Does anything sound better than a hardworking V-10? The question was later asked and answered by combining a motorway tunnel on the Spanish island of Gran Canaria with the redline of the Audi R8 Performance Spyder of 8700 rpm, which was tested with the roof. The noise is cool and completely devoid of digital boost—wild exhaust tones drown out the mechanical beats of the natural engine, busier and rougher-edged than a V-8, and angrier than a V-12.
We will miss him when he is gone, and that will be very soon. Both the R8 and the closely related Lamborghini Huracán are on most of the road to retirement, and the V-10 engine they share – the last of any current production cars – is set to die with them. Audi is replacing the R8 entirely with electric, and Lamborghini is developing a twin-turbo V-8 hybrid engine for the Huracan successor. It’s not time to write an R8 obituary just yet, but the model’s trimmed-down range proves the clock is ticking.
Since Audi has dropped the previous rear-wheel drive R8 and replaced it with a performance derivative, the choice of the R8 is now a pair of binary options: whether driving is delivered by two wheels or four wheels, and whether the car is ordered with a fixed-wheel or cloth roof.
The performance of the new rear-wheel drive quattro does more than just reduce the driveshafts. It uses a 562-horsepower version of the 5.2-liter V-10, an increase of 30 horsepower over the output of the previous rear-wheel drive base, but still 40 horsepower shy of its all-wheel-drive sister. The two-wheel drive also does without the carbon ceramic brakes, 20-inch wheels, carbon fiber side blades, and laser headlights that the quattro gets as standard. It is possible to correct all of these omissions with options packages, although doing so would split the $51,100 gap between the two versions.
Audi envisions rear-wheel drive performance as a more dynamic option, although its purity of purpose is due in large part to cost-saving measures. Unusually for this market segment, it relies on passive dampers rather than adaptive dampers and delivers power to the rear wheels via a traditional limited-slip differential rather than an electronically controlled unit.
Losing the center differential and front driveshafts saves just a modest 110 pounds of mass, according to Audi engineers, and doesn’t alter the car’s character at daily speeds. When exiting slow corners, the performance reaches the point of the traction control intervention more quickly than the quattro, but this interference is unobtrusive. In the comfort position, there is simply an invisible guardrail that prevents excessive force from being directed.
Choosing the more extreme modes raises the threshold of interference and allows for more rear slip, particularly with the track-biased performance setting that comes with the optional sports exhaust package. But the structure is better in craftsmanship than direct shopping. Even at seemingly brisk speeds on Spanish mountain roads, the Spyder’s cornering line can be adjusted more easily with gentle acceleration inputs and weight transfer between axles rather than trying to beat the Michelin Pilot Sport 4S rear tires.
Driving the RWD Coupe on the tight, technical Maspalomas circuit (with stunning views of the Atlantic) offers higher side loads spurred by the switch to the more aggressive Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres. After being safely removed from public roads, the performance can be made visibly comfortable when pressed hard. This was especially true when heavy rain shifted the track spot and made precise throttle management even more important – yet the R8 still felt a lot happier driving within its limits than on its edge.
Steering feeling remains the weak link in the R8. Both cars we drove had a variable-ratio dynamic mount, which would be a $1,400 option in the States. The coupe’s front end is impressively clear on the track, and the Spyder does light work of the many harsh bends on Gran Canaria’s mountain roads, but the feedback in both is distant and muted. The coupe was also fitted with the intriguing option of a carbon-fiber anti-roll front bar—an extra $1,100 that both saves 4.4 pounds of weight and is claimed to hone the front axle responses.
Although the V-10 hasn’t changed much from previous incarnations, it remains the star feature of the R8. It lacks low torque compared to its turbocharged competitors, but it makes up for with strong linear incentive all the way to its high red streak. As in the other R8s, performance remains muted at low revs, reflecting an acoustic personality very different from the always-loud Lamborghini Huracan. But as the engine speeds up, Audi finds its sound. Before hitting the 8,700-rpm redline, performance looks more convincing than most supercars at any engine speed. This is despite the fact that the exhaust systems of European-spec cars at launch were slightly muted by the petrol particulate filters that would not make it to the US.
The R8 is still a little unsure whether it’s a luxury sports car or a supercar, often trying to downplay its amazing engine play. RWD performance is now the entry level for the range, and a starting price of $151,895 ($164,095 for the Spyder) is likely to be a bigger part of its appeal than its slightly enhanced power-over capabilities. However, even with a slight increase in the label over the old rear-wheel drive car, it still looks reasonably priced considering the inherent charm of the V-10 engine. We will definitely miss her when she is gone.
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