The measure of a true supercar is not how fast it goes, nor how sophisticated it is, or even how much it costs. No sir, the real proof of the supercar pudding is in its ability to attract attention. When heads turn, when fingers point, when cellphone cameras start clicking – when the blonde in the BeeEm drops her cellphone in her lap and just stares – then you know you’re driving a supercar. Clearly, the Audi R8 Spyder qualifies – even if this one is the so-called “baby” of the R8 clan. By DEON SCHOEMAN.
For a long time, Audi was the also-ran in the premium car brand race. While Mercedes-Benz and BMW surged ahead, Audi struggled to shake off its proletarian Volkswagen heritage. And even though its cars were often daring and progressive, their resale value made many would-be buyers think twice.
Of course, the Audi of the 21st Century has long since shed those troubled early times. Its cars evoke a combination of crafted minimalism and advanced tech as a viable and popular alternative to the traditional luxury of Mercedes, and the dynamic focus of BMW.
It was inevitable that Audi would design and build its own supercar. Produced as showcases of a brand’s proficiency, these low-volume, cutting-edge cars are the ultimate mobile billboard, while adding an aura of desirability that casts its glow across the marque’s entire range.
Thus for Audi, creating a supercar was an important element of the brand’s coming of age. Mercedes-Benz, as the oldest and most established of the three rivals, built its immortal 300SL Gullwing way back the 1950s. BMW’s take on the supercar was the now-legendary M1 of the 1970s. Audi’s R8 arrived in 2007.
The all-aluminium two-seater shares its platform with the Lamborghini Gallardo – not surprising, considering that Audi bought the Italian exotic car maker in the late 1990s. But the R8 is a vastly different car to the hard-core Gallardo, focussing instead on a combination of user-friendliness, driver appeal and performance – virtues that, by the way, are also at the core of the Porsche 911.
Engine choices comprise Audi’s own 4.2-litre, direct-injection V8, and the Lamborghini-sourced 5.2-litre V10, arguably one of the best-sounding powerplants in the business. Naturally, quattro all-wheel drive is a standard feature across the R8 line-up.
The Spyder version of the R8 arrived two years after the coupé, adding a further element of glamour to the nameplate. And then, in late 2012, Audi announced a series of updates to the R8 range, including revised front and rear cosmetics, a new S-tronic dual-clutch gearbox, and – for the first time – the availability of the V8 in the Spyder version.
It’s that car – an R8 Spyder 4.2 FSI quattro S-tronic, to give its full, tongue-twisting designation – that I’m threading through the traffic on a fine late-autumn morning. And yes, it’s already apparent that this car has lost none of its head-turning talents.
Usually, picking your way through near-peak hour traffic is a frustrating affair, with slower folk hogging the fast lane, and trucks occupying more highway real estate than they’re supposed to. But the R8 cuts through the traffic like a hot knife through butter.
Clearly, the approach of that low-slung, predatory shape doesn’t go unnoticed, assisted by the new, bright LED headlights. The trademark Audi single-frame grille remains a defining feature of the front-end styling, but a gloss black finish adds further visual appeal.
Of course, the R8 also attracts attention because it is an aesthetically arresting car. With the roof stowed, the car’s low and wide stance is further emphasised, while the big alloys at each corner fill their wheel arches to the brim.
The sculpted flanks are emphasised by the sizeable intakes feeding cooling air to the mid-mounted V8 behind the seats. Compared to the swooping front, the rear is angular and aggressive, dominated by the louvered engine cover, the slatted cooling vents, and the large, round exhaust tailpipes.
Which brings me to the engine itself. It’s true that the Lambo-sourced V10 has stolen much of the thunder. And it’s also an incontrovertible fact that it sounds quite fantastic – a spine-tingling growl that crescendos to an air raid siren howl as the revs reach towards the red.
But the V8 has its own, specific character. For starters, it’s more compact and a fair bit lighter than the V10. It’s also a “real” Audi engine, which (at least to my mind) adds some authenticity to the R8 package.
And let’s not kid ourselves: the that 4.2-litre V8 sounds spectacular in its own kind of way when you boot the throttle wide open, and the rev counter needle spins around the dial. There’s an initial gruffness, and then a rising roar of sound that envelops you and leaves no doubt about the R8’s dynamic intentions.
The way it piles on the revs is more race car than road machine, only easing off when the rev limiter cries enough just short of 8,000 rpm. There’s an effortlessness to the process that belies both the capacity and the output of the V8, so that it’s easy to underestimate just how much muscle your right foot is controlling.
For that reason, and also to best savour the sonic pleasures of the V8, it’s almost de rigeur to drive the R8 Spyder with the top down. You’re more in touch with the sound and with the slipstream, and the experience is certainly more visceral.
With 316kW and 430Nm on tap, propelling the R8 Spyder’s 1,685kg is hardly a challenge, and the car sprints with an alacrity that never loses its momentum. The 0-100km//h acceleration test is despatched in 4.5 seconds, and top speed is 300km/h – fast enough by any standards, if not quite in the three-second league of the upper-end supercars.
But then, straight-line speed is only one element of the R8 Spyder’s arsenal. Much more important is how the Audi harnesses that urge. Classic double-wishbone suspension front and rear, together with electronic damping, provides a ride that’s surprisingly benign, especially given the car’s 19-inch wheels and ultra-low profile rubber.