Much admired R8 undergoes executive nip-and-tuck for run-out epoch-maker
Despite an exciting Berlin velodrome press launch in 2006, Iain Robertson reports that Audi’s much-anticipated mid-engined two-seater has never been the high-price sales success expected, although it fits surprisingly well in the firm’s model line-up.
The sporting luxury arm of the VW Group, Audi, was riding the crest of a performance wave during the early part of the New Millennium. Its upward mobility was never in question. Dominance in world rallying, followed by Le Mans style sportscar racing were preoccupations that possessed costly overtones but, well-managed, they also succeeded at promoting the ‘Four-Rings’ road models to perpetuated peaks.
Audi’s parent had been on a gilt-edged acquisition trail. Apart from the rudimentary marques, such as Skoda and Seat, its deft grabs on Bentley, Bugatti and Lamborghini, complete with its long-standing relationship with Porsche, ensured that Audi’s product planning could progress with potentially greater fruit than any other car brand. Yet, R8, when it appeared, made potential buyers look even more closely at what Porsche had on offer. R8, with its oddball ‘blade’ lateral styling quirk was not an overnight sensation…a strangely similar reaction experienced by the well-entertained members of the international motoring media at its Berlin reveal.
While the 911 has always been a weirdly nuggety but unashamedly attractive option, owing much to Ferry Porsche’s intuitive styling and engineering quirks that have developed organically to the stunning ‘everyman’ model of today, contrary to several views, the R8 was doing internal battle with Lamborghini and not the Zuffenhausen products. In its own way, a shared R&D programme not dissimilar to the Bentley W12 and VW Phaeton’s remarkable joint venture, meant that its established incoming rival would gain from splitting the invoice costs; it was the VW way.
Despite somewhat different layouts, the rear-engined Porsche and the potentially better-balanced and mid-engined Audi R8 would still be compared by consumers. Needless to say, Lambo gained from the association, as has Bentley, both marques bolstering their sales positions, while hiking up reliability, build quality, performance expectations and levels of affordability. It has been a case of happy marriages all-round.
Yet, the early R8s, while demonstrating first-rate potential, lacked vital charisma. Entry-level Porsches offered a significant price advantage, although the wondrously yowling V10 Lambo engine offered an aural cocktail of such exotic clamour that curiosity could still peak in Audi’s favour. Although taut handling, surgically crisp steering and a ride quality verging on delicious were all dramatic improvements on the 911’s stance, the similarity to more run-of-the-mill Audis was uncanny and rather too close to the bone. The 911 remained raw, raucous and edgy. R8 was all too smartly suited, refined and much too clinical for its own good. Porsche continued with its sales successes; R8 kind of made do.
Well, the latest version has ditched its ‘blade’ and conventionalised with more corporate additions that include the nod to Audi’s rallying past, without losing the upper echelon build quality that is very much the brand’s remit. It is worth noting that passing time has been exceptionally kind to the R8. It still lacks charisma but it manages it with greater aplomb and the popping and crackling V10 in its latest 566bhp form is every bit the sterling performer, still capable of turning heads, with its offbeat firing order. While not precisely fun-filled, the R8 driving experience is now more complete by way of inviting greater driver compliance.
R8’s suspension and driving dynamics are specifically balanced for a rear and not quattro drive set-up. Activating Sport Mode through the dialable ESC, the control systems now allow safely controlled drifts. Quite why ‘drifting’ is the new hooligan practice is beyond me but it seems to appeal to a certain class (of footballer!). The electromechanical power steering provides faithful feedback from the road surface to the driver’s fingertips. Dynamic steering, available for the first time on rear-driven R8s, provides better reactions, if still not to Porsche’s surgical high standards, which makes directional shifts more involving on twisty country roads, or when manoeuvring round town.
It also has the effect of increasing comfort at the helm by making steering easier, such as when parking. The RWD sport suspension features double wishbones and a passive differential lock. The axle distribution is 40:60 and extra-lightweight 19.0 and 20.0-inch diameter aluminium cast wheels ensure better handling and lane control. An 18.0-inch high-performance steel braking system, with a novel wave design and inspired by the firm’s GT4 racing options, provides the necessary decelerative strength.
Unsurprisingly, inside the car is equally well managed. Its most eye-catching element is the ‘Monoposto’ heavily contoured arch that spans the area in front of the driver’s seat and is strongly reminiscent of traditional racecar cockpits. Effectively, it encloses the Audi corporate virtual cockpit with its 12.3-inch screen, which is integrated into a freestanding casing. The R8 leather steering wheel, complete with multifunctionality plus, offers two or, in the performance quattro version, four control satellites, each for using Audi drive select, to start the engine, to activate Performance Mode and the engine sound as well as to control the Audi virtual cockpit. Drivers and passengers can enjoy the ride in their optionally available R8 bucket, or sport seats, upholstered in fine hide. A badge with the RWD emblem shimmers in front of the passenger seat.
Pricing continues on the steep side, a factor that will stymy potential sales, with the latest R8 kicking off at £126,885. No surprise, Audi’s extensive options catalogue can be dipped into, with an additional £9,000 for the carbon trim upgrade, while the ‘edition’ model starts at £137,885. Naturally, the car can be had in quattro form for £146,990 and the droptop Spyder versions will cost around £9k more across the line-up.
Built largely by hand at the Group’s Neckarsulm factory (the former NSU plant), the R8 has already been electrified in previous form but in petrolhead V10 form it can top 205mph, blitz from 0-60mph in 3.4s and return around 18.0mpg. It will never be a 911 rival but it is no less worthy.