Regardless of the frequency, our pulse still races every time we fire up a ten-cylinder engine. It's not just the unique sound or the warbled vibration that gets the blood flowing – it's the anticipation. Whether the badge says Gallardo, Viper or M5, a V10 under the hood promises intoxicating power and frenzied excitement.
The new Audi R8 GT packs just such an engine – a 5.2-liter V10. Mid-mounted in an aluminum and magnesium monocoque chassis, the powerplant is rated at 560 horsepower. With all-wheel drive and a sequential gearbox, the coupe rockets to 60 mph in 3.6 seconds before hitting an aerodynamic wall just shy of 200 miles per hour. It is, notes Audi, the lightest, fastest and most powerful supercar in its lineup.
Constructing the R8 GT was hardly a mild undertaking. Audi first put the R8 on a diet, shedding 180 pounds. They then turned their attention to the powerplant, where engineers were able to coax the 5.2-liter V10 into delivering another 35 hp. The suspension, brakes and underpinnings were upgraded, while the automatic gearbox and all-wheel-drive system received their own new set of commands. Lastly, unique cosmetic touches were applied that not only improved the R8's appearance, but boosted performance.
As Audi has limited production of the R8 GT to just 333 copies worldwide (with only 90 examples falling into very lucky hands within the United States), we consider ourselves fortunate to be one of just a handful of journalists at Sonoma, California's Infineon Raceway to put the world's newest exotic through its paces on a race circuit.
The Audi R8 road car, not to be confused with the automaker's winning R8 Le Mans Prototype racer, first arrived in the States for the 2008 model year. Sharing underpinnings with the Lamborghini Gallardo, the two-seat exotic debuted as the German automaker's flagship and most expensive offering. With Audi Space Frame (ASF) technology keeping weight relatively low and Quattro all-wheel drive for grip, performance was impressive even though it was a bit shy in the power department – standard fitment was a 4.2-liter V8 rated at 425 horsepower. Soon afterward, a more powerful 5.2-liter V10 arrived. It added a bit of weight, but the newfound performance bumped the R8 into supercar territory. The coupe's top came off in 2009, when the R8 Spyder variant debuted at the Frankfurt Motor Show.
Last spring, as Audi's flagship sports car entered its fourth year, the German automaker announced a new R8 was under development. By "adding lightness," boosting power and thoroughly reworking the suspension and brakes, the company promised to inject new levels of performance into the R8 – a vehicle not scheduled for replacement until 2014.
Officially introduced at the 2010 Paris Motor Show, the 2012 Audi R8 GT will land on U.S. soil with a base price of $196,800 (excluding $1,250 in destination charges). That makes it about $87,000 more than the entry-level R8 4.2 FSI with a six-speed manual transmission and about $39,000 more than the standard R8 5.2 FSI coupe with an R-Tronic transmission. In addition to a very short options list that includes carbon fiber-reinforced ceramic brakes with anodized red calipers, audio upgrades and a choice of forged wheels, Audi will offer the R8 GT in four "Exclusive" colors (Suzuka Gray, Samoa Orange, Ice Silver and Phantom Black).
As mentioned, Audi will only build 333 examples of the R8 GT. Interestingly enough, the automaker says that particular number carries no significance whatsoever, but it does mean the Audi R8 GT will have a lower production volume than the Bugatti Veyron. Put down your phone, as all of the coupes have already been spoken for (get in line for the R8 GT Spyder today). As is often the case with rare exotics, there is no surplus inventory to drop one into the press fleet, so we are at the mercy of the automaker for some seat time. Thankfully, Audi was thinking of us. Last week, they flew over a couple Euro-spec prototypes and offered us a full day at the track.
Located just northeast of San Francisco Bay in Sonoma wine country, Infineon Raceway (formerly Sears Point) is famed for its road course NASCAR event each year. More important to our German hosts is that the track is also home to the Audi Sportscar Experience, where civilians put Audi's various performance models through their paces on the site's 2.52-mile road circuit. We drove from Los Angeles to Infineon in standard R8 models, spending the night in Yountville, before heading to the track where we found two matte-finish Suzuka Gray R8 GTs waiting patiently for us.
