cabin translates to everyday boredom, and the R8 continues to tackle that task with aplomb. Outside of a 911, no performance car in this echelon is as easy or practical to live with.
Neither Curt nor I could get used to the pedal placement in the R8, which is strange because everything else about the cabin is so driver-centric. The seats, though, are near perfect in terms of position, support and comfort. The only other cabin negative for us was the rear-view camera, which sits inside the Virtual Cockpit display, of course, and isn’t as immediately visible as we’d like. Minor gripe, and you do get used to it. Visibility is otherwise well beyond most cars in this segment.
Numbers carry serious weight in this rarefied air, and the number you need to commit to memory here is 50 – 50kg specifically. The RWS is, you see, 50kg lighter than the AWD R8. It’s not much, but again, at this level of performance and capability, you’re entitled to assume you might notice it.
While turbos are seemingly king everywhere else, the R8 retains the free-revving 5.2-litre V10 we are both familiar and enamoured with. Long may the NA engine live – it won’t, more’s the pity. While we have it, though, let’s rejoice in hearty fashion.
While the V10 can’t deliver the heavy-handed torque of a turbocharged engine, it can spin into the stratosphere, and as such redline is set at 8700rpm and you'd better believe you’ll want to hear it up there too. Peak power is 397kW at 7800rpm, while peak torque is 540Nm at 6500rpm. 0–100km/h is dispatched in 3.7 seconds, and the fuel-use claim is an irrelevant 12.7L/100km on the combined cycle, aided by a decent stop/start system. Expect 16s around town and high nines on the freeway. There’s nothing gluttonous about the R8's thirst for fuel, especially given the performance potential.
You’ll nail that 0–100km/h time too, if you get access to a racetrack, thanks to the standard inclusion of launch control – something you don’t normally need in an AWD R8. The way the RWD version could destroy tyres, though, you’ll be needing it here.
On the subject of performance, the 19-inch Continental tyres are going to have a hell of a job harnessing it – 245s up front and 305s out back. On that note, take another look at the peak torque figure. It’s important to remember how high in the rev range you meet that peak figure – 6500rpm against a redline of 8700rpm. Turbo engines can generate more torque, and they achieve it further down in the range too, but the R8 never, ever feels slow. Quite the opposite, in fact.
While there’s no manual on offer – which we loved previously – the automatic is a sensational unit. The seven-speed S-tronic dual-clutch is the same as the ‘regular’ R8 and it’s exceptional even when left to make its own decisions. At any speed, it is clean and smooth, but shift over to manual and there’s a machine-gun firing response each time you hit the steering-wheel-mounted paddles.
Some elements of the R8’s cabin feel what we’d call ‘VW familiar’, and the paddles are one example. It’s strange, to be honest, because as banal and well behaved as the R8 can be, it’s easy to forget just how bespoke, exotic and special this car is.
The spaceframe is made from hybrid aluminium and carbon-fibre-reinforced polymers, the dry-sump V10 masterpiece is hand-built (and yet no AMG-style fanfare), and even the brake discs are special. They aren’t circular as per usual, rather they have a wavelike edge that improves airflow, keeps the discs cooler, and therefore reduces the propensity to fade.
When you work your way into your favourite twisty road, the most interesting thing that happens is how very R8 the RWD variant feels. See, the AWD R8 has always had a genuine RWD bias, so an RWD R8 doesn’t really feel that much different. You’d expect it to understeer a bit less, and it probably does, but unless you’re a complete moron, you won’t find that out on a public road.
The caveat there, though, is slick road surfaces. I’m no physics guru, but even I know it’s easier to overpower two driven wheels than four, and the RWD R8 demands respect of the right pedal if it’s been raining. Again, you won’t want to find this out on a public road for fear of being bitten, especially given the amount of money at stake. Despite this, though, the RWD R8 is very well behaved indeed.
The electronic safety systems have been tweaked to suit RWD, of course, and Audi has fettled the suspension settings and fitted a thicker anti-roll bar up front too. It’s all part of ensuring the R8 doesn’t become a default drift car without notice.
The outer limits of this car are best left for off-road facilities – it really is that simple. While the V10 lacks the savagery of a turbocharged engine, the head-kicking power that it delivers through the mid-range, and the way in which it generates it, is utterly addictive. And the noise, good lord the noise. The engine sounds stupendous screaming its lungs out, but the relentless urge as it nears redline is something you will never, ever get sick of, I can promise you that.
Despite my mentions of track driving above, the R8 isn’t a track car, nor is it designed to be. Those of you who don’t like Audi steering will find fault with the R8’s here, even though I think it’s more than sharp and direct enough for the task at hand. Think of the R8 as a super-fast GT car and you’re getting warmer. For me, though, that makes the R8 even more engaging on-road. While it lacks the clinical precision of a 911 in its ultimate form, it’s a beautifully balanced, comfortable and brutally fast car when you’re in the mood.
Following a week that I didn’t want to end, I’m in something of a quandary. Do I love the R8 RWS? Yes. Unreservedly. I really do. It flies under the radar in a way few cars at this end of the performance scale can. Would I buy it over the AWD R8? Only if money was the deciding factor.
So there you have it, I’m hedging my bets. Buy the R8 RWS if you need to stick to 300 big ones before on-road costs. If you’ve got more money to spend, get the AWD R8. Either way, you’ll get one of the world’s great V10 engines in a package you can enjoy every day. The R8 really is that damn good.
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 of our close-fought comparison with the McLaren 540C.