Audi R8 – First Drive

The new Audi R8 has a lot to live up to, but as Chris Pickering discovers, it’s more than up to the challenge.

There was once an unwritten law that all supercars had to be brittle, recalcitrant things. They were the sort of machines that forced you to sit on the sill to reverse into a parking space and refused to engage second gear until the gearbox oil had reached its preferred temperature. Highly strung – so the cliché used to go – because that’s what thoroughbreds are like.

When the previous generation Audi R8 was launched it broke all those rules, redefining the concept of the usable supercar. Its successor takes the ‘mid-engined rocket ship your granny could drive’ principle a step further. Visibility is good, quality and refinement is up there with the best and the turning circle could shame a supermini.

Of course, the danger with building a car that so competently deals with the mundane aspects of life is that it could become a bit bland. Likewise, there’s a risk with any car packing over 600hp (in Plus form) with four-wheel drive and tyres the size of lawn rollers that you’ll require your own personal autobahn to get the best out of it. Fortunately, neither is true in this instance.

By any meaningful standards, the R8 is a blindingly quick car – at any time, in any gear. Compared to the monstrous low rpm torque generated by many of the modern turbocharged engines, however, the R8’s 5.2-litre naturally aspirated V10 doesn’t provide quite the same sledgehammer effect. Believe it or not, that’s a good thing, because putting your foot down in the R8 is the start of something very special indeed.

What begins as a bark rises into a proper V10 howl as the Lamborghini-derived engine opens its lungs. Keep your foot down and the power builds as quickly as the revs, sending the hedgerows into an increasingly frantic blur. But only when you feel like it’s time to change up – at the point where most engines would be headbutting the limiter – does the R8 really hit its stride. Over the last couple of thousand rpm it feels almost indecently quick; peak power arriving at a screaming 8,250 rpm in the case of the R8 V10 Plus.

We should probably pause for a second here to look at the range. The V8 engine that used to mark the entry into R8 ownership is now gone. There are just two models to consider – the 533 hp (540 PS) R8 V10 Coupé, which starts at £119,500 and the 602 hp (610 PS) R8 V10 Plus Coupé that begins at £134,500.

Both have a similarly crisp, linear appetite for revs and the same seven-speed dual clutch transmission, but the Plus feels that little bit stronger and leaner right across the rev range. It’s this increased focus that strikes you initially – far more so than the step up in pace. For the record, the standard car despatches the 0-62 mph sprint in 3.5 seconds on its way to a top speed of 198 mph, while the Plus does it in 3.2 seconds en route to 205 mph.

The steering response from the standard car is brilliantly judged. It turns in keenly, with absolute precision, but it never feels nervous. The damping is equally impressive, ironing out bumpy B-roads in a way that few cars can match, yet maintaining excellent body control.

Switch to the Plus and everything feels a little hyperactive initially. The turn-in is quicker still; the ride firmer. After a few miles, though, you realise that it has the same underlying composure, allowing you to exploit the sharper responses with incredible confidence.

In both cases the engine – along with the four-wheel drive system – plays a part. It meters out the power with such progression and precision that you never worry about the prospect of being sent backwards through the hedge by an unruly slug of torque. As an overall package, it’s hugely confidence inspiring, allowing you to lean on the R8 far harder than you might think wise in a mid-engined supercar.

For a weekend toy, the Plus is undoubtedly the purest distillation of the R8 recipe. It ramps up the adrenaline by small but significant amounts right across the board. For a daily driver, though, the standard car feels that little bit more relaxed and concedes little until you really start to push.

Both are very civilised places to spend time. You sit low, with a suitably evocative letterbox view out the front and V10’s intake plenums reflecting off the rear window behind you. The seats themselves offer a brilliant blend of comfort and support, while the ergonomics are spot on.

It has to be said, the optional diamond-quilted headlining and black Nappa leather of the Plus we sampled made it especially inviting. The upgraded Bang & Olufsen hifi sounded great, as did the sports exhaust. Along with various other options they took the price up to £154,720, but compared to the other mid-engined baby supercars out there it’s still conspicuously good value.

You also get plenty of clever stuff as standard. The virtual dashboard system, which replaces the conventional dials with a 12.3-inch TFT display, works brilliantly. It provides an uncannily natural representation of an analogue rev counter, but it also allows maps, sat nav instructions and other information to be displayed. The motorsport-inspired multi-function steering wheel is another great feature. It’s tempting to dismiss this as a marketing gimmick, but we found ourselves shuffling through the various drive modes quite often.

So what’s not to like? Well, the boot (or rather ‘frunk’) space isn’t huge – even by the standards of the class. And enthusiastic driving will see you well down on the R8 V10 Plus’s official figure of 23 mpg. That’s pretty much it, though. Honestly, we’re struggling.

Ultimately, the greatest triumph of the R8 is the way it fuses the sensible and the sensational. It was one of the warmest days of the year so far when we tested it, but we have no doubt it would work just as well on a cold, dark December night when its Italian cousins are all safely tucked up in their climate controlled garages. And yet, thanks to that glorious V10 heart and the sharp yet exploitable chassis it still feels truly special. Proof that a supercar doesn’t have to demand sacrifices.