By Kris Hansen
The first time we reviewed the spectacular R8 5.2 coupe, we dubbed it “the Audi of supercars”. While taking into consideration the massive performance capabilities of this amazing car, it is in reality an easy and rewarding car to drive. The effort required to work the controls is minimal, the quattro all wheel drive provides the ability to go pretty much anywhere you’d want to take a car like this in any weather (yes, even snow). The R8 has a trunk, albeit a small one, for carrying things. You can even fit a takeout pizza box in it, just. It also has comfortable seats, and not just by supercar standards, but by any car standards.
See, the R8 is an Audi first, and a supercar second. That means it has to be Audi perfect in every way. Attention to detail is superb, as one would expect from Audi. As these cars are largely hand built, they seem to have extra attention to detail. We have yet to see an R8 with anything even resembling a build quality issue.
The R8 also has air conditioning and heat that work as you’d expect them to work, something that can be problematic in “other” supercars. Some of the electronic bits, such as the HVAC controls and sat nav are borrowed from the TT, and we see nothing wrong with that. Simple can be good, especially when it not only works well, but doesn’t add unneeded weight and complexity. It also has Magnetic Ride Control, which is capable of automatically adjusting damper settings according to driving styles, road contition, etc. It also has Sport, and Normal modes. Normal mode is very comfortable for 90% of driving. Sport is great on billiard table smooth roads only.
As with any R8, people looking for anonymity need not apply, and this “arrest me red” droptop hammered that notion home harder than any other example we’ve been blessed to spend time with. Only in a car like this can a regular Joe (or Jane) get rock star levels of attention everywhere he (or she) goes. After a while you stop feeling guilty about saying “thanks” when everyone you meet tells you “nice car”. It does take some getting used to finding people standing around the car taking photos when you park it though.
While we’ve sampled a number of the 5.2 V10 powered R8, both coupe and Spyder, this was our very first time driving the 4.2 R8. The sounds the 4.2 R8 makes are absolutely delicious. The 5.2 V10 produces a high pitched engine tone, which turns into a full on wail at the top end of the rev band. Converesly, the 4.2 V8 has a decidedly deeper baritone voice, which culminates as a sweet roar on the top of the revs. It is sweet mechanical music, and the temptation to wind the engine up, any chance you get, is very high. And, thanks to the lack of a roof, there is nothing between your ears and that glorious V8 rumble. Even when the top is up, thanks to a very clever back window, which is not part of the top, but slides down into the bulkhead behind the seats, the sound can still permeate the cabin with ease.
The beauty of the R8 is that you can have way more fun than the law would prefer, while staying well within the safe limits of the chassis and brakes. This gorgeous Brilliant Red over black 4.2 R tronic Spyder was hugely enjoyable to toss around on the scenic winding roads of Vermont. Even though the 4.2 R tronic Spyder isn’t the quickest R8 you can get, mostly due to the added weight of the fully insulated power top and various other items required to make a convertible work, it is just pure joy to drive. Thanks to ASF (Audi’s all aluminum space frame construction) and lightweight composite body panels, the Spyder exhibits only the slightest bit of cowl flex (the slight twisting that open top cars tend to exhibit on bumpy roads). With unlimited headroom, this car is as perfect as they get for carving twisty mountain roads, and obliterating apexes with ease.
Because the R8 has genuine supercar genes, it acts the part, yet remains an imminently useful and comfortable car. Unfortunately, since the folding top needs somewhere to go when down, and that somewhere is directly behind the seats, some legroom is erased from the coupe’s more generous cabin. Again when compared to the coupe, the Spyder is decidedly snug when the top is up. Not so of course when the top is down, where the sky is literally the limit. Leg room doesn’t actually change, but since taller drivers can sit more upright with the top folded, there is more room for their legs. We found that taller drivers did have to slouch a