Funny how a bit of snap, crackle and pop brings out the big kid in us all, and I am not talking breakfast cereal.
Oliver Jarvis, who is used to spearing down the Mulsanne Straight at well over 200mph in the Audi R18 e-tron quattro, lit up like a Christmas tree when he told us recently how much he enjoyed crackling and popping his way through sleepy Provençal villages in the new Audi R8 road car.
One of the features of this second-generation R8 is an additional button (sorry, ‘pod’) on the steering wheel that when thumbed opens flaps in the exhaust. The R8 is far from alone in having such a feature these days; as cars get ever more civilised, it’s a way of introducing a tangible connection with a simpler, sportier – louder – past; a real primal scream.
It’s a bit perverse to spend millions making a car quiet then make it noisy by cutting holes in the exhaust but, like Oli, we are jolly glad Audi went to the trouble. A 602bhp V10 inches behind your head at 8,500rpm does pop and crackle in a particularly satisfying manner…
GRR is in France for a road trip in the new supercar. We’ve done the balls-out slidey stuff and we’ve been in the passenger seat at Portimao alongside Allan McNish.
Third time round it’s a chance to see how the new version copes with the real world, to tie in with the start this month of UK deliveries (if yours isn’t on its way to your door don’t blame us – you could have ordered one at this year’s Festival of Speed where the car had its UK debut).
Actually ‘copes’ is not the right word. As exemplar of the user-friendly supercar since its launch in 2007, Audi’s mid-engined two-seater has always coped easily with pretty much anything that’s been thrown at it. All-seasons, all-roads four-wheel drive security, roomy cabin, comfy ride, sensible ergonomics, clear view out (for a mid-engined car), bit of luggage space… Yes, no-one ever bought a supercar for these reasons but they sure do help if you actually want to use it a bit. The new car is as good as or better than the old in all these things, plus it’s a little bit more efficient with its freewheeling system and cylinder shut-off. Here’s a low-slung 200mph projectile that welcomes you with open arms and says ‘I am your new best friend’ the instant you climb aboard. It’s welcoming and nice.
Which is of course not the same thing as saying it is a car that can thrill, delight, surprise and reward. They are the reasons people buy supercars. The new R8 is the fastest and most powerful Audi ever built so it should qualify – unless of course it’s too good for its own, er, good. That’s what we’re here in Provençe with a car, a full tank and a map of the best roads in the Var departement to find out. We want to find its nasty side, the raw racing car side it should have since it shares half all its components with the R8 LMS GT3 (a first-time-out winner in the 24-hours of Nürburgring this year) that was developed alongside it. Exhaust flaps set to open and let’s go!
The first thing to say is that while six hundred horses (and a power/weight ratio of 369bhp/tonne) would be just the job down the road at the Paul Ricard circuit, it’s not strictly necessary on the Routes Nationales. Jolly nice to have it though.
This is very easy performance to mete out, and as a consequence it’s not a car in which you unintentionally find yourself suddenly doing 100mph. There’s no free turbo boost down low to swell the torque curve and take you by surprise; if you want to go fast you need revs, and lots of ’em. Peak power comes in at 8,250rpm. A bit old school? For sure and all the more involving because of it.
It is surprising how often on these open and flowing off-season Var roads you can give the car the beans. The seven-speed double-clutch S-Tronic transmission reads your mind generally very well when left in auto mode, and it obeys paddle-shift commands with alacrity, short-shifting when it has to, into a hairpin for example. Lots of crackles and pops then!
With such response from both engine and transmission accessing the power band is always as instant as it can be, irrespective of which of the several driving modes you have selected. The R8 is ferociously fast in all of them. Just as impressive is the seamlessness of the performance, the gears whip-cracking through at the 8,500rpm limit. The transmission and the V10 are breathtakingly good together, the accelerative rush intoxicating.
‘There’s no free turbo boost down low to swell the torque curve and take you by surprise; if you want to go fast you need revs, and lots of ’em. Peak power comes in at 8,250rpm. A bit old school? For sure and all the more involving because of it.‘
With the all-wheel drive R8 you expect a little stabilising understeer in brisk road driving and that’s what you get, but you have to look a long way for it.
On occasionally damp French backroads the overriding dynamic impression is one of total security, with just the occasional slight push on at the front, easily identified as such through the ideally geared and sufficiently feelful steering. The ESP never bothered us once. And deploying all that power? The new quattro system can deliver 100 per cent of torque to the front or the back wheels but in reality you never know; it just gets on with it sans any form of drama.
The ceramic brakes are formidable, as much for the confidence-inspiring pedal feel as outright stopping power. This car feels like it could do 0-62mph (3.2 secs) and back to nought runs all day, every day.
With the optional magnetic ride dampers fitted, the R8’s suspension has a wide range of abilities, never once seriously tested by the finely-surfaced French roads of this region. Bring on the potholed and coarse-surfaced British roads then. The ride will be a lot noisier here for sure – in France on the motorway it’s easy to believe you are in an Audi TT such is its refined pace (an effect reinforced by the new ‘virtual cockpit’ dashboard screen, largely the same as that in the smaller coupe). In comfort mode at low speed, however, there’s plenty of suspension travel and even a softish feel – witness the way this car shrugs off speed humps – that suggests it will ride with equal aplomb on this side of the Channel.
The car we are in the R8 Plus, which is the one all R8 buyers should choose. Apart from an additional 69bhp over the standard car you get the ceramic brakes, carbon fibre rear spoiler, new performance mode with wet, dry and snow options, sports suspension, those exhaust flaps, and even slightly less weight. For £15,000 more you’d have a screw loose not to choose it.
One word of caution though. The Plus comes as standard with ‘bucket’ seats which, while they offer a little more lateral support and may work better for track work, they have only the most basic of adjustments and don’t offer enough lumbar or under-thigh support. The sports seats (a no cost option in the Plus) are much more comfortable and have a full range of electric adjustments. There’s probably a weight penalty though.
The spec otherwise adds up well, as you would expect it to for what is Audi’s sporting and technology flagship, with a price that starts at £119,500. There are options – the laser main beam has to be seen to be believed, the magnetic ride dampers are good, and for the first time you can get an R8 on 20-inch wheels – but they don’t amount to silly money. GRR’s test R8 Plus came in around the £150k mark.
Perhaps the option that could make the most difference is one we haven’t even seen: the option to bespoke the car. It could do with a little bespoking. You don’t buy an Audi expecting a rich and clubby cabin like an Aston of course, but even so the cool precision of the R8’s black Nappa leather hardly increases the sense of supercar theatre. Especially for the passenger who in the ‘virtual cockpit’ is left feeling very much a spare part. A bit of jazzing up wouldn’t go amiss, on the outside as well (you can get different colour side ‘blades’). Though beautifully proportioned in profile, the new R8 is arguably too similar to the old car with a front end too much like the TT.
But hang on, aren’t all super sports cars in the suddenly very exciting circa £130k area relatively practical and comfortable as daily drivers now? That’s something even McLaren has embraced with the similarly priced 570S, another car we have raved about (see more on that here).
With other rivals that include the Aston V12 Vantage, Mercedes-AMG GT and Porsche 911 Turbo, there is no clear blue water for the R8 on the useability front any more.
Just as well, then, this new Audi can take on all of those cars in areas where, for a supercar, it matters most. The new R8 Plus might offer its explosive turn of speed with a familiar face, but speed – and the technologically masterful way it is deployed – is what this car is all about. Hurrah for that.