Audi has treated all of its R8 models to a host of enhancements for the 2014 model year that include new LED headlights and tail lamps, larger steering wheel-mounted shift paddles, new exhaust finishes, updated alloy wheel designs and fresh exterior colors. However, the most significant news is the arrival of a proper seven-speed S-Tronic dual-clutch automatic transmission (it replaces the six-speed R-Tronic). The rapid-fire gearbox shaves a coupe tenths off the 0-60 sprint and improves fuel economy for both the eight- and ten-cylinder models (thankfully, a traditional six-speed manual is still on the order form).
I recently spent time with the new-for-2014 V10 Plus model, which is only available in a coupe body style. Compared to the standard V10 models, the Plus sheds upwards of 130 pounds thanks to lightweight manual seats (not fitted to my test car), carbon-ceramic brakes, reduced sound bay insulation, a smaller fuel tank and an assortment of carbon-fiber pieces (including side blades, front splitter, rear diffuser and spoiler). But that's not all, as the V10 Plus also receives a bump in output that pushes its ten-cylinder to an even 550 horsepower.
- My six-foot two-inch frame has always found the R8 Coupe to be very comfortable - a standout in a segment of cramped coupes. The enhanced cabin is nothing short of breathtaking, with beautiful carbon-fiber and aluminum accents, tactile switchgear and a fit-and-finish to rival Rolls-Royce. My Brilliant Red test car was fitted with the optional diamond-stitching full leather package ($6,300) that seems a worthy investment, if just to watch your passenger's jaws drop when they climbed in.
- The naturally-aspirated 5.2-liter V10 has been massaged to produce 550 horsepower and 398 pound-feet of torque, a 25 horsepower increase over the standard V10, which Audi says is good for a 3.3-second sprint to 60 mph (with the help of launch control). Nobody will miss the old, sometimes clunky, single-clutch gearbox. The new dual-clutch unit shifted smoothly during normal driving, yet it eagerly cracked off the gears when driven aggressively (don't waste your time with the console-mounted shifter, as the wheel-mounted paddles are much easier to use). Power at the low end of the tachometer was plenty strong, but the V10 really came to life once it started vigorously spinning. Run it to the 8,500 rpm redline between each shift, and its screaming audio track will remind you why enthusiasts still appreciate fine, naturally aspirated engines.
- Zipping through the canyon roads in the mountains above Malibu put the R8 V10 Plus right at home. Its mid-engine handling and balance was exceptional. The damping is fixed to a very firm setting, even though lesser R8 models offer a variable magnetic suspension, but it never felt overly harsh for its role. A low center of gravity and a wide stance provide excellent stability, and the turn-in was quick, accurate and sharp. The massive carbon-ceramic brakes are unflappable - right up there with the world's best.
- Audi has engineered the Quattro all-wheel drive system to send upwards 85 percent of the torque to the rear wheels, translating to a rear-bias driving dynamic (override the stability control, and then mash the throttle mid-corner, and the R8 V10 Plus responds with an easily controlled powerside). Floor the accelerator out of the corner, and the front wheels pull the nose around as if it were hooked on a wire.
- The R8's strength has always been its ageless styling, comfortable cabin and driving demeanor. As a result of the enhancements, the new V10 Plus is much more feisty than its lesser siblings while exhibiting a performance edge that only increases its appeal.
- With the spectacular limited-production R8 GT but a memory, this is the new king of Audi's model range - it wears the crown very well.