The V-10 version of Audi’s mid-engine R8 is a user-friendly, daily-drivable supercar that comes alive when called upon with a screaming motor, wild styling and amazing reflexes.
“Hey, Tony Stark!” yelled the guy from the car next to me at the stoplight. I was confused for a moment, before I remembered that the Audi R8 I was driving starred as the official movie conveyance of Iron Man’s billionaire alter ego. It’s not surprising to have people yell and gesture at you while driving an R8, especially one done up in matte blue paint with carbon-fiber side-blade trim. It looks like nothing else on the road, a low and slinky exotic sports car that conjures up images of a wolf among sheep.
Audi’s mid-engine sports car shares much of its mechanical bits with the Lamborghini Gallardo, including the optional V-10 engine that was fitted inside my 2014 test car (compare the 2012 and 2014 models here; there was no 2013 model).
Some exotic cars can be difficult to drive, uncomfortable to sit in and generally unpleasant to deal with. Is the R8 an exception to the norm?
The R8 is stunning in person. Pictures don’t do the car justice — its wide stance, its amazingly low overall height, the ability to see the engine nestled in a cradle behind the passengers’ heads through a transparent hatch — all of it adds up to some wild, attention-grabbing style. It doesn’t have the lovely lines of a Ferrari 458 or the brutish musculature of a Dodge Viper, instead choosing to go the purposeful, Germanic route of form following function. It looks how one would expect a German supercar to look: sleek, aerodynamic and designed to a specification instead of a passion. My 5.2 Plus version was done up in Sepang Blue Matte paint, a hue exclusive to the 5.2 Plus, with complementary carbon-fiber trim for the mirrors and side blades. Additional styling changes differentiate the 5.2 Plus, including a front air splitter in carbon fiber, matte-black rear vent louvers and black tailpipe trim. Frankly, this is not the R8’s best color option — matte paint works best when it’s a neutral color, like silver or white, not when a shiny finish would work better. But it is indeed distinctive, and drew as many comments for the paint color as it did for the shape of the body.
Nestled snugly behind the driver and passenger in the R8 is usually a V-8 engine, which is standard in the base R8. That engine is strong, but you can spend a little more coin (OK, a lot more coin) and get one of the world’s great supercar motors: a 5.2-liter V-10 engine that makes 525 horsepower and 391 pounds-feet of torque. Or you can spend even more money and step up to the R8 5.2 Plus package, which bumps the output to 550 hp and 398 pounds-feet of torque, like the engine in my test car. All engines are mated to either a six-speed manual or a new seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic transmission, which replaces last year’s six-speed automatic. It sends power to all four wheels thanks to standard Audi Quattro all-wheel drive. The result is a fascinating dual-personality car, an easily accessible, simple-to-handle sports car that can be driven daily in easy, luxurious comfort — or, at the push of the “Sport” button, become a hairy-chested brute of a machine that shrieks its way from zero to 60 mph in just 3.3 seconds, on its way to a top speed of 197 mph (manufacturer’s estimates). Few things on the planet sound like a V-10 engine under full throttle, a strangely mysterious noise that sounds nothing like the bellow of a big V-8 or the refined whir of a V-12. It comes from the dissonant balance of having two banks of odd-numbered cylinders, but it sounds wicked cool.
Not only does the R8 5.2 Plus accelerate well, but it steers, stops and rides with fantastic precision. Unlike some competitors, like the Nissan GT-R, however, it doesn’t feel wound-up all the time, like a squirrel on amphetamines — you can hop in, cruise around town, soak up highway mile after highway mile and never feel stressed or harried. The steering is heavy and accurate, but not race-car twitchy like the GT-R’s. The only issue is the R8’s brakes, which are extremely grabby carbon ceramic units that require an incredibly delicate foot to bring the car to a stop without throwing the passengers against their seat belts. Being essentially racing brakes, they are not well-suited to street duty; the squealing noise they produce when cold or only moderately warm will draw the wrong kind of stares from passers-by. Unfortunately, they’re standard on the R8 5.2 Plus, meaning that if you want the car, you get the noisy, grabby brakes. I suspect most customers will simply just get used to them.
Fuel economy in a car like this is really a discussion only for purposes of amusement — nobody buys a V-10-powered supercar because they want to save the planet. The automatic R8 5.2 Plus is rated 13/22/16 mpg city/highway/combined, which fell in line with my test result of 16.5 mpg in mixed use. This is slightly better than the V-8-powered Maserati GranTurismo, which comes in at 13/21/16 mpg, but is not as “good” as the Nissan GT-R’s 16/23/19 mpg or the Porsche 911 Turbo S’ rating of 17/24/20 mpg. All these cars require premium gas, as well, but if that’s something you’d gripe about, here’s a link to research the Toyota Prius — you’re reading the wrong review.
