- Aug 20, 2010
First Drive: 2011 Audi R8 V10 Spyder
There could have been more weight, but the panel that covers the top and the rockers is made from carbon fiber. The strakes running down the engine cover are a design element to tie the rear of the car to the aluminum A-pillar that's a trademark of Audi convertibles. The strakes, however, are "Aluminum Optic" – read: not actually aluminum. Visually, though, they work as advertised, being especially striking on R8 V10 Spyders in darker colors. We asked whether Audi had thought of a transparent cover, but were told that heat shielding issues made it a non-starter.
In the Audi world, though, what you give up is usually remedied by what you get. To make your convertible more appealing to live with in light of that added weight and slower times, you get features like the heated rear window independent of the roof that can be raised or lowered to act as an additional wind deflector, similar to that on the BMW 6 Series.
With the seats now being victims to an angry sun, their leather has been injected with colored pigments that can reduce surface temperatures by up to 68 degrees Fahrenheit. As the temperature of inland So Cal got above 100 degrees during our drive and we refused to put the top up, we can attest to the fact that sitting down is still possible after leaving the car to roast outside during a couple of pit stops. Still, while the seats are heated, we would have loved the option of properly air-conditioned chairs as well.
And because you'll still need to do business while the R8 V10 Spyder is topless and on the move, Audi has placed three Bluetooth microphones in the driver's and passenger's seatbelts. Each looks for the best channel on which to extract your voice from the wind and convey it through the ether, and they are also joined by a fourth microphone in the A-pillar. This was a feature we happened to try out quickly once we realized the engine couldn't immediately be wound to redline (more on that later). The two people we called didn't even realize we were driving at the time.
The only glaring issue we had with the interior – a solid, comfortable space accented by carbon fiber and the occasional bold line – had to do with glare itself. With the top down and the sun high in the sky behind us, the MMI screen was completely washed out, better as a beacon for passing aircraft than a navigation aid.
While perusing the two rows of R8 V10 Spyders made available to the day's gathering, Andrew Lipman, Audi's East Coast PR manager, proffered the most beautiful words of the morning: "Would you like a manual?" Why yes, Mr. Lipman, we would. And we would also like to salute you...
Lamborghini told Car and Driver that manuals only go in five percent of its cars, and none of those are the Gallardo because it isn't offered with one. A Ferrari rep told Bloomberg that its 458 Italia had no chance of having a manual transmission because "The technology was too slow and outdated." Well listen to this, Ferrari: the technology behind making gelato is slow and outdated as well, but that doesn't mean they should only offer flavors that can be made in 300 milliseconds.
Contrast that to the Audi R8: Murphy said that 55 percent of R8 buyers choose the six-speed manual over the R-Tronic. Proof of their good sense comes with the first shift. The are no ergonomic tricks with the lever, just a bulb of knurled metal atop a stalk gliding through a metal gate. The throws are substantial, along with clutch travel, but the gearshift's weighting is perfect – just the right amount of spring and tension to make shifting an act of meditation. Your hand pulling for another gear and the spring-loaded lever arcing from one cog to the next are united as closely as warp and weft.
You can't get all crazy when you hear the first beat of the V10 behind you – the revs are limited until the engine warms up and you'll lose about 2,000 rpm from the 8,700 rpm redline (hence our pair of outbound calls earlier). A few minutes of cruising is enough to get the Spyder, and yourself, ready to leverage the included armament. That is, if you even want to. As with its coupe sibling, the R8 is as easy to drive around town as an A4. The countless eyeballs upon you, however, declare that you are not in anything like an A4.
Nevertheless, the R8's docile manners downtown are why 25 percent of R8 buyers use theirs as a daily driver. The steering is pleasant, the suspension is compliant, the tires neither seek ruts nor roar, and the long-travel clutch doesn't give the car epileptic fits. In fact, the hill-hold feature – which took us a moment to adapt to – keeps the R8 in place while you get the throttle and clutch set up just the way you want for launch. Load up your media player, wirelessly hook up your phone and set a course for a lunch meeting across town, and you might as well have grabbed the keys to the A3.
Okay, not really, but that we could make the comparison in slight jest at all is a tribute to the unmatched ease-of-use that is the R8.
When the road really ramps up and takes an awful turn (correction: ramps up and takes a glorious turn of capricious and multifarious corners), it's only then that the R8 makes us dumb and sad and really, really happy.
