On a gravel-strewn, dead-end road 20 miles north of Sonoma, California's Infineon Raceway, the opportunity finally presents itself. We slot the R8's gated shifter into first, rev the engine to 3,500 RPM and drop the clutch. No wheel spin, no screeching tires, just an immediate and seamless conversion of potential energy into vision-warping thrust. Our skull snaps back into the headrest, our spine compresses against the seat and a few seconds later, we are running into the red.
As we hit the fuel cutoff at 8,750 RPM, it dawns on us: we totally forgot to breathe.
If forward momentum is so seamless and instantaneous that it temporarily halts the most basic of human needs, you know you're piloting something special. And the 2010 Audi R8 V10 is very, very special.
Photos copyright ©2009 Damon Lavrinc / Weblogs, Inc.
When we first reviewed the original V8-powered R8 last year, we came away with several revelations. Its ease-of-use, daily drivability and exceptional grip impressed the most, but there was always an overwhelming sense the chassis could handle more power. Sure, it had the chops to hang with a Porsche 911 or some AMG-fettled Merc, but there wasn't always that supercar sense of occasion when manning the helm. Now, with the Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4's V10 mounted amidships, Audi has put any question about the R8's supercar status to rest – without compromising the complete package.
With the exception of the intake, exhaust and ECU, the engine is the identical unit fitted to its Italian brother from the same mothership and carries over unchanged from the R8 LMS currently being campaigned by Audi Sport and a handful of privateers. Even though the 5.2-liter FSI V10 is rated at 525 horsepower (down some 35 ponies from the Gallardo), there's no perceivable trade-off in aural satisfaction. The exhaust note swaps the Lambo's raucous, playful intonation for a more focused – even, restrained – tone, particularly below 4,000 RPM before an extra baffle in the exhaust evolves the sound from a mumble to a wail. Think Hendrix playing at eight rather than eleven – the sound is no less sweet.
The dry sump-equipped, race-bred ten's 525 ponies (at 8,000 RPM) and 391 pound-feet of torque (at 6,500 RPM) are channeled through either a six-speed manual or R tronic sequential gearbox with Sport mode. No matter the transmission (launch control works on both models), 0-to-60 MPH comes in at a claimed 3.7 seconds, with the R tronic delivering its shifts in just one-hundredth of a second.
Compared to the R tronic model we tested last June, the cogswapper's programming has been tweaked to accommodate the extra output, and according to one Audi engineer, "this gearbox was made for the V10." Although it's still not nearly as smooth as a typical torque converter or Audi's own dual-clutch 'box when puttering along at part throttle, the hydraulically operated manumatic does its damnedest to limit lurches when running up the tach or down for a corner. On the track, it's revelatory. On the road, it's acceptable. But with a light clutch, a perfectly defined friction point and those snickety-snick gates, the six-speed manual handily won our hearts no matter the environment.
Nearly everything from the standard R8 carries over to the V10 model. The weight distribution remains 44/56 front-to-rear, and comes in just 70 pounds heavier than the V8 variant, with a curb weight of 3,715 pounds for the manual model and 3,726 pounds when equipped with the R tronic.
Befitting of a halo car, many of the options available on the base R8 are standard on the V10, including the Audi Parking System (sensors in front and a camera out back), navigation, sonorous 465-watt Bang & Olufsen stereo (you know, for when you're parked) and a full frontal LED headlamp assembly with 24 diodes to represent Audi's victories at the 24 Hours of LeMans.
That theme carries over to the carbon fiber swathed engine bay, where two rows of brushed aluminum vents frame the powerplant total 24 (a dozen on each side). Other bespoke bits include black, high gloss grilles on the front fascia, spoiler lip and rear diffuser, along with gaping sideblades, flared rocker panels and telltale oval exhaust tips standard on Audi's hottest models. All that and more for $146,000 with a manual or $155,400 for the R tronic. Porsche 911 Turbo, M-B SL63 and (whoops) LP560-4, it's official: You're on notice.
But it's not just about price and power. The R8 V10 wears two suits: one for the drive to work and another for the physics bending backroad blast home.
Our first chance to sample the R8's daily duds came during a low- to mid-speed run from South San Francisco, across the Golden Gate and into the rolling hills that populate the North Bay. Start-and-stop traffic is standard fare along Van Ness and mid-day SF traffic confirmed the V10 model is just as suitable around town as its V8 counterpart. Its expansive track never feels bloated or unwieldy, and there's rarely a sense of impending doom when tackling tight corners or switching lanes in congestion.