If you are familiar with the Audi R8, distinguishing the GT variant from the 4.2 or 5.2 won't be very difficult. Most obvious is the fixed carbon-fiber rear wing, which replaces the motorized pop-up unit on the trailing edge of the engine cover (neatly saving a few pounds in the process). The R8's now trademark side blade elements, protruding outward to mimic the standard 5.2 design, are standard lightweight matte carbon fiber, as is the front lower double splitter, front bumper winglets, mirror covers, rear bumper and lower diffuser. The rear bumper is accented in Titanium Gray with fewer horizontal slats. Full LED headlights are standard, and the rear taillamp reflectors feature a unique blacked-out appearance. The exhaust outlets, a quad system on the R8 4.2 and twin ovals on the R8 5.2, are twin oversized perfectly round circles with a dark gray finish on the limited edition GT model. Look through the forged wheels and you may also notice a set of optional red anodized calipers, distinguishing our tester's carbon-ceramic brake upgrade.
As we are driving a European model, there are some differences to point out. Slightly altered on our domestic arrivals, thanks to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), will be the front and rear fascias and the rear window. The DOT requires orange side marker reflectors on the front bumpers and the removal of the brake light below the rear valance. They have also pulled the plug on the polycarbonate rear window and external ignition kill switch located at the base of the driver's windshield.
The R8 GT's interior is every bit as unique as its exterior. The cabin has been enhanced with lightweight Alcantara throughout. The pseudo-suede covers the seats, headliner, steering wheel, roof posts, knee pads and handbrake lever. Full leather is optional, but we prefer the grippy fabric over smooth natural hides. Carbon fiber accents the cockpit on the doors, dashboard, and numbered R-Tronic shifter (our pre-production vehicles both wore the coveted "000/333" designation). While the Sparco bucket seats, four-point racing harness, red roll cage and ignition kill switch replacing one of the cup holders certainly look trick, they sadly won't be fitted to the 90 vehicles earmarked for U.S. customers – blame the DOT, again.
According to the company, all of the enhancements are functional – whether they serve to reduce weight or improve aerodynamics. All told, Audi shaved about 180 pounds off the weight of the standard 5.2 Coupe. The savings come from all over. Here are just a few of the specifics: battery (cutting 20.7 pounds), carpeting (17.4 pounds), rear hatch (12.8 pounds), rear bumper (17.6 pounds), hood (5.3 pounds), side blades (3.3 pounds) and a fixed rear spoiler (3.3 pounds). The drag coefficient of the R8 GT (.36) isn't very impressive, but it is identical to the standard 5.2 model while delivering more than twice the downforce.
At the heart of the R8 GT is its mid-mounted, direct-injected 5.2-liter V10. Sitting in plain view under a transparent hood, the all-aluminum engine is nearly identical to the unit fitted to the standard R8 5.2 FSI. However, to prepare it for a more challenging role, Audi's engineering team made a few tweaks to squeeze a few more horses from the 90-degree dry sump powerplant. The result is 560 horsepower at 8,000 rpm and 398 pound-feet of torque at 6,500 rpm (redline is a stratospheric 8,700 rpm). While the standard R8 5.2 is offered with a choice between a traditional gated six-speed manual and the automaker's R-Tronic six-speed single-clutch sequential automatic, there is no such option on the R8 GT. All are fitted with a specially-calibrated R-Tronic transmission as standard equipment. That decision may frustrate purists, including ourselves, but the automated gearbox arrives with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters and electronic launch control in an effort to appease the masses. Officially, Audi says the new R8 GT will hit 62 mph in 3.6 seconds with a top speed aerodynamically limited to 199 mph.
Part of the impressive acceleration is credited to Audi's full-time Quattro all-wheel-drive system. It's standard fitment on all R8 models, including the GT. The system has been engineered with a dry torque split of 15/85 (percent front/rear). However, if wheel slippage is noted by the electronics, up to 30 percent of the engine's torque may be sent to the front wheels. Aiding grip is a standard mechanical locking rear differential that provides 25-percent lockup under acceleration and 40 percent on the overrun. Putting the power to the pavement are unique 19-inch forged alloy wheels, wrapped in sticky Pirelli P Zero Corsa tires (235/35R19 front, 295/30R19 rear). Significantly, Audi's renowned Magnetic Ride suspension is not used on the R8 GT. Instead, the adaptive electronic suspension has been replaced with standard Bilstein coilovers. Fully adjustable and race-bred, they allow custom settings for ride height and tuning.
Unlike many gussied-up exotics that become rather inhospitable when the weight-savings team starts swinging the axe (we need only point our fingers at the hard carbon-fiber door panels of the Lamborghini Gallardo LP-570-4 Superleggera), the R8 GT is very comfortable inside. Although outfitted with a serious level of performance equipment, its cockpit easily swallows our six-foot two-inch helmeted frame with room to spare and plenty of padding. There is generous shoulder, elbow and leg room complete with a tilt-and-telescope steering wheel to bring everything in alignment. Materials, fit and finish are all near-flawless and the color scheme with contrasting red splashed throughout looks classy and timeless. Complaints about Audi interiors are rare, and the GT continues the R8's tradition of setting a high bar in the supercar world.
