The Plus adds up to powerhaus performance, grip, traction yet it’s also relatively easy to live with.
For: Amazing grip and dynamic balance, engine’s flexibility, comfortable.
Against: Limited storage, limited vocal drama at legal speeds, no cheaper V8 option.
SO much performance, so little effort to find it – and so little opportunity, too, to exploit even more than a teensy percentage of its full potential without running risk of getting a legal slap.
Welcome to the Audi R8 Plus, a $350,000 experience that’s exciting when driven within the boundaries and explosively exhilarating when taken beyond, with the difference between one state and the other seemingly measured in microns.
Involving, invigorating, incredible, intimidating. Would you expect anything less; ask for anything less, not least when it now takes a 5.2-litre V10 engine from the Lamboghini Huracan – an easy convenience as VW Group of course owns the Italian specialist stable – to become the fastest production Audi ever produced, with a top speed of 330kmh and ability to race from a standstill to 100kmh in much less time than it would take even a speed reader to digest this sentence.
It sounds all so extreme, yet that’s what’s required to meet the challenges laid down by the opposition which, ironically, mainly comprises other VW Group cars, notably the Porsche 911 Turbo and, yes, also that Huracan.
So it’s a special thing. But what’s the nature of the beast? During the four days it was in our custody, the question wasn’t just what to do with such a car but how and when.
Same car as before, right? Well, true, the styling is similar, but why wouldn’t it. One of the strengths of the old R8 is that is managed to look stand out in what is, let’s admit, a select hunkering crowd.
Yet, assuredly, in so many ways – not just detail but also in dimension – this second-generation R8 is rather different to the old one; more polished, better proportioned even though width, for instance, has increased by 40mm.
The side blades that once again present the most conspicuous part of the R8’s design are now split in two, the door handles hidden, the rear haunches more prominent and those front LED headlights – laser headlights are an option – get vertical bezels that slice into the vertical fins of the lower air intake, where the previous model played with horizontal front cues. So, okay, maybe not WHOLLY different, insofar that the general silhouette is much the same. Save, of course, that this R8 is wider, a bit shorter. Could old and new be confused? Potentially, yes, but that’s always been the case with generations of a certain rival Porsche, with no obvious detriment to its sales or standing.
A greater change occurs inside. The dashboard is minimalist – the climate controls among the only buttons on the dash itself – and instead the 12.3-inch screen in front of the driver displays things like the speedometer, infotainment and satellite navigation system all in one place.
Having so much information presented on a TFT screen rather than traditional dials is a facility only shared with one other Audi, the TT. I thought it was a bit of a pain in that showboat model, but the R8’s display seems sharper and better-sorted –transitions are smoother and seem faster, probably because the car is as well.
Those climate controls are meant to evoke jet engines hanging off the wings of an aircraft – yeah, gotta love those zany designers – and the the gearlever looks like the throttle from an aircraft. The steering wheel holds the start button, exhaust on/off switch and Drive Select scroll wheel accessing five modes.
The car has a stripped-down feel and has something of an air of a race car – which might be expected, given that assembly has been taken from the main Audi plant and is now in the hands of a new purpose-designed satellite facility which also builds the 50 percent-related R8 LMS racer.
Slip inside and you realise that while the R8 is about 90 percent ready for a track outing, it’s also pretty well sorted for an everyday drive to town, too. The interior is beautifully finished with utterly no concession to cost-cutting in any element of its construct.
Nappa leather and other fine materials coat every surface, the stuff that looks like carbon fibre of course is, in a beautifully gloss finish, ditto the metallic bits, most rendered without any sign of burnishing from alloy. Not only is the quality utterly superb but all the relevant comfort features are here: Seats that appear to have been plucked from a GT3 race car are wonderfully comfy and form-fitting, with full electric adjust and heating. The car comes with a fantastic climate control – something you won’t regret come high summer, because with this much glass the cabin promises to be a real sun trap - satellite navigation, and digital radio with 16-speaker Bang and Olufsen audio.
