Audi's finest, about to be replaced.
The 2016 R8 has just been announced. It's a V10 powered lighter weight monster with all sorts of awesome technology, which make it faster around a race track. Unfortunately, much of that technology conspires to alleviate the driver from the responsibility of doing what is really important - DRIVING.
Cars have gotten to the point where they are almost too good. Even 10 years ago, in the pinnacle of automotive engineering available for the general public to drive on public roads, you still had to work at it. You either had a flappy paddle gear shift that would dump you latte out on your passenger during a hard shift or a manual whose timing had to be perfect. Hydraulic steering had been pretty much perfected such that the effort could be tuned but information about what the tires were doing still came through. Navigation systems were crude and unobstrusive, you turned them off when you got to the road you wanted to drive on. Stability control was crude and got in the way of anything resembling fun.
Today's cars are undoubtedly faster but most are boring to drive. You turn in, the car turns and makes sure you stay out of trouble. You don't get to do anything fun and the littany of warning lights about your impending doom should you turn off the nannies makes you rewrite your will each time you need to blow off some steam from your day at the office. The engines are so crappy sounding that one team has to make the engine as quiet as possible as not to to piss off the neighbors, but scream with artificial honking engine notes through the car's speakers. (I'm lookin' at you, BMW M3!) They have none of the soul or skill required that separated the men from the boys and put hair on the chests of those gutsy enough to try.
The Audi R8 was brought to market in the US, in 2008. It was hailed as the NSX of the 2000s, and was Audi's flagship car. It was fast, it was beautiful in a techno funky sort of way, it was exotic looking with wide hips and lots of exhaust pipes. It starred in Ironman and what warm blooded dude, didn't want to be Tony Stark with a super model girlfriend and a super model car? The R8 was easy to use, with it's AWD and stable handling, but it was exotic looking and turned heads, love or leave the controversial side blades. It had 420 hp and a wonderfully rustic gated manual transmission or an automated manual with a single clutch and robotic servo controlled shifting. Neither transmission was fast, Rtronic was brutal in hard shifts and clunky and slippery around town. The gated manual took practice, and had longish throws and required a deliberate touch.
The 2008 R8 V8's motor was punchy but you would never call it torquey. It was responsive, and never starved for power, but the relatively small 4.2L of displacement was never going to have the stump pulling power fans of Camaros and Mustangs enjoy. It revved past 8000 rpm and pulled hard into the rev limiter, never letting up and making it's best noise and power above 6000 rpm. This was not a motor for those afraid to let them rev.
2010 brought some updates to MMI and the V10 engine. The V10 was a beautiful sounding motor straight out of the Lamborghini Gallardo. It was tuned for a little less power but had a high pitched exotic sounding wail that the V8 lacked. The V8 was always a good sounding car, with it's baritone growl that increased linearly with urgency. The V10, though, seems to change pitch dramatically as you rev the car out. It is melodious and graceful, begging for the upper revs.
Unfortunately, it brought a lot of weight to the already less than lithe R8. The v10 was 250-300 lbs heavier than the equivalent V8 and many preferred the handling of the lighter V8 car. (the author included)
2014 brought the last facelift, new headlights, tailights, grills and bumpers. The R8 V8 and V10 now share exhaust pipes, but the V10 still has the more aggressive side blades. (just about the only way to tell them apart without peering into the engine compartment through the clear glass cover.)
So, this review is of a 2015 model R8 V8 6 speed manual. This is the last of this generation, the 2016 R8 was just released at the Geneva Auto show. Thus far, most of the reactions have been middling to unfavorable - the new car is clearly an evolution of the old.
Gone, at least at launch are the V8 model and the accessible price point. The 2016 R8 will likely start at $165-$185k USD when it releases here, as a V10 or V10 Plus model. This can't go much lower to prevent downsell from the Lamborghini Huracan. Gone are the full side blades, replaced with small contrasting windows. The grill is more upright and the styling more angular without the grace of the older car. The interior is much improved unless you are a passenger - the entirety of the navigation and infotainment system is now contained in the instrument cluster. Gone also is the wonderful gated manual, replaced by a soulless dual clutch flappy paddle transmission.
Will it be faster around a track? Yes, probably. It weighs less, it has more power, and suspension technology has advanced. The transmission is likely quicker, the suspension likely conjures better grip, the brakes undoubtedly work better, due to lighter weight. But, most car enthusiasts don't buy a car just to go fast. I mean, many do. Many buy whatever the magazines test as the fastest 1/4 mile, despite the fact that exploiting those capabilities carries a jail sentence in most civilized parts of the world. And, modern cars are so fast and so good around race tracks, people end up driving them at track days with all the electronic assistants on and never end up learning to really drive the car.
This brings us back to the subject at hand - a 2015 Audi R8 V8. Now, complete with 430 horsepower (curiously down 20 hp from the same motor in the RS5) and equipped with a wonderful gated transmission that occasionally squeaks and clicks and clinks a bit just to remind you of how mechanical it is. This shifter is not the shortest of throws, but it revels in being hurried from gate to gate. You just have to remember not to think too hard about it, or it tends to get hung up going from an even number gear to the next highest odd gear, but if you just let it do it's job, it glides wonderfully.
There is an array of buttons below it, but the two closest to the driver are the key ones. The standard Audi magnetorheological dampers adjust from pleasantly stiff to spill the coffee of the guy next to you in the Honda Accord stiff. They are designed to FEEL fast in sport mode, but aside from the glassy smooth tracks of Japan, I'm not sure there is any place I'd actually use the dampers in the stiff setting. The stability control is there. It's nice. It's like a nice security blanket for normal driving, but the car feels like an under-steering pig with it on. You ask for too much and the stability control just dials in a teeny bit of slip at the front end with a flashing light that chastises you. Even pressing it briefly only puts it into a sport mode, where it takes a firm press and holding the button for a bit to actually disengage.