As supercar interiors go, this is one of the more accommodating. It’s still a “sit-and-swivel” affair to get into the R8, in which you first plant your butt in the seat and then swivel your legs into the footwell. You’ll have to reverse the process to get out of the car, but once inside there’s plenty of room for taller or rounder people. The R8’s low height means a low windshield, and combined with the high tail that houses the engine compartment, outward visibility is not great. Traffic signals disappear when you approach them, and you’d best check your blind spots two or three times when changing lanes. A standard backup camera and sonar sensors help when reversing out of a parking spot.
The seats are firm but very comfortable, with no unusual lumps or bolsters to complain about at all. There’s plenty of hip and shoulder room, as well; the R8 is a wide car, and while it seats only two, those two occupants should be pleased with their environment. It’s a surprisingly quiet cabin, as well, with largely drama-free highway cruising, aside from some tire slap from the big 19-inch wheels. That all changes, though, once you push the “Sport” button and the pipes open up on the V-10 that sits just inches behind your head, allowing the glorious wail of all 10 cylinders to complement the satellite radio system.
Compared with the car’s competitors, the Audi finishes mid-pack in terms of interior appointments. The 5.2 Plus edition brings standard carbon-fiber trim, and my test car had nearly $6,300 worth of black diamond-quilt pattern leather seats and trim panel stitching inside, along with an Alcantara faux-suede headliner. The Porsche 911 Turbo S is just as nice, if not quite as roomy. The Maserati GranTurismo has more luxurious materials and dramatic style to it, but not as many amenities. And the R8 handily trounces the Nissan GT-R in terms of sophisticated style, materials and seat comfort, yet comes up short in roominess and visibility.
This is not Audi’s most modern cabin; it’s starting to show its age in material quality and lack of modern conveniences. There’s no keyless entry or push-button start offered in the R8, reflecting the lack of a major electrical architecture update since the car was introduced nearly eight years ago. Audi’s MMI multimedia system with navigation is standard, but it’s not the most advanced version that Audi offers these days — there’s no Google Earth or 4G LTE connectivity, for instance. It’s clear that the R8 is due for an update when the lowly $30,000 Audi A3 sedan offers more and better electronic equipment in the cockpit than the halo sports car, which costs six times as much. Still, it’s opulently appointed and everything is easy to use — no confusing voice-command systems, no touch-sensitive control panels. It may be a little out of date, but it all still works quite well.
Being a mid-engine car, the R8 has its cargo area up front, like the Porsche 911 — a front trunk, or “frunk” if you like. Unlike the 911, however, it’s truly tiny — just 3.5 cubic feet of space, compared with the Porsche’s 4.1 cubic feet. The Porsche also offers up some rear seat storage, as the vestigial rear seats are really only good for cargo, not passengers. The Maserati GranTurismo has a proper trunk, boasting 9.2 cubic feet of cargo room, while the GT-R offers a remarkably deep trunk well with 8.8 cubic feet of room. You might not think cargo room is too important in a sports car like this, but it means the Maserati driver can carry a passenger and some golf clubs, while the Audi driver has to choose between the two.
The R8’s aluminum space-frame chassis is extremely light and strong, but the car has not been crash-tested by either the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The R8 also does not offer many of the modern electronic safety features that have become common in high-end luxury cars, like automatic cruise control, autonomous braking, lane keep assist, lane departure warning, blind spot warning and more. You can see all the R8’s standard safety features here.
The R8 occupies a fairly wide price range, starting at $116,150 for a 4.2 model, including destination charge and a rather hefty $3,000 gas-guzzler tax (on manual transmission models; automatic transmission models are taxed $1,700). Stepping up to a 5.2 will run you $155,450, while opting for the top, 5.2 Plus coupe will set you back $174,795. The 4.2 and 5.2 models also come in a very sharp convertible version called the Spyder, but the 5.2 Plus is not available as a ragtop. My test car included the $9,100 S Tronic dual-clutch automatic transmission, Sepang Blue Matte paint for $6,000 and the Diamond Stitch Full Leather interior package for $5,000, along with a $1,300 Alcantara headliner and an iPod cable for $100. Grand total: $194,995.
Competitors come with a variety of missions, from luxury grand tourers to track monsters. Closest in price and mission, however, may be the rear-engined Porsche 911 Turbo S, a beast in its own right that starts at $182,050. Lesser models may be had for less money, but the Turbo S can keep right up with the R8 5.2 Plus without a problem, on the street or the track. It’s not as distinctive as the R8, but it is easily as entertaining to drive. Going a more luxurious route will take you to the Maserati GranTurismo MC coupe, which starts at $154,900. It has less power than the R8 5.2 Plus, with its V-8 pumping out 444 hp compared with the Audi’s 550. It doesn’t feature the technical sophistication of the Audi powertrain, either, but it does come with Italian good looks and serious brand cachet. Finally, the Nissan GT-R may not be the luxury model the R8 is, but its street and track rock-star status (and a $40,000 sticker price savings) more than make up for a lack of rings on the grille. Compare all four sports cars here.