A true super-sports car you can drive to work every day.
By: Jim Kenzie
December 19, 2018
RONDA, SPAIN—When Audi launched the original R8 back in the mid-2000s, it was met with a largely positive reaction.
Gorgeous inside and out, unique looking, fast, great handling — what’s not to like?
But in some people’s minds, there was one wee catch — what was a slightly upper-range company, which is what was Audi at the time, doing building a super-sports car that cost almost twice as much as the company’s next-priciest model? These guys make mainly family cars — can they compete with Ferrari?
The proof was in the pudding, and the R8 immediately rose to the top ranks of super-sports cars.
The fact that it shared a lot of componentry, notably its all-aluminum body structure and powertrains, with its corporate cousin the Lamborghini Gallardo didn’t hurt.
It is important to note however that much of that componentry was in fact developed by Audi for its own and Lamborghini’s use.
Pricing for the 2020 R8 has not yet been announced, but it should start roughly around where it starts now, which is $185,000.
Available only with the 5.2-litre V10 engine (the 4.2-litre V8 was dropped a while back) and with a seven-speed dual-clutch “manumatic” transmission and full-time four-wheel drive (albeit, rear-axle-biased for sportier handling), the 2020 R8 has gone through what will surely be its last refresh in its current form.
As before, the car is offered in coupé or roadster body styles.
It has received a minor facelift, including a more imposing grille, bigger air intakes for both engine and brakes, and an aggressive rear end with massive twin tailpipes whose growl tells you this car is not to be trifled with.
The “blades” — the at-the-time controversial contrasting-coloured vertical side panels behind the doors — were tamed a bit in the last refresh; they’re not quite as imposing as they were originally.
From any angle, this car looks terrific. And serious.
Not much has changed inside; not much needed changing. Audi still builds the best interiors in the game.
Tweaks to the engine raise power from 540 to 570 pferdestarke (German horsepower; German horses are slightly smaller than ours, so there’s slightly more of them on a spec sheet) in the base version, and from 610 to 620 in the “Performance” (formerly “Plus”) edition.
The engine sits very low behind the passengers, and is dry-sumped, meaning no crankcase in the conventional sense. Oil is stored in a separate reservoir and pumped to the engine as needed. It can provide lubrication at up to 1.5 g lateral acceleration, of which this car is capable. That, by the way, is exceptionally high for any car, let alone a road-going car.
Revised suspension and recalibrated steering provide even sportier handling. Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires, developed specifically for this car, provide CrazyGlue-like grip.
A race track is really the only safe place to evaluate a car like this. Now, the Circuito Ascari just east of this southern Spanish city is not officially a race track. It is after all located in a national park.
But the owner, who among other things invented a device which apparently is indispensable for deep-sea oil well drilling, wanted a place to enjoy his collection of very fast cars. Let’s just say he has what must be one of the world’s longest and twistiest driveways.
This means no crash barriers, no gravel traps, no corner count-down markers, no run-off areas. Added motivation not to screw up too badly.
Audi did provide pylon cones to mark braking, turn-in and apex points, some of which actually survived our testing.
We went out in groups of two to four drivers each, headed by a pace car driver, each of whom was one of Audi’s driver trainers and/or race drivers.
As these pros usually do, they kept tabs on what their little ducklings were doing behind them, and adjusted the pace accordingly.
We journalists know each other fairly well, and always try to self-select the groups so we could run with others with more or less similar driving skill.
In a nutshell, the car looks, sounds and goes the business.
Even standing in the pits — er, the parking spaces — watching the other groups head out, you’d get a chill down your spine hearing a handful of these engines approach the red line as they screamed out onto the, um, driveway.
Rest to 100 km/h takes a tick or two over three seconds, and at that point the car is just catching its breath.
The S-Tronic transmission, as it always does, shifts absolutely seamlessly. Pull back on the steering wheel paddle, the engine note drops half an octave, and your forward progress just keeps on keepin’ on.
One black mark — the manual override for the shift lever on the console has it backwards. It should always be pull back to upshift, shove forward to downshift. I mean, just think about how your body weight is being directed under each situation and it’s obvious. But not apparently to Audi’s transmission engineers.
No biggie, since you’re going to be using the paddles most of the time anyway. Still, right is right. And this is wrong. I beefed about this at the first R8 launch (and every time I see it in other cars too) so I guess they’re just stubborn. Germans? Stubborn? Hard to imagine.
The steering is damn-near telepathic. Anybody who still thinks electrically-assisted power steering can’t provide the finesse a car like this deserves has to try one of these.
The Directional Stability Control system has several settings, including Dry, Wet and Snow. The last one is not that far-fetched; with proper winter tires, this is a year-round car.
We were asked not to shut the DSC off completely. But in its most ‘lenient’ setting you can still play with the car a little, letting the tail hang out for that photographer over there.
I confess, there was one time when I’m glad the DSC was active…
There is never enough time in a car like this, especially in a setting like this. I’d love to tell you that after back-to-back testing between the base and “Performance” models I could tell you how much quicker the latter was. I mean, 50 horsepower is 50 horsepower, even if they’re only pferdestarke.
But I drove the quick one after driving the regular one, and you’re just going to be quicker the more laps you do.
Sure, I got back in the regular model and did some more laps, and it did feel slightly less punchy coming out of the corners.
But on your own favourite stretch of twisty two-lane black-top? I doubt you’d be able to tell.
Plus, on a race track — er, someone’s long driveway — you’re too busy trying to keep up and not fall off the edge of the world to pay that much attention to the speedometer.
Of course, a, um, driveway surface is baby-bottom smooth, so I can’t tell you much about ride quality. While the new R8 has been recalibrated a bit more to the sporting side of the equation, I’m sure comfort will still be excellent for such a high-performance car.
The Audi R8 remains one of the seminal cars of our time. It not only is a terrific car, it helped cement Audi’s place in the firmament of high-end car makers.
As most car makers, even sports car makers, are going to smaller, usually turbocharged engines, Audi is still waving the large displacement naturally-aspirated engine flag with the R8.
Given that one of its most direct competitors, its corporate cousin the Porsche 911 GT3, also retains a non-blown engine, you wonder — maybe this is just sibling rivalry?
One burning question must remain unanswered at this time. Will this be the last hurrah for the R8? Despite its manifest charms, sales have dropped, and Audi is tossing away millions of euros chasing the electric car fantasy.
Rumours of a turbocharged V6 option for the R8 — good enough for a Porsche — have been strongly denied by various Audi officials.
At admittedly a much higher price level, the R8 is to Audi what the MX-5 Miata is to Mazda. It’s a symbol of what this car company is.
Could they let it die?
Nothing lasts forever.
But if you want one, and you should, I wouldn’t waste a lot of time.