2014 Audi R8 road test in Italy a washout
Torrential rains shroud sports car’s performance ability, but shine a positive light on the Audi’s safety features and comfort level.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Everything was planned to the last meticulous detail: The flights to Europe, the hotels, the rented track and pace-car drivers to show us the best racing lines. Not to mention the scenic route beside the Adriatic Sea and inland past vineyards into the mountains, to make the absolute most of the fleet of expensive Audi R8s at our disposal.
We’d been prepped with seductive video that showed the car twisting along the warm roads of northern Italy, and teaser information on the second generation of the model after its debut this year at the Moscow auto show.
But, as the Audi host told us with a shrug, “We can control everything except the rain.”
It wasn’t a full hurricane, but we’d seen dense clouds gathering over the mountains as we flew in this morning to nearby Rimini. The black and bloated clouds began to unload on the Misano racetrack as soon as the first cars ventured out from the pit garage.
Fortunately, as the asphalt started to slick, the R8’s electronic driving aids kicked in to govern its 550 horsepower engine and new seven-speed transmission, controlling everything except stupidity.
The cars on the track were the new “V10-plus” R8s, the most powerful of the five revised versions that will be available in Canada next March: an eight-cylinder and a 10-cylinder as both coupe and convertible, similar in power to the original versions, and the breathed-over, lightened V10-Plus.
The line-up for the 2014 vehicles matches the current line-up, with the V10-Plus taking the place of the limited-edition GT. Prices aren’t yet official but probably won’t vary much from the existing stickers, which begin in Canada at $134,000 and go all the way to $228,000 — if you could still buy a GT. Only 333 of those were made and they sold out long ago. There will be no limits to production of the V-10 Plus.
The top-end V10-Plus is clearly very quick, with a claimed zero-to-100 km/h time of 3.5 seconds — that’s 0.8 seconds swifter than the slowpoke V8-powered coupe — but we couldn’t come anywhere near those acceleration times on the wet track without the tires breaking away and the traction control kicking in.
“This is a very forgiving car, but this weather is not so forgiving,” said the Audi race driver who carried me for a few laps. To make his point, he stamped on the gas out of a hairpin and the car slewed instantly on the soaking asphalt. When I drove for myself afterwards, I didn’t slide so much and was much gentler on the standard ceramic brakes. Of course, my lap time was considerably slower.
But we hadn’t come all this distance just to drive around the track. After a couple of hours, I bagged one of the top-end V10-Plus cars to drive up to San Marino — one of Europe’s last microstates and one of the world’s smallest countries, entirely surrounded by Italy.
It was supposed to be a fabulous drive but it was foggy and dark. There is no level ground in San Marino and so the roads twist constantly. I shared the car with Wheels’ Lesley Wimbush and the two of us followed the navigation system’s directions up into the hills. We weren’t thinking about — just finding our way intact through the lashing rain.
The new headlights are even brighter and are supposed to more accurately mimic natural daylight, which was fading rapidly in the early afternoon as the clouds dumped all over the Italian Riviera. They pointed us toward hairpin after hairpin, and we were concentrating so much on following the road that if there was a sign to welcome us to the tiny country, we didn’t see it.
We did see road signs pointing us to the capital, also named San Marino, and eventually found ourselves at the base of what seemed to be the old railway station. Or maybe it was some kind of castle. We weren’t quite sure — everything was shrouded in water vapour. The car’s wipers were on double speed. It was time to park.
If you don’t believe me, watch the video on wheels.ca.
I took some photos of the car parked on the road and was soaked within seconds. A young tourist spotted us and ran over to stand next to the car while his friend snapped some photos of her own. The R8 stood out in this fascinating place, but what a miserable day to experience it.
I got back in the car and turned on the heat of the snug leather seat to steam away the water on my coat. The rear-mounted engine and chassis may be uncompromising but, in the end, this car is still an Audi: warm and comfortable and coddling.
The navigation voice guided us along the route home to Rimini and I swung the car back onto the street, into the row of taillights headed down to the coast. I snapped the paddle shifters through the gears of the new S tronic transmission, but tired quickly of the game in the thick traffic and reverted to completely automatic.
The R8 is probably a phenomenal sports car, but this was not the day to find out. It is, however, a safe and comfortable two-seater, and not every sports car can make such a boast.
So Lesley and I just settled back in the seats, listened to the directions that would guide us through the dark, relaxed and enjoyed the ride.
What’s new on the 2014 R8?
Both generations of the car look fairly similar, and the engines are little changed, but the big difference is in the optional S tronic twin-clutch automatic transmission. It replaces the R tronic and is smaller, lighter and offers a seventh gear. Audi says it trims 0.3 seconds from the zero-to-100 km/h acceleration times, while also saving almost a litre of gas every 100 km — presumably not at the same time.
There is still a manual six-speed transmission available for roughly $11,500 less, favoured by about half of all R8 buyers, but it’s just not as effective or as quick as the slick automatic that shifts gears almost in an instant, like a video game.
All but the top-end V10-Plus now offer magnetic damping suspension, allowing the driver to switch between a harder or softer ride to better absorb bumps. It’s similar to the system General Motors fits to its Cadillacs and Corvettes.
The V10-Plus is about 50 kg lighter than the regular V10, thanks mostly to more use of carbon-fibre and lighter metals. It doesn’t have the weight savings of the no-longer-available GT, which was 100 kg lighter than its counterpart and produced 560 hp, but it does come close on power output at 550 hp.
There are some subtle styling differences, too: the distinctive “eyebrow” headlights are now entirely LED lights, brighter than before, and the taillights include a strip of 30 LEDs as indictors that cleverly flash outwards in the direction you’ve signaled the turn.
2014 Audi R8
PRICE: (est.) V8: $134,000; V10: $173,000; V10-Plus: $228,000
ENGINE: 4.2 L V8; 5.2 L V10
POWER/TORQUE: V8: 430 hp/317 lb.-ft.; V10: 525/391; V10-Plus: 550/398
TRANSMISSION: Six-speed manual or S tronic dual-clutch automatic ($11,500 cost premium, est.)
FUEL CONSUMPTION: (claimed combined) 12.4-12.9 L/100 km
COMPETITION: Porsche 911, Ferrari F430, Aston Martin DB9
WHAT’S BEST: Forgiving ride when you need it, comparative value for money, comfortable cabin.
WHAT’S WORST: Exterior road noise, media buttons not intuitive, V8 purchase tells everyone you can’t afford the V10.
WHAT’S INTERESTING: Audi sells about 200 R8s in Canada each year, half of them with the pricey automatic transmission.
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