By Kris Hansen
“The canyon roads are tight, and the cars are fast. Please remember – keep them shiny side up. “
These words of encouragement came from Audi’s Mark Dahncke, following a brief run-through of the updated R8, including, but not limited to the facts that the R8 now has a bona fide racing pedigree, with the wild success of the model in endurance racing series throughout the world, including a class win (and near sweep of the podium) at this year’s Daytona 24 Hours. We were reminded that the R8 LMS race car uses the exact same engine as the street car, and has a minimum teardown service interval of 20,000 km, which is nearly unheard of in the racing world. We also learned that the R8 Plus with S-tronic has been clocked in the 0-60 run at 3.3 seconds. And that it learns how to be a proper supercar at the ultimate playground for cars, the Nurburgring Nordschleife.
The Audi R8 is widely considered to be one of the best supercars made. It is blazingly quick, beautiful to behold, and built with all of the typical Audi attention to detail. Add the fact that it is an incredibly easy car to drive (especially considering its performance capabilities) in literally any weather; it becomes the ideal candidate for someone who wants a supercar as a daily driver.
This is, after all, an Audi.
The R8 street car is a tough, reliable, and imminently useable car. It doesn’t shun rough roads, steep driveways, speed bumps, or anything that you might encounter on public streets. Which is good, since we were about to drive down an incredibly steep driveway, one which would likely render most other supercars significantly perplexed, and quite possibly battered and bruised.
Our first loop drive of the day was in the Sepang Blue (matte) R8 Plus, which is essentially similar to the former R8 GT (minus the tea tray rear spoiler and front winglets) with the GT spec 550 hp 5.2 liter V10 engine, but now mated with the all new R8 specific S-tronic dual clutch 7 speed transmission. We were genuinely excited about this new R8 variant, primarily since we never had the chance to drive the R8 GT, but also because of the new transmission. It was no secret that we were not huge fans of the previous single clutch R-tronic transmission, which was not the smoothest transmission in the world. It was tolerable in normal driving, but we found that at anything beyond normal driving, it was quite jerky on upshifts. Historically we tend to opt for the manual transmission given the choice, not that we don’t like automatics specifically, but in the case of the R8, the manual was just simply the better transmission choice.
After just a mile of driving the R8 Plus S-tronic, we began to realize that the manual was no longer a must have. The communication between the burly V10 engine and the 7 speed transmission is absolutely perfect, something we felt was severely lacking with the R tronic. S-tronic comes off the line perfectly smoothly no matter how softly, or firmly the bottom hinged throttle pedal is applied. Utilizing launch control, the R8 Plus digs out of the hole as if hit from behind by a speeding truck. Suffice it to say, the computer does that one really well too.
There are no herky jerky whiplash inducing shifts on full throttle as with the old transmission either, and shifts in both directions are instantaneous and seamless, even at full throttle and maximum revs. In all honesty, it’s smoother than some lesser cars with traditional torque converter slushboxes.
As it turns out, Mark could not have been more accurate in his description of the canyon roads we’d be flogging the new R8s on. Our first taste was a piece of road called Latigo Canyon Road, which when viewed on a map appears to have been drawn by a 5 year old on a caffeine and sugar rush who was 2 hours late for a nap. There are impossibly few straight sections, and over the course of 11 miles, we would encounter an insane number of ridiculously tight turns, some genuine 180 degree hairpins, with canyon walls on one side, and unprotected drop offs on the other.
It was completely awesome.
Driving the R8 Plus on this rollercoaster of a road hammered home the monstrous levels of grip the car is capable of -in all directions – and with an impossible ease. Taking all the effort required to drive to the store for a loaf of bread, the R8 Plus carved through Latigo Canyon’s relentless hairpins and undulating switchbacks with such alacrity that many drivers reported feeling a bit woozy afterwards. This car requires a lot of physical stamina on tight technical roads like this, not because it’s difficult to drive, or has a punishing ride, but because being that it is a true supercar, the R8 is capable of massive G loads in cornering and acceleration and braking.
It also made perfectly clear in our minds (as if there was a doubt by now) that the manual transmission is now completely pointless. We know that some people will scoff at the notion that any automatic transmission is better than a manual, but we know for certain (mainly because we also drove a manual transmission car on the same roads) that the S-tronic is faster, much faster, and easier, and safer, with NO likelihood of missing a shift or melting your clutch as a result of ham-fisted driving. Things happen very quickly when you are pushing an R8 along quickly on a techincal road, and not having to worry about making your shifts perfectly actually adds to the fun.
It is also nice to know that the R8 is incredibly good under hard braking. The chassis is well balanced, and the car remains neutral and predictable under very hard late braking. Thankfully the good folks at Audi fitted the R8 Plus with ceramic brakes, which are incredibly good, and completely resistant to fade. Ripping through these canyon roads in a 550hp land missile was all the more safe and fun (Shiny side up!) thanks to these brakes, which at no point felt strained or over used.
During all of this mind bending fun, the R8 makes the most glorious music as it rips up and down through the gears with the S-tronic’s perfectly rev-matched downshifts, with a crackling exhaust song as accompaniment. In the R8’s Sport mode, the exhaust’s internal flaps are held open, allowing the big V10 to bark loudly as it nears its 8600 rpm redline. It is a spine tingling sound for sure, and the thought of it makes the hair on the back of our neck stand up…
We also had the chance to drive a “normal” 5.2 Spyder, with S-tronic. Slightly less hyper than the Plus, the 5.2 Spyder makes do with the standard 520hp trim V10 engine, and iron brakes instead of the carbon discs. Other than a slight bit of cowl shake over the roughest pavement, the Spyder was tremendously capable in the canyons, and the experience was heightened by the fact that all of the car’s mechanical sounds were unimpeded to our ears. On one of the loops, there was a short tunnel, and as would be expected for any automotive journalist, we promptly kicked the car down 3 gears, and opened the throttles wide. The sound was glorious.
After spending the morning driving up and down the fabulous canyon roads around Malibu in a variety of S-tronic equipped cars, we had the chance to take a loop in the only manual transmission car that was available, a 4.2 coupe. Not only did the 4.2 feel slightly anemic compared to the hyper 5.2 V10, but the manual shifter felt clumsy and awkward to operate. Certainly the clearly defined shift gate takes a bit of time developing the muscle memory for smooth shifts, and yes, it’s a ton of fun to operate, and rewarding when it’s done right. But for our money, it is no longer the one to have.
S-tronic is that good.
Without question the R8 is an amazingly good car to drive. Sure, the S-tronic takes some of the driver’s involvement out of the equation, but in no way does it diminish the driving experience. In fact it heightens it, by allowing full concentration on what we consider to be the most fun part of driving – cornering, acceleration and braking. S-tronic allows for hard last minute braking, followed by full chat corner exit with rapid fire upshifts not possibly matched with a manual.
The Audi of supercars has been improved, and oh my, is it ever good.