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Audi R8 Spyder V8: Less can be more

Maverick Life

Maverick Life

Audi R8 Spyder V8: Less can be more

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.

Quattro all-wheel drive provides tenacious grip, but not to the detriment of agility: the R8 turns in crisply, and responds to steering input with precision and finesse. There’s plenty of feedback, allowing a close rapport between car and driver, but that dialogue is never brutal nor intimidating.

The result is a car that rapidly builds confidence. The reserves are so generous, the composure so impenetrable, that the R8 always flatters the driver.

However, those intent on exploring the Audi’s real capabilities will find a car that thrills, rather than scares, at the limit. Gone are the days of white knuckled four-wheel drifts and terminal understeer – the R8 feels nimble and progressive even when the rear wants to start stepping out in the tight.

Perhaps now is a good time to talk about the new S-tronic gearbox – a latest-generation dual-clutch design that finally replaces the antiquated and clunky robotised manual transmission.

It’s a slick-shifting device, allowing rapid-fire cog swaps with a level refinement that is almost anti-climactic in this context. Frankly, I’d prefer a more percussive, more aggressive action, but the S-tronic gets the job done swiftly and efficiently, with shift paddles adding a sense of race car occasion.

The interior is nicely tailored and well equipped, but if there is an area where the R8’s age is starting to show, it’s here, in the cockpit. Yes, the execution is flawless, and the ergonomics intuitive, but compared to latest-generation Audis such as the new A3, the R8’s interior design lacks contemporary crispness.

Close the canvas top, and the interior is transformed into an oasis of refinement. The engine’s voice is almost too muted, and noise levels are generally well contained. The experience is more removed than in open-top mode, but also more civilised – which, I guess, will be the preference of many R8 Spyder owners.

For me, however, the R8 Spyder is best with the roof stowed, the engine stepping into the red, and the road ahead twisty and devoid of traffic. All that advanced engineering, that fine craftsmanship, only comes into its own when applied with true intent.

In full cry, chasing the horizon, the R8 Spyder V8 delivers an epic sports car experience. It doesn’t need the extra shove of the V10, and there’s something authentic and immaculately balanced about this car that makes it truly special.

Of course, such thrills don’t come cheap. The R8 Spyder V8 won’t leave much change from R1.7 million. But compared to the V10’s R2.2 million price tag, the V8 offers better value: proof then, that less can be more… DM

VITAL STATISTICS

  • Audi R8 Spyder V8 4.2 FSI S-tronic
  • Engine 4,163cc V8, direct fuel injection
  • Gearbox Seven-speed S-tronic dual-clutch
  • Power 316kW @ 7,900rpm
  • Torque 430Nm @ 4,500rpm
  • 0-100 km/h 4.5sec
  • Top speed 300km/h
  • Fuel consumption 12.6 l/100km (combined cycle)
  • CO2 emissions 456g/km
  • Retail price R1,686,000
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