When it comes to something as inherently outrageous as the supercar segment, you might think that it would never really need shaking up. But that's not the case – every once in a while, you have to have something that reorders the breed – a goalpost mover like the McLaren F1 or a Bugatti Veyron. Or you need to have challengers to the establishment on other fronts, be it styling or powertrain technology. Sometimes, just the presence of a new marque is enough of a disruptor to put everyone on guard.
And that's what exactly happened with the original R8. Not only did it introduce a new player into the segment, Audi, it did so with iconoclastic styling and a new approach. In a way that only the Acura NSX did before it, the R8 rationalized the supercar. That might not be an inherently sexy concept, but as Honda proved, it can make for a great car, not to mention good business. Like the NSX, the R8 availed the segment of newfound levels of tractability and refinement in a mid-engined package, with docile around-town manners, surprisingly good visibility and a robust, ergonomic interior to go with its impressive performance. What's more, it did so with all-wheel drive, making it something of a supercar for all seasons.
All of which explains how we ended up caning a suite of 2014 R8 coupes and Spyders up, over, down and through the Tyrolean Alps. In the pitch dark. With nearly a foot of snow on the ground. Usually, you'd never take something as low-slung and powerful as this out in inclement weather, let alone over a mountain range where the slick-surfaced asphalt ribbons like lightly salted linguine. And yet, there we were, in sub-zero temps, savaging hostile climbs and descents at high speeds, snaking our Germans through skiing villages and meandering tunnels. But our Audis seems utterly oblivious to the absurdity of the situation, their high-revving engines rattling snowpack loose from the conifers that lined our route, swank new LED lighting piercing the night's inky cloak.
Audi had thoughtfully fitted our entire alpine expedition with Dunlop SP Winter Sport 3D footwear, and combined with the R8's Quattro all-wheel drive, our R8s pulled hard out of the corners like a pack of sled dogs mainlining Red Bull. Only the tightest of switchbacks caused split-second moments of consternation, wherein we could feel Quattro shuffling torque around between our car's four corners. It was a legitimately awe-inspiring performance – and we were "only" in the base V8 coupe with its 430 horsepower and 317 pound-feet of torque.
Over the course of several days of driving, we would find the measure of the entire aluminum-chassis'd R8 portfolio, sampling not just the eight-cylinder, but also the open-topped V10 Spyder and the new-for-2014 range-topping V10 Plus seen here, powering over 1,000+ kilometers through Germany, Austria and Italy on all manner of roads, from alpine to Autostrada, plus some track time at the Misano World Circuit – mercifully not on snow tires.
"Dynamic turn signals" run LEDs in a sequential swipe, not unlike newer Mustangs, but more seamlessly.
On the aesthetics front, there wasn't much that needed addressing, so the most obvious changes for 2014 are the R8's new light fixtures. All-LED units front and rear catch the eye whether illuminated or not, with their most notable feature being a "dynamic turn signal" function that runs an amber bar of 30 LEDs in a sequential swipe from the inside of the car out, not completely unlike newer Ford Mustang models, but far more seamlessly. It may sound a bit gimmicky, but it looks fantastic enough that we expect this sort of thing to spread across Audi's lineup. Other changes include a modestly reworked front bumper and a tapered-corner single-frame grille, and out back, there's a freshened valance with a pair of oversized round integrated exhaust outlets. By and large, the R8's form looks the same as it ever was, which is to say sensational.
The same can be said for the interior, which receives minor changes including some improved switchgear and "even more precisely designed" instrument needles. Yes, really. The most noticeable change is the availability of quilted leather and a matching Alcantara headliner. Sadly, the R8 does not receive Audi's latest MMI interface with its Google 3D Maps and touchpad, and in fact, we experienced two incidents in two different vehicles where the system failed to orient properly. All-in, however, this is still one of the best-tailored and most usable interiors in the segment.
The old Lamborghini-derived R-Tronic single-clutch gearbox left a lot on the table in terms of refinement.
One area that did need serious improvement was the optional two-pedal setup. The standard six-speed manual has been very satisfying since the R8's launch, but the old Lamborghini-derived R-Tronic single-clutch gearbox left a lot on the table in terms of refinement. If you were piling along at 9/10ths on a circuit, its rapidity and assertiveness could be an asset, but the transmission's often herky-jerky around-town comportment scarred what otherwise was a viceless experience.
For 2014, Audi has binned the R-Tronic in favor of a new S-Tronic twin-clutch unit, and it's the single biggest improvement in this new generation. Oh, the gear lever for the S-Tronic remains a bit fiddly (the forward-to-upshift scheme still feels backwards, and putting the car in Neutral before shutting it off still feels strange), but not only does this new unit pick up an extra cog (seven in all), it's more expedient, smoother and better-behaved than the old unit. Blink-quick swaps are paddleshift pull away, with downshifts accompanied by a nice rev-matched throttle blip. You can even block shift, changing down from seventh to fifth in one go (just squeeze the redesigned, larger and better-feeling paddle twice) for maximum passing power. Unsurprisingly, the new setup makes for a quicker car, with 0-62 miles per hour falling to 4.3 seconds in the V8 – 0.3 seconds quicker than the old unit. The three-shaft unit is actually over six inches shorter than the R Tronic, but it's slightly heavier while being more efficient.
