Driving Impressions

By November 23, 2010

If you can use such an expression, the slowest R8 coupe will run the standard 0-60 sprint in about 4.6 seconds and manage 187 mph; a V10 posts values in the high-three-second range and can top 195 mph. Spyders carry more weight so they are not quite as quick yet still plenty potent; you'll be illegal by third gear. The R8 has been compared to Acura's NSX of 20 years ago as a supercar without all the drawbacks. The NSX wasn't fastest in class, nor is the R8. It turns out some drivers have higher priorities than outright speed.

Although it uses an aluminum chassis the R8 is no featherweight: All-wheel drive, solidity and luxury add up to a weight of 3600-3900 pounds. The fiercest acceleration in the competitive set comes from the Porsche 911 Turbo S which explodes to 60 mph in less than 3 seconds and continues the momentum as unabated as a V10 R8. But the 911 can't match the sound from either of the R8's engines, and Ferrari's 458 could cost six digits more. Both the all-wheel-drive 911 Turbo and rear-wheel-drive 458 use more sophisticated 7-speed dual-clutch gearboxes and weigh about 200 pounds less than a V10 R8.

Despite identical cylinder dimensions each R8 engine has a unique note. The V8 sounds more threatening at idle, more musclecar in the midrange, and singing as it passes 8000 rpm. The V10 has a quieter, more subdued purr at idle, more mechanical midrange and syncopation, and simply wails approaching its 8500 rpm limit. Both must be revved for maximum power, the larger engine more so, yet there is such an abundance of power and proper gearing they can be driven around town very briskly while behaving as sedately as a limo.

Regarding fuel economy, let's just say it's about what you'd expect for a silly-fast car, and the 24-gallon tank won't last as you think it might. If you want to be green and fast simultaneously, the 911 Turbo is better in that regard.

The direct-drive (1:1 top gear) 6-speed manual uses a gated shifter with quick throws that make a metallic click through the light action, not unlike a small-bore rifle. It's simple to drive and a joy to operate even in traffic, causing us to wonder why, even at this price, anyone pays $9,100 for the optional R-Tronic. So our recommendation is to go for the manual.

The R-Tronic is not an automatic transmission but rather an automated 6-speed manual that does the clutch and shifting for you. The R-Tronic relieves the driver of two-foot coordination. It may be better around a racetrack because it shifts so quickly, almost violently, and you can keep both hands on the wheel, but on most public byways it's clunky, slow and doesn't feel much more advanced than a Smart's transmission. We've found that partially lifting off the gas when changing gears will smooth things somewhat. We've also found this type of transmission awkward when maneuvering in and out of tight places that require moving fore and aft, such as pulling into a tight parking space or garage; it lacks the precision and speed of either a manual or an automatic in such situations.

Every R8 is all-wheel drive, quattro the term Audi has used on its performance cars since the Quattro coupe debuted in 1980. In the R8 the nominal split sends 90 percent of the thrust to the rear wheels, giving it a rear-wheel-drive feel. In certain conditions, either model can send at least 30 percent of the power to the front wheels. You can haze the rear tires around a track but in general every horsepower the engine doles out translates directly to forward motion. It also gives the R8 a slight advantage in putting power down in a corner or helping it get around one quicker.

One word of caution about quattro: Since slowing is done by brakes and tires the R8, like any all-wheel-drive car (including the 911 Turbo and Nissan GT-R), does not stop any better than a car with similar brakes and tires. Maybe even a foot or two longer because of the added weight. Too many original Quattro owners incorrectly figured Audi had re-written Newton and stuffed a high percentage of Quattros into ski-resort snowbanks.

With the heaviest part of the car right behind the driver and low to the ground, the R8 changes direction quickly and easily, in the process feeling lighter than it really is. Sticky tires generate big grip and corners become mere changes of scenery out the windshield, with no drama, wiggle, or mid-bend correction needed.

Brakes require just a light touch to erase a lot of speed and leaning on them hard should not be done with anything heavier than a tissue loose in the cabin because it may not slow down as fast as the car. With relatively large, high-compression engines, there is some engine braking available merely lifting off the gas.

Sophisticated shock absorbers constantly adjust in milliseconds and help the R8 offer that precision and grip without any sense of harshness, even on the tighter V10 model. Many lesser two-doors don't ride as well and those that do don't handle this well. Lighter mid-engine cars may change direction better (the Lotus Elise and Ferrari 458 come to mind) but the R8 is extremely well sorted out so it's easier to find the limit, and that is perhaps the R8's greatest virtue; you don't have to be a skilled racer to drive it quickly.

Although it frequently leads to a less-stiff structure, the Spyder felt as tight and solid as a coupe with no squeaks or groans on bad roads or severe-angle driveways. It felt no less weather tight than the coupe, and we couldn't hear any more wind noise. Bear in mind the R8 is insulated but with 420 ponies at your ear it's never luxury-car quiet. Cowl shake wherein the windshield vibrates slightly because there is no roof attached was absent on the Spyder, as the inside mirror was completely stable: a good thing too since the R8's soundtrack invites you to be a hooligan and you'll be checking it frequently.