From the driver's seat, forward visibility is excellent, but the view out the rear window in this Euro-spec model is blocked by a bright-red diagonal roll bar. Beyond that, the carbon-fiber wing bisects the horizon right at the traffic line, just like the rear wing does in a Porsche 911 GT3.
The 5.2-liter V10 spins to life with a simple twist of the key. In addition to the ECU tuning, the R8 GT is fitted with custom exhaust headers and new mufflers. The sound is throaty from inside the cabin, much louder than the stock exhaust on the 5.2 model, without being overly obnoxious. Audi says there is less sound insulation in the GT's firewall, which only serves to amplify the aggressive exhaust note.
Infineon Raceway is chock full of twisty climbs and curving descents, so we chose to keep the gearbox in manual mode. Before our arrival, Audi engineers had locked-out the stability-control defeat button (auto journalists are a crazy bunch), so we had no choice but to leave it on. Gratefully, its limits have been re-calibrated for the GT's higher performance. Instructed to follow a school instructor in an R8 4.2, we released the brake and pulled the GT on to the circuit.
Then something very unique happened – all credited directly to the competency of Audi's newest flagship.
Full disclosure reveals that we are not only new to the R8 GT, but it is our first time driving at Infineon. In most cases, this requires a dozen orientation laps learning corners and turn-in points while simultaneously attempting to get accustomed to how a vehicle handles. Not so with the Audi R8 GT. The learning curve drops off a cliff. Within three laps, we are chasing the instructor with the gusto of a hungry cheetah trailing a fleeing gazelle.
The GT is absurdly easy to drive at the limit, thanks to its mid-engine balance, accurate steering, excellent throttle response and tenacious all-wheel-drive grip. After just moments behind the wheel, we find ourselves completely at ease driving eight-tenths. By our second and third stint in the driver's seat, there is nothing holding us back from driving full tilt. While lighter than its siblings, the GT is still no featherweight when compared to some of its rivals – evident with some understeer on the sharpest corners. Regardless, the new R8 approaches tossable now. Stability control doesn't allow us to rotate the vehicle mid-corner, but it doesn't seem to mind when we clip the apex in a four-wheel power slide.
[Note: When viewing the video, notice how little input is required on the shift paddles on the back of the steering spokes to change gears and how abrupt the full-throttle shifts are – that's a characteristic of the single-clutch transmission. To get a good sense of the g-forces, keep your eyes on the leather keychain hanging from the ignition switch.]
While the additional engine power is welcomed and noticed, we are most impressed with the brakes. The ceramics are a huge upgrade over the iron units, both at reducing unsprung weight and absorbing gobs of heat (it seems the tires will melt off their wheels before the brakes fade). At the other end of that scale, giving us heartburn each time it actuates, is the R-Tronic gearbox. We try hard to like it, but it simply operates with a clumsiness that isn't acceptable these days. A dual-clutch would shave tenths off the acceleration time (and we'd give up half-a-second for a proper gated manual).
Enthusiasts will undoubtedly need to size up the R8 GT against a Lamborghini Gallardo LP 570-4, Porsche GT2, Ferrari 458 Italia and McLaren MP4-12C. We'll save you some time by telling you that each of those fierce competitors arrives to the fight with a better power-to-weight ratio, much firmer suspension tuning and an aggressive attitude that honestly isn't felt while sitting behind the wheel of the Audi. Not to infer that the R8 GT isn't a bona fide supercar – it is by all standards of measurement.
From our perspective, it seems that Audi wasn't aiming at those targets. Compared to that rowdy clan, the R8 GT is too civil, far too poised and much too amicable. While the others will quickly bite if allowed the opportunity, Audi's perfectly-tame supercar could be your best friend for life.
The more we got to know the Audi, and the more thought we put into it, the automaker's new flagship started to remind us of the Aston Martin V12 Vantage. That low-volume Brit, itself a thoroughly-enhanced variant of the VH platform, stole our hearts with its uniqueness and personality. As we said in our review, the V12 Vantage wasn't designed to set records; it was engineered for the pleasure of driving.
Audi's new flagship probably won't set any track records either, but we don't doubt it will make its handful of owners very, very pleased. Not only is it the ultimate performance adaptation of the remarkable R8 platform, but its uniqueness and low production volume will make today's ten-cylinder Audi R8 GT a very coveted prize in the future. Yes, it is simply that good.