Supercars are a rare breed: expensive to produce, and expensive to buy, they remain members of an exclusive club on the top rung of the automotive ladder. The Audi R8 may bear a mainstream badge, but its supercar credentials are beyond reproach, thanks in part to a close relationship with Lamborghini. The R8 V10 Plus is the most powerful production R8 yet – and it may also be the best. By DEON SCHOEMAN.
It would be easy to consider the Audi R8 little more than a Lamborghini Gallardo dressed up in a more sober, German-tailored suit. And in some ways, that description is a valid one. But it in no way expresses just how different the two cars are, nor that the R8 is very much an Audi.
Is that a good thing? Well, yes. Audi has become a brand best known for its ability to marry technology with craftsmanship; for cars that express both dynamic appeal and reassuring longevity. And when you’re spending more than R2-milliion on a sports car, those are all vital elements.
The comparison with the Gallardo stems from the fact that the cars share platform components and, in the case of the V10 versions, the glorious V10 engine, which is the handiwork of Lamborghini. After all, engines are what the Sant’Agata firm does best – which is why Audi bought the once ailing sports car maker in the first place.
It’s common knowledge that an all-new Lamborghini Gallardo is on the not too distant horizon, and that as before, a parallel-developed replacement for the current R8 will make its debut shortly after the new Lambo’s release. In that context, the updates to the current R8 line-up could be considered a last sprucing up before the arrival of the next-gen cars.
The R8 update package is mainly cosmetic, with subtle changes to the grille and bumper, the front and rear lights, and the interior execution. Most notable is the retirement of the old and clunky R-tronic automated manual gearbox, now replaced by a modern and super-slick seven-speed S-tronic dual-clutch transmission.
Also new is the addition of a new flagship: the R8 V10 Plus. Designed to be more powerful and perhaps more hardcore than the standard V10 model, the Plus is not a limited edition model like the R8 V10 GT, but a permanent member of the line-up.
The Plus is offered in hardtop coupé form only, and while there is a manual transmission option, the S-tronic gearbox is considered standard.
The Audi R8 remains one of those head-turning cars that is impossible to ignore. Conceived as a competitor to the venerable Porsche 911 Turbo, the relatively small sales totals have ensured an element of exclusivity. You don’t see an R8 every day.
Unless you’re something of an R8 expert, you won’t easily spot the differences between this latest Plus version, and the original. Those differences are all in the details.
A grille with gloss black inserts and chrome detailing, and a front splitter with carbon fibre-reinforce plastic (CFRP) are specific to the Plus, as is the rear diffusor, and exhaust tailpipes finished in black.
The “blades” on each flank are also fashioned from CFRP, while the lightweight 19-inch wheels, shod with fat and grippy performance rubber are new, too. The headlights are full LED designs, with integrated daytime running lights that also serve as indicators.
But really, all of these are mere nuances: the squat and low-slung shape of the R8 remains unchanged, and rightly so. It still exudes a mix of sleek sophistication and brooding menace, and it’s still a real head-turner. Expect grins, waves and lots of cellphone photo opportunities when driving this machine.
The new Plus version of the R8 might be more hardcore in power and performance terms, but the cabin still offers luxurious accommodation for two. The lightweight bucket seats are the most obvious change, together with carbon fibre-look inlays, but the rest is pure, older-generation Audi. While it has all the mod cons, the execution is looking more than a little dated.
The central display comes straight out of a previous-generation A3, as does the older version of Audi’s much-revered multimedia interface. If anything, the R8 showcases just how far Audi’s interiors have progressed since the mid-2000s.
Those big bucket seats are surprisingly comfortable, and the cabin amenities pander to every hedonistic demand: from seat heating and climate control to decent sound, satellite navigation, cruise control, a trip computer, and remote central locking. There’s a full house of active and passive safety kit, too.
Of particular note in the R8 Plus context is the button marked “sport” on the centre console. The oval button opens up the exhaust, adds extra urgency to the throttle mapping, and allows sharp, percussive blips on downshifts.