Audi has binned the R-Tronic in favor of a new S-Tronic twin-clutch unit, and it's the single biggest improvement in this new generation.
Ultimately, we prefer the stainless-gated clack of the six-speed manual for maximum driver involvement, but this is still an engaging setup and one of the best dual-clutch units on the market. The only time we caught it out was the occasional low road- and engine-speed 'thunk' upon manually downshifting when the transmission was in Sport mode, as when coming to a stop.
To be fair, the R8 didn't really earn its supercar wings until the Gallardo-sourced 5.2-liter V10 came along in 2009, bringing with it a full 525 hp and 391 lb-ft. In this latest generation, the V10 Coupe comes standard with the S-Tronic 'box for the most rapid progress – 3.6 seconds 0-62 – but the manual is optional, carrying with it a 0.3-second penalty. The S-Tronic Coupe tops out at 195 mph, while Audi says the manual will earn an extra mph for bragging rights.
We prefer the lines of the coupe, as the convertible's deletion of the side blade makes the design somewhat more ordinary.
Opt for the V10 convertible and the figures are 3.8 seconds (S-Tronic) and 4.1 (manual), while top speed takes but a single mph haircut for either transmission compared to the coupe. That's a commendably small penalty for the joy of droptop motoring – especially when it lets you better hear the V10 shrieking its lungs out at 8,700 rpm. Even so, we prefer the lines of the coupe, as the convertible's deletion of the side blade not only makes the design somewhat more ordinary, it also makes the wheelbase look a bit too long.
All-wheel drive can leave cars feeling somewhat reluctant to change direction, but the R8 remains game. Yes, there's still the same safe-as-houses veneer of initial understeer if you enter a corner too hot or try to get on the power too soon, but get it right and the R8 rewards with the neutrality of Switzerland. You can even hang its tail out if you let the e-nannies off their leash a bit. With a default power delivery of 85-percent rear and 15-percent up front combined with mid-engined packaging, the R8 never feels nose-heavy or sloppy, and steering feel from the hydraulic system is very good. The brakes are likewise confidence-inspiring, whether going with the base steel setup (eight piston front, two-piston rear with new "wave-shaped" rotors that shave 4.4 pounds of unsprung mass) or the optional carbon-ceramic setup that shaves a further 26.5 pounds over the standard steel bits.
Get it right in a corner and the R8 rewards with the neutrality of Switzerland – you can even hang the tail out.
Despite its aluminum and magnesium-intensive construction, the R8 still isn't a bantamweight – the base V8 Coupe tips the scales at nearly 3,440 pounds. That's pretty light all things considered, but it's still over 350 pounds more than a 2013 Porsche 911 Carrera 4, for instance. To be fair, the Porsche is also a lot less powerful and comes with less standard equipment, but the difference is worth pointing out.
That's where the new hardcore V10 Plus comes in. Picking up where last year's R8 GT left off and available only in coupe format, the Plus gets the lead out, purging superfluous sound insulation and substituting thinner carpets, lighter and larger forged alloys in a dark finish, a specially tuned suspension similar to that of the GT (brooming the heavier adaptive magnetic ride control setup that comes standard on other V10 models), a bunch more carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) parts and standard ceramic brakes. Those changes add up to a 110-pound weight savings in Euro trim, which also includes special lightweight seats that won't make the trip Stateside (no airbags). The V10 has been retuned as well, and it now delivers 550 horses and 398 lb-ft – enough, Audi says, to shave the run to 62 mph to 3.5 seconds and push top speed to 198 mph. About the 3.5-second thing – it's got to be quicker than that. Even without summoning launch control mode, the throttle response hits you in the back from a standstill like you've been thwacked with Zeus' bowling ball. Thanks, natural aspiration!
V10 Plus throttle response hits you in the back like you've been thwacked with Zeus' bowling ball. Thanks, natural aspiration!
Driving the Plus back-to-back with the standard V10 on the street reconfirms that it's more visceral in every dimension – it's louder in the best way possible, it's quicker, and it handles more keenly. It's also more visceral in terms of ride quality – over the region's good-quality roads, we didn't mind its firmer comportment, but we're guessing that the less-flattering surfaces that pave America will erode some of the R8's legendary daily drivability. It's not as out-and-out circuit-focused as the departing R8 GT, but it's not that far off, either.
And therein lies the rub. The V10 R8 Plus is a serious treat to drive hard on a track or an empty mountain road, but its sharper edges will probably see it parked in owners' heated garages more often than a standard R8 might. Lesser V8 and V10 models are obedient enough that enthusiast owners can – and do – use them every day, like a more focused, less profligate BMW M6.
The R8 offers marrow-deep excellence in everything from daily use supercar to droptop to track day hero.
Audi hasn't released pricing yet, but we suspect 2014's numbers will look similar to the outgoing range when new models start showing up in US showrooms this March. That means about $115k on the shallow end (manual V8) and $150k for the V10 (which accounts for roughly two out of every three sales), with Spyder variants commanding a further $15k or so. The V10 Plus? We're ballparking $185k.
What all of this means is that now more than ever, the R8 is a proper soup-to-nuts flagship, offering marrow-deep excellence in everything from a daily-use supercar to a stylish droptop to a track day hero. More importantly, Audi has exorcised the R8's Achilles heel with a much-needed gearbox transplant... and that's really the only improvement we could ever ask for.