The Audi R8 has a unique look that still looks good five years after its debut. The R8 doesn't change for 2012.
Three separate grilles on the front and more on the rear inhale or exhale cooling air. The grilles on the V10 models are gloss black. Bi-xenon headlights are traced by LED running lights on the V8 while the V10 uses LED headlamps. V10 models are further distinguished by some chrome details and slightly larger grilles with fewer slats.
At the rear, rectangular light inserts echo the Audi TT. Twin tailpipes on either side identify a V8, a single oval-shaped tail pipe on each side a V10. The GT version gets a bigger barrel on each side, air extractors behind the rear wheels, a fixed rear wing, more aggressive diffuser, and a wider, more contoured leading edge.
Aerodynamic function and engine placement define the basic bones of any mid-engine sports car. A low snout improves visibility and keeps the nose to the ground, and the creases above the front wheels keep air moving over the windshield rather than spilling over the sides. At the rear, a pop-up spoiler automatically lifts at certain road speeds or if the engine needs maximum cooling; it can be done manually as well for cleaning. Look underneath and you'll find it almost totally flat as on many race cars.
The R8 coupe's profile is dominated by what Audi calls a sideblade, that vertical slice of bodywork that runs from the roof to the bottom just ahead of the rear wheels. It can be ordered in a variety of finishes, including painted to match the rest of the car. All the scoops and vents are there for machinery cooling or propulsion, and on the V10 the sideblade scoop is larger. Both V8 and V10 come with 19-inch wheels, five twin-spoke on the V8 and five tri-y design on the V10.
The R8 Spyder features a fabric folding top, available in a choice of three colors, with buttresses over the engine cover. It's power-operated and can be opened or closed in about 20 seconds, and done so at up to 30 mph. The buttresses help direct air around the rear of the car but they don't actually sit on the paint and won't scratch it. The silver panels behind the headrests are engine bay cooling vents, replacing those that run down the roof pillars on the coupe. What the Spyder loses to the coupe is the clear engine cover that lets onlookers admire the beast within.
The Spyder has an electrically lifted rear window (with defrost) to limit some noise and buffeting, and a drop-in wind-blocker closer to the headrests for further reductions. We found with just the window it's possible to converse at legal speeds with the top down, and lowering the window with the top up adds engine intake sounds to the exhaust noise.
The coupe has a minor advantage in cargo space and fuel capacity. Coupe and Spyder have a small 3.5-cubic-foot trunk up front, a compact but deep well that might hold your carry-on duffel or a half-case of wine. The coupe has another 3.1 cubic feet of storage space behind the front seats for soft-sided bags or a minimal golf bag. On the Spyder that space is consumed by the folding top.
Inside, the Audi R8 is roomy and civilized. The seats are low to the ground and getting in requires a wide step, but the cabin looks more conventional than the average exotic car, and downright familiar to any Audi driver.
Powered and heated sport seats provide plenty of comfort and rely partially on the encapsulating doors and console for lateral retention. They are not as confining as some sport seats that assume a 30-inch-or-smaller waist, and not as heavily bolstered and contoured as some Audi S or RS sedan seats. Not only do 6-foot, 4-inch adults fit inside, their feet fit in the footwells, a common pinch point in mid-engine cars.
With a range of power adjustment, a good dead pedal, and a manual tilt/telescoping steering column, it's easy to get a suitable driving position and a good view of the instruments. Forward and rearward visibility are good, while rear quarter vision is better in the coupe with the small rear side windows and slightly compromised with the convertible top up. The available rearview camera can help the driver spot objects or people behind the car when backing up.
The seats are available framed in leather with alcantara centers or upholstered in full leather. Both cars can be enhanced further with leather for the dashboard and upper door panels. Spyders have specially treated leather to keep cooler than regular leather in strong sunlight. Aluminum style cabin trim is standard; upgrades include carbon fiber and piano black, the latter high-gloss that suggests it might be a good idea to test drive in the sun top-down before ordering one that way. Audi's cabins are well regarded and if there's a weak point in the R8's cabin it's the plastic console trim.
All the instruments, including oil temperature and electrical condition, are in a pod ahead of the driver with a glare-free covering. The steering wheel foregoes an excessively thick rim and has redundant-control thumbwheels and switches, but the flat-bottom shape is not ideal for urban driving or ribbons of mountain roadway that require more than a turn of the wheel. Flat-bottom steering wheels are better suited to formula cars. A proper handbrake is immediately right of the driver, much preferred over the electronic kind.
The manual shifter has a slotted metal gate like Ferraris of yore; R-Tronic cars use paddles on the wheel.
The navigation screen is easily seen in direct sunlight, with or without polarized lenses. The audio/navigation system is a standard Audi part and reasonably intuitive, and the climate controls are right out of the TT. Bluetooth and iPod integration are well thought out, detailed to the point the Spyder driver's seatbelt has three microphones in it for hands-free calling with the top down.
Cubby storage space is moderate in the coupe, smaller in the Spyder.
Trunk space in the R8 coupe and convertible is 3.5 cubic feet. The coupe offers an additional 3 cubic feet behind the seats.