But when you have it disengaged, the R8 comes alive. No longer are any of your commands to the motor or steering wheels diluted through what some computer thinks is the appropriate level of aggressiveness. You're free to seal your own fate and if you hit a puddle of 10w30 in the middle of the corner, you're going off into the weeds, risking the lives of everyone around you in the fallout zone. Or, you just have to know how to drive. The R8 is a wonderful driving car, the car is clearly balanced more for the lighter V8 mill, as the lesser motored car turns in with more alacrity and feels much more agile than the V10 car does.
The car is AWD, but the center differential is locked in it's torque split, so it always sends the most torque to the rear wheels, meaning that you can do beautiful drifts down the empty side street outside work when no one is around, with dramatic clouds of rubber, liberated from expensive tires, wafting merrily away. The steering feels very pure without the affects of a transverse front engined car - this is not an Evo or STI or GT-R where you can feel the computer doling torque out to the appropriate wheel no matter what. If you boot the throttle at the limit of adhesion, the R8 swings it's back end wide like a proper car should. There are no surprises, no corrections made by the invisible hand of Car sorting out your mistakes.
Admittedly with comparably puny 235 tires up front with massive 305 width steam rollers out back, there is a little bit of mid corner understeer. However, this is balanced with playful rotation under trail braking, again with the stability control off, reminding you that you have a great pendulum of 4.2l V8 and transmission back there. Since you sit so far forward with such great forward visibility, turning into a corner feels like a dramatic event - you are clearly ahead of the center of gravity and the point of rotation, so a lot of information about what the car is doing comes through the seat.
The oversized 6 piston brakes are the same sizes as the V10, which is heavier and has 100 more horsepower, so they are practically lazy here, stopping the car as fast as you want to stop it, completely drama free. The pedal feel has very little slop and feels extremely solid when you need them. They are easy to modulate, tough to lock up and the ABS controller is not overly aggressive, making sure the brakes are doing what you want them to do.
The natural comparison from a displacement and character perspective is the S65 V8 from BMW. The Audi's motor is rated at a bit more power, but the most difference is in the midrange where the Audi's motor feels a decent amount punchier, with the E92 M3 feeling a lot squishier in the midrange. The Audi continues to hurl towards redline, begging you to slam the needle into the rev limiter, just like the BMW so no real trade off there. For motors that almost share bore/stroke and displacement, with similar cross plane (as opposed to flat plane) cranks, these motors sound very different. BMW's is higher pitched at low RPM, exhaust giving away to induction noise as you rev the motor out. Audi's V8 is allowed to break freely and has a muscle car burble at low RPMs, almost AMG style, but changes in timber as the revs climb, to sound much more urgent. When you cross 6000 rpm and the motor is still making solid power and will all the way to the 8250 rpm rev limiter, you know this isn't some pony car. The V8 exhaust is valved to prevent drone in the midrange and to pass European sound requirements. It makes a glorious song when you let the R8 loose, and while different, I very much enjoy the engine note. You'd never mistake it for an angry flat plane crank (at low RPMs, the BMW motor does a very good imitation thereof) but it's distinctive and exciting to rev.
When you're done hooning the car around and really look inside, you're surrounding by gorgeous materials from a designer who really thought about how a cabin should be laid out. All the controls fall easily to reach, the steering wheel and shifter fall right to the hand as you get ready to pull out. Then, you realize some minor complaints - the lumbar support could stand to be more effective, the seats could adjust a bit lower and the steering wheel could use more reach. These are all contrasts to more modern cars that seem to have added additional adjustments for those of us who use the extremes of them. The shift knob is knurled and metal, and feels best with a pair of driving gloves, the particular car I drove had an aftermarket ball shaped knob that feels very nice in the palm f your hand.
The gauges are clear and bright, and easy to read and the anti reflective coating on them is effective and looks nice. However, the display in the middle of the gauges looks ancient, much more neglected and about to be retired old rental car than over $100,000 sports car. And, the navigation was state of the art in 2008, but Audi's navigation has drastically improved past this clunky touchscreen, that is slow to respond. The graphics aren't bad and the screen is a high resolution, but the knob feels like it rotates in the wrong direction for scrolling and for zooming the map. Entering Points of Interest is clunky at best with an awkward warning when your passenger is trying to find the restaurant you're going to. The Bluetooth integration for phone is great, with mics in the ceiling, you're easily heard even at freeway speeds, but there is no Bluetooth streaming available and the awkward compartment between the seats where the iPod cable lives is still the old style 30 pin connector and hard to get at, so most people would never plug their phone in there, even with the appropriate adapter.
There is no keyless go - you're stuck putting your own key in the ignition, and the seat, despite being power, lacks memory and a function to slide back to give you more room when you enter the car, after scarfing a burrito from Chipotle in your skinny hipster jeans. The trunk is comically small, and while it can hold wide objects, pack light, as nothing larger than a small carry on will fit. There is a somewhat large package shelf behind the seats, although it's more for laptop bags than any thing else.
But, that's not why you buy the last model year of a very successful supercar. You buy it because it's something special that makes each day you enjoy with it feel like an occasion. You buy it to make people notice you and your car, you buy it so the valet leaves your car up front. You buy it to devour a backroad, tenor V8 exhaust notes reverberating across canyon walls. You buy it because you can't deal with the ill tempered maintenance of an Italian car, and because you want the security blanket of a manufacturers warranty and an oil change that doesn't involve kidney donations.
The 2015 R8 V8 is a very special car, and it will certainly be missed from my garage when it's gone.
Silicon Valley Dad, who loves cars, cooking, clothes and cameras