Bi-modal exhaust, front and rear parking sensors with reversing camera, LED headlights with dynamic indicators, automatic high-beam assist, keyless auto-entry are standard R8 fare but the Plus feature list swaps the standard 19-inch rims for 20-inchs, the normal disc brakes become carbon-ceramic stoppers, the spoiler is rendered from carbon-fibre (as is the diffuser and side blades) it gets an Alcantara roof headlining.
The usual Audi Drive Select modes – comfort, auto and dynamic – are enhanced in this model by more sophisticated wet, snow and dry performance modes that change steering, throttle, stability control and drive distribution.
This isn’t intended as a family car and even though the cabin is not half as constricting as you might think it will be, don’t be surprised it’s pretty much true to the sports car credentials in terms of practicality.
That storage space within the cabin is pretty minimal and not wholly useful; the wee cubbies between the seats are good but you’d need to have the flexibility of a gold medal-winning gymnast to put anything into those netting baskets behind the seats. The R8 has a small boot – up in the nose – that’s big enough for enough luggage to cover a long weekend.
So here’s the thing: You want Lamborghini oomph, but prefer to avoid the Lambo look (and owner image) and can’t see you spending the $400k-plus entry fee required to consume the Italian fare. What’s the answer?
You’re looking at it. Audi NZ has ignored the entry edition and instead gone for the R8 V10 Plus model for our market, whose drivetrain is said to be “closely-aligned” and “nearly identical” to that in the Huracan.
Well, that’s just Ingolstadt being politically correct: In reality, the only difference seems to be the change of logo on the cam covers. The Plus comes with a seven-speed direct shift automated manual transmission harnessed to a naturally-aspirated V10 creating 448kW and 560Nm (51kW and 20Nm more than the standard R8) and outputting through constant four-wheel-drive and has a claimed 0-100kmh time of 3.2 seconds (versus 3.5s for the non-Plus) and an all-wheel-drive Huracan is quoted as having … erm, exactly the same thing.
So why spend at extra $50k or more when that raging bull has been ensnared into traffic light equality by the four rings? Huracan styling and Lamborghini’s image shout success more loudly, but you’re also buying a dumber set of doors and into a persona that for time in tanning clinics and owning silk shirts that are missing the top three buttons. No thanks.
Does that make the R8 sensible? Just a teensy bit, I suppose. Same goes for the upgrades that Ingolstadt effects: Idle-stop and cylinder shutdown technology, plus a combination of port and direct injection. Even dropping a pure manual gearbox in place of that dual-clutch automatic is said to be beneficial to fuel burn, even if the claimed combined-cycle consumption is said to rise from 11.4 litres per 100km to 12.3.
The feel-good data set associating with the engine is important, given that the R8 no longer has a V8 as a more efficient option to this engine, but it’s also a smokescreen, because you also know that this didn’t get to be the fastest, most powerful Audi road car of the moment but going trading lightly.
That’s why I wasn’t surprised when the test machine averaged a fuel burn of 18.5L/100km; the engine might be a technical masterpiece, but it has 10 hungry mouths to feed.
However, fair dues, I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so docile, tractable and complaint when driven in its comfort settings. A lot is to do with the transmission; an automated box might seem a cop-out to purists but it makes makes traffic less tiring than it can be in sports cars with heavy clutches.
True, to tootle about you need to restrict to basically toe-twitch the throttle else it’ll run risk of turning into a traffic-eating beast. Even so, for an autobahn ace, it can manage to be almost orthodox around town, visibility issues notwithstanding. Who’d have expected any Lambo-derived engine to be such a lamb?
The impressive tractability when loafing along is crucial because in truth this is what most examples will spend their time doing, but of course tootling around in traffic is not being fair to this car. Even driving it at 100kmh is quite an insult to the engineering effort, because you’re still using just a fraction of its ability. Any legal speed this engine acts impeccably but you can sense some displeasure from its note being a bit mechanically harsh and guttural.
Give it a bit more … and you get a lot in return. Start hitting the more affirmative drive modes familiar from RS Audis and it simply steps up the drama all the more. But, even then, it’s not giving it’s all. For full-blown fiery you need click beyond the usual settings into a competition mode called Performance that even regular RS cars don’t have. Intended for circuit driving, the latter splits into sub-modes with dry roads, wet roads and snow. On top of this, the Individual mode can be tailored for optimal driving.
When driven with utterly loosened reins, it’s a car demanding a very high skillset: The traction control diminishes, everything else – steering, gearshift, brakes, engine note – seems to sharpen up and, yes, suddenly that quiet country road that you’ve chosen for “a bit of a blast” seems nowhere near sufficient: So narrow and the corners come up SOOOO soon. Even then, when the car is obviously keen to be egged on, you feel you’re still holding it back.
Obviously the shotgun-loud barking that comes at every start-up is offers a huge clue to the actual impetus available. Yet, when it really unfurls seriously, the sheer wallop nonetheless still stuns.
The shifts between gears – and by now you should be hand-shifting - can be brutal at times but the engine’s now shrill, shrieking sound as it reaches inspiringly to its 8700rpm cut-out is intoxicating. Owners will really require a track – one with a couple of decently-long straights – to exploit anything like all of the performance.
Actually, circuit work would suit the R8 for other reasons, too, including just how stout-hearted this model is. A mate who spent seven years as a senior track instructor at the Bahrain F1 circuit says the previous model was recognized as being the only supercar with the mettle to stand up to all-day abuse at that place; most – including some more vaunted names – tended to wilt in the fierce heat after surprisingly short time.
That talent doesn’t restrict to an engine which, because of the car’s big glass rear panel, is there for all to see.
Having an impressively stiff structure abets handling and, for the driver, a feeling of one-ness with the car. The body is claimed to be 40 percent stiffer than the previous model thanks to the use of stronger and lighter materials tallying 79 per cent aluminium and 13 percent carbon-fibre. The roads I chose were hardly racetrack smooth, but even though the car bucked over ruts and ripples there was never a squeak from the body nor any sense of flex.
Of course Quattro credibility is also here to lend a hand. The system here is finessed for this role, being a new all-wheel drive system utilising an electro-hydraulic multi-place clutch that can place 100 per cent of drive to each axle where required, replacing the previous viscous coupling that fixed drive at 60 per cent rearwards.
The effect is quite remarkable; inevitably with Audi performance hardware there’s still some understeer – indeed, that’s said to be a trait of the old R8, which my friend tells me could become snappy when pushed past its limits.
My experience of the Plus is that it sits flat at the front-end, only ever hinting at potential push before then smoothly and progressively allowing the driver to tighten its line via the throttle. Audi says the diffuser places 40kg of downforce on the forward axle at speed so the nose doesn’t wander in corners, and while you might wonder how much use that is on a road drive, clearly the car is not being fazed much.
Clearly in ‘dynamic’ mode especially the stability control system is working hard, but even then the car feels reliably balanced, more than you’d imagine for a machine whose weight distribution, even when that V10 is placed far enough forward that it seems to be sitting right behind your head, is 42 percent front and 58 percent rear. It’ll put the tail right out: But when it does, you then become aware of the front pulling the platform back into line. While it is patently not a small car, it does feels light and agile.
For all that, I wasn’t for even a second allowing myself to be lulled into thinking it was impervious to stupidity or the laws of physics. Any car with so much grunt and low little weight, just 1630kg, demands constant caution and respect.
Audi unashamedly uses its motorsport technology and history in this vehicle. The real donors, regardless that many have been diesels, to so much of its tech are the World Endurance Championship cars that, from a Le Mans victory to a concept R8 in 2000 more or less up until Porsche’s comeback win last year, have set the pace in that competition. You could even argue some of the pedigree reaches right back to those Audi Unions of the 1930s, amazing cars with even more horsepower yet nothing like the structural integrity.
No supercar gets by on strength of stealth, yet the R8 is clearly one of the ‘quieter’ members of a special club, one that tends to see less of the spotlight than, say, a Porsche, Lamborghini, Ferrari, Mercedes (AMG GT) or McLaren.
How it ultimately measures up within that esteemed company is not a question I can answer. In its own right, however, it makes a pretty potent statement. Neither owning, nor operating, a car such as this is going to be a cheap experience, however it does suggest there’ll be rich reward for driving enthusiasts.