Across the bridge and into the coastal hills, we're finally able to clear the R8's throat. Mashing the throttle in sixth put our license in peril within seconds, and the ease at which the R8 effortlessly climbs into extra-legal speeds is eclipsed only by how undramatically the velocity piles on. The R8 ate up mile after mile in complete serenity, feeling more like a buttoned-down A8 luxobruiser than a world-class supercar.
After a brief stopoff, we snatched up a manual model and headed off into the hills. To our simultaneous delight and dismay, our chosen route put us on a terminally broken and hastily patched swath of tarmac that proved a perfect test of the R8's all-wheel drive civility.
Posted speed limit: 55 MPH. Actual speed: higher. But it simply didn't matter.
Even with the adaptive magnetic ride damping set to Sport, the R8 skipped across the broken sections of asphalt at speed, devouring sweepers and spitting out straights with massive amounts of grip in reserve. We were simply toying with its abilities and all the R8 could do in return was look into our soul and ask for more. Where to go next? Off to Infineon...
We've got to preface this experience by pointing out two things: 1) We've yet to drive the R8 on a circuit and 2) As we discovered in our first review, the R8 delivers so much grip on public roads that your will to live gives up long before the tires do. On the track, with 101 hp-per-liter on tap, it's more of the same, but multiplied by 130 percent. It's simply sublime.
Rocketing up the main straight into the first complex of corners requires a level head and a steady foot. Unlike the V8, where punching the throttle mid-bend is rewarded with a slight skip in the rear and a heroic exit, with the V10, your inputs need to be considerably more measured and doubly precise. At speed, the lightened steering we experienced in and around the city was replaced with a crisp, connected sensation. While not as direct as, say, a Lotus Elise or as meaty as a 911, Audi has struck an ideal balance for a car designed to do double duty.
At the first 90-degree right-hander, we laid into the anchors too early (going from a daily-driver S4 to an R8 means recalibrating one's simpleton idea of physics), but even that minor flub was instantly rectified with the prodigious thrust on tap. Half-way through the bend, we were three-quarters down on the throttle when the back end began progressively rotating left as the Quattro all-wheel drive system began shuffling 30-percent of the torque to the front, then back to 90-percent when we were finally pointed straight. If you resist the urge to go all Captain Hero, this R8 rewards. It may be more forgiving than most cars of its ilk, but drive like a buffoon and at some point in your travels, you're bound to meet the wall in a svelte aluminum coffin. St. Peter will be humored – even if you're forced to board a southbound elevator.
The R8's immense amount of traction and stability (Audi claims it can hold 1.2 g through the bends) almost allows us to take turns eight, nine and ten at full throttle before jumping onto the stoppers for the tight, 180-degree right-hand bend that leads onto the long run in front of the pits. The eight-piston (front) and four-piston (rear) brakes clamp onto 15- and 14-inch discs, respectively, and we question Audi's decision to offer carbon ceramic discs in markets outside the U.S. These anchors are just that good, and partnered with the 235/35 R19 (front) and 295/30 R19 (rear) rubber, the combination is enough to rip the skin off your cheekbones. Only terminally late braking elicits understeer at the limit, but all is well when you lay into the long pedal and the R8 rockets out of the pocket.
Unfortunately, our time on the track was cut short by a hamfisted hack from a certain luxury magazine unable to grasp the notion of a blue bullet running up on his bumper – even when we flashed our headlamps. That flicker of electronic semaphore is generally understood by enthusiasts as a gesture requesting the lead car to move over, but apparently our circuit-mate never got the message. While we left some of the fun on the table and we never even gotten close to the limits of the R8's abilities (or our talent), after a few laps of equal parts exhilaration and frustration, we pulled into the pits to cool our heels and wrap our heads around what Audi's accomplished with what is essentially an engine swap.
When we drove the Ferrari F430 and Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4 earlier this year, the Raging Bull from Sant'Agata stole the top spot on our lottery list. The combination of ferocious power and Dramamine-testing grip made it our favorite among the high dollar exotica on offer. But would we choose it as our daily driver? Probably not. Our fillings shook loose on all but the smoothest of surfaces, visibility was lackluster (at best) and handing the keys to a valet before dinner would require a heavy dose of Valium to accompany our foie gras. But with Audi's R8 V10, all those issues have been addressed, distilled and delivered into a comprehensive package that makes it an easy alternative to the 911 Turbo and other mid-level supercar hotness. Unmatched point-to-point usability, awe-inspiring charisma and an epic soundtrack mated to the only mid-engine V10 playing in the $150,000 segment? It's enough to take your breath away whenever you get behind the wheel.
Photos copyright ©2009 Damon Lavrinc / Weblogs, Inc.