Our first complaint: The only thing we didn't like about the shifter was that we didn't get to use it enough. The 5.2-liter V10 dishes out 520 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 391 pound feet of torque at 8,000 rpm. Keep things above 4,000 rpm and you've got enough ammunition to dispatch most of your enemies, and because the handling hasn't suffered from the coupe, you can take so much speed into corners that you just don't need to swap gears. Fourth gear is magical, keeping us thick in the action on everything from long straights down to tight-ish bends. In fourth, you're at 4,000 at about 65 mph, 5,000 rpm at about 80 mph and 7,000 rpm gets you to about 100. At that point, there remains 1,700 rpm in reserve and you still haven't run out of torque.
We realize 65 mph sounds like turns couldn't have been that tight, but the truth is that the R8 V10 Spyder is as serious about its handling as the Terminator was about killing Sarah Connor. Remember in the first Terminator how they had to send John Connor's father back through time to keep his mother alive, which made you wonder how we got John Connor, Skynet and "I'll be back" in the first place? You'd almost have to do something that crazy – pose a question that unanswerable – to lose the handling plot in the R8 V10 Spyder. Something like, "Could I clip the apex of this 30-mph corner at the Spyder's top speed of 195 mph?" No, you couldn't. But you can take that corner flat at 65 mph in fourth gear while autographing the apex for future admirers.
If things got blind-off-camber-180-degree-tight, you might run all the way down to second gear, but thanks to the 45/55 front-to-rear weight bias, the torque split that can put 30 percent of the motive power up front and plenty of go on tap even from 3,000 rpm, third and fourth gear gives you access to 90 percent of the magic.
We didn't find the steering dead anywhere, but it's at its lightest and most relaxed between about 20 degrees of lock in either direction. After that, there's a jump in load-up, then it progresses gradually all the way out. If 10-out-of-10 is ultimately communicative, the R8 gets to about nine – always a little easier to handle than you'd expect, but you'll never wonder where you're putting the wheels.
Nevertheless, even as we were performing automotive feats we'd only heard of in someone else dreams, racing to the desert horizon on a two-lane strip patrolled by nothing but cows, we shook our heads. Why? Because it was stupefyingly clear that the Audi R8 V10 Spyder belongs to a class of cars we call "Unfair." The Toyota Landcruiser and its Crawl Control mode took the rock-crunching fear out of navigating boulder-strewn hills. The Ford SVT Raptor made high-speed desert running so simple that even if you think the term "pre-running" means loading up your iPod, you can skate across the sands at 100 mph once you're behind the wheel.
The Audi R8 has made canyon running so easy, and the Audi R8 V10 Spyder has made it look and feel so good, that it's pornographically indecent. If you happen to see a guy blast by you in an R8 V10 Spyder with the top down, The Cult's Fire Woman erupting from his 19-speaker, 465-watt Bang & Olufsen system while he joins a particularly nasty series of esses like Senna with a first place finish at stake, then as soon as the road straightens out again he dials up a hands-free call and triple-digit thrust into the crepuscular horizon, know this: It's the car, not him. He didn't do a thing except not have a heart attack and die. To be fair, he did also scrape up the $161,000 purchase price ($170k with the R Tronic, but please don't) to put himself in the driver's seat – or knew a friend who did – but that's really it. Everything else was made possible by the R8 V10 Spyder.
And therein is the dumbing down of civilization – driving civilization, to be precise. The R8 is called a "supercar" and we can allow it that as long as we adjust the definition of "super." Supercars have always defined as super-capable, but only once you earned that capability with patience, study, fear, frenzy, sweat, huge repair bills, parts of cars left on the road, knowing where your living will is at all times, getting back on the horse with a little less fear but only after more study, and again with the repair bills. It was that last tenth that made them what they were: Super. But it cuts both ways. Supercars were also frightening, uncomfortable and unergonomic messes. But that's where you earned the cape and the capital "S."
Not so with the Audi R8 V10 Spyder. It is The Idiot's Guide to Driving a Supercar, and we mean that in the best way possible. Although it saddens us a little to close the door further on Ye Olde Supercar Experience, we'll happily wear the dunce cap and play the idiot in the R8 V10 Spyder, with nothing but the wind, third and fourth gear, and roads like Silly String to teach us a thing or two about what it's like to be dumb...
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Photos copyright ©2010 Jonathon Ramsey / AOL