The same button magnetically switches the adaptive dampers between normal and a sportier, tauter setting. Around town, the normal setting is certainly the preferred option, allowing a ride that is surprisingly smooth and composed by supercar standards.
In sport mode, those dampers become much more uncompromising, allowing far more direct, and more unequivocal, chassis feedback. When you’re piloting the R8 with the intent it demands (and deserves) you want to know exactly what the car is doing …
Absolutely central to the appeal of the R8 V10, and even more so in the case of the Plus model, is the 5.2-litre V10 engine. Essentially a Lamborghini design that’s hand-built, and shared with the Gallardo, the high-revving, normally aspirated unit looks – and sounds – the thoroughbred part.
The Plus gets 18kW more power and 10Nm of extra torque, bringing the total to 404kW and 540Nm respectively. As already mentioned, the other notable change is the gearbox, which is now a seven-speed S-tronic dual-clutch, rather than the awful, clunky R-tronic robotised manual. You can drive it in full auto mode, but shift paddles on either side of the steering column are the preferred cog swappers.
The R8 V10 Plus is a car with twin personalities. In normal mode, it’s benign enough for everyday driving, even if this Plus version adds an extra edge. But set the drivetrain and the suspension to sport mode, and this Audi feels every inch the supercar it really is.
Massive grunt and huge dollops of grip mean that the R8 Plus covers ground with almost indecent alacrity. More importantly, it’s a car that’s engaging to drive with intent.
Driving around town, and even on the highway, only provides the first clues to this car’s capabilities: lightning acceleration, surprisingly light controls, quick steering and decent ride comfort. But to really experience what this car is capable of, seeking out the sweeps and curves of the Lowveld’s quieter country roads is de rigeur.
Press the sport button, switch the damping to sport mode, and the R8 Plus feels every inch the supercar it is.
Acceleration is blindingly fast, aided by the equally rapid shifts of the S-tronic gearbox. Audi claims a zero to 100 sprint time of 3.5 seconds, and if anything, the car feels faster. Top speed is a dizzying 317km/h.
More importantly, the R8 Plus revels in being driven with gusto. The handling is more rear-wheel drive than all-wheel drive, thanks to a quattro system that is firmly rear-biased, never allowing more than 30% of the urge to be sent to the front wheels.
While all that grip allows loads of speed to be carried into corners, it’s the way the car slingshots out of the tight that really impresses. Despite the absence of turbocharging, the delivery is linear and urgent, with no respite all the way to 8,000rpm and beyond.
The steering feels just right: precise without resorting to lightness, and with enough heft to allow incisive piloting from apex to apex. And then there’s the sound: a quite fabulous performance symphony that crescendos from growl to roar to wail in sync with the rev counter needle’s progress around the dial.
The gearbox is a treat in almost all situations, although its progress through the ratios is almost too smooth, too refined for such a muscle-bound performance machine. And like most dual-clutch designs, it can lose its way between first and second when driving slowly towards an intersection, suddenly becoming clunky and awkward.
Another revelation is the cruising ability of the R8: it eats long distances for breakfast, while cosseting its occupants in surprising comfort. The chassis’ compliance in normal mode makes for a smooth ride, and even the noise levels are muted enough for normal conversation.
The front luggage compartment provides 100 litres for soft, weekend luggage, with extra space on a shelf behind the seats for smaller items.
The Audi R8 is already a sports car classic, even if the Four Rings don’t have the same cachet, in the sports car context, as a Porsche, a Ferrari or a Lamborghini.
The R8 V10 Plus retains all the core attributes of the original, while adding a further edge of performance appeal. But it also retains its everyday user-friendliness, and the R2.4-million asking price also reflects good value in the supercar context.
An all-new R8 can’t be too many years away, but right now, the R8 V10 Plus shines where it matters most: in the overall excellence of the driving experience. DM
Audi R8 V10 Plus S-tronic
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