If you were asked to draw up a list of the most important supercars ever made, what would you pick? The gorgeousLamborghini Miura – recognised as the first real supercar – has to be in there, as does the McLaren F1 – a 242mph bullet and the world’s fastest production car for 12 years, until the Bugatti Veyroncame along and re-wrote the rule-book.
A controversial one, sure, but we’d say the original Audi R8 is just as deserving of a place on that list. Launched in 2007 it didn’t have the shock-factor of a Lamborghini, or the top speed of a Bugatti, but it was more approachable and useable than any supercar that had gone before. Quite simply, it made amateurs look like driving gods, while still turning heads and making all the right noises.
The first R8 is an impossibly tough act to follow, so you can’t blame Audi for sticking closely to the first-generation formula. This is an entirely new car from the wheel bolts up, but rather than reinvent the R8, its added some more power, taken out some weight, fitted a sharp new body and interior and ladled on every last electronic aid at its disposal to make this new R8 faster on one hand, and more usable than ever on the other.
As Audi’s design department recently proved with the new A4, it’s not adverse to simply redrawing and old shape with a series of sharper lines, and it’s more of the same with the new R8. The proportions are identical to its predecessor (in fact it’s 11mm wider, 12mm lower and 14mm shorter, but you wouldn’t know without using a tape measure) so the sharper front grille, full-LED headlights and claw-like separators in the front intakes are the most notable new features.
The side blade is now split in two by the shoulder line and the rear is a little wider and flatter that before, with trapezoid-shaped exhausts instead of oval pipes. But to be fair to Audi, the R8’s classic mid-engined, cab-forward stance naturally adds drama to the design. Put it this way, if one burbles past you on the high street, you’re going to turn and look.
The interior is another exercise in quality and minimalism from Audi, although there’s a feeling that it’s been held back somewhat by the brilliance of the TT. The 12.3-inch ‘virtual cockpit’ behind the wheel is just as dazzling, and as easy to control via the button-heavy steering wheel or the large rotary dial on the centre console. However, the air-con controls are separate switches, rather than integrated into the vents as on the TT, which doesn’t look quite as special. The seating position, however, is millimetre perfect – you sit low with your feet outstretched and the deep-dish steering wheel pulled up close to your chest. Visibility is significantly better in all directions than the Huracan, too – especially out the rear screen.
From launch Audi is only offering a naturally-aspirated V10 engine, although a V8 version and an all-electric R8 e-tron won’t be far behind. The V10 is available with 533bhp in the standard version (identified by a pop-up rear spoiler), or with 602bhp and 560Nm of torque in the range-topping V10 Plus driven here (identified by a standard ceramic brakes and a fixed carbon-fibre rear wing, with matching wing mirrors and side blades). Those are identical outputs to its sister car the Lamborghini Huracan. In fact it covers 0-62mph in the same 3.2 seconds as the Lambo, 0-124mph in an identical 9.9 seconds and tops out 3mph higher at 205mph. If you’re puzzled by why the Huracan costs £45,000 more, you’re not alone.
With its main rivals – the McLaren 650S and Ferrari 488 GTB – now turning to turbocharged engines, the V10’s peaky delivery is becoming increasingly rare, but no less exciting. The way it snaps forward when you extend your right foot is sensational; no lag, no delay, just instant acceleration on tap whenever you need it, and four-wheel drive to ensure zero forward momentum is wasted through wheel spin.
Maximum torque doesn’t arrive until 6,500rpm, and the rev limiter cuts in at 8,500rpm, so it’s an engine that begs to be revved. When you do, with the sports exhaust engaged, it unleashes a screaming mechanical crescendo that makes every on of your hairs stand on end. Release the throttle and it splutters and pops flamboyantly on the overrun.
Unsurprisingly, the R8’s behaviour is more configurable than ever, with all the parameters shifted by various buttons on the wheel right in front of you. Click through the four Drive Select modes – comfort, auto, dynamic and individual – and you can tailor the throttle, steering, four-wheel drive system, gearbox, dampers and exhaust. Another button engages a new Performance mode, itself with three separate setting – dry, wet and snow – all designed to extract maximum speed in a given set of conditions.
And it’s not just electronics that are there to give you a helping hand. Based on the same all-new chassis as the Huracan, albeit with a wheelbase stretched by 30mm, the R8 combines aluminium sections with a carbon-fibre transmission tunnel, rear bulkhead and B-pillars to be 50kg lighter than its predecessor, but 40-per cent stiffer too. And when you wind up the pace you can feel the difference.
Four-wheel drive systems are often seen as dulling the driving experience at the expense of all-weather grip, but not the R8. The updated quattro system can send up to 100 per cent of the torque to either axle, and delivers not only unbreakable grip when your driving at eight tenths, but a real dynamism to the car on the limit. Most of the time it simply tucks into a corner with masses of front-end bite. Mid-corner it feels beautifully balanced, up on its toes and alive underneath you, and if you mash the throttle on the exit it can be coaxed into a few degrees of oversteer. And the best part is, you don’t need to be a racing driver to exploit all of the above.
We had no complaints about the carbon ceramic brakes that deliver face-distorting stopping power and refused to fade, even on track, but we’d stick with the standard, rather than the variable ratio steering system fitted to our car. Because it’s speed dependant, there’s a slight inconsistency with the way it reacts when you’re stringing together a few bends, which introduces some guess work into the equation. The steering is light, and super-quick, but there is also some useful information that filters through front the front tyres, too – refreshing for an electromechanical system.
One of the stars of the R8 show, is the seven-speed S tronic twin-clutch gearbox. Keep it in auto and it’s as easy as a TT to drive around town, but it transforms into something that feels race-derived when you’re flat out. Audi has even engineered in a little kick in the back on full-bore upshifts in the sportiest settings to make the experience more visceral.
Three-stage adaptive dampers (fitted to our test car) are available as an option, fixed rate steel springs as standard, and they give the car a fantastic breadth of ability. In comfort mode, with the exhaust set to standard and the gearbox left to its own devices, it flows along effortlessly, always feeling less-edgy than the Huracan. Even in their firmer Dynamic setting, on poor surfaces it doesn’t crash and bang over bumps and cracks.
And then there’s the price. At £134,500 (£119,500 for the 533bhp version) it’s hardly cheap, but in the rarefied world of mid-engined supercars that’s good value, considering all the equipment you need (minus adaptive dampers) is thrown in as standard. You can spend £45,000 more on a Lamborghini Huracan, but you’re paying for the badge on the nose - the R8 is every bit as good on the limit and more friendly the rest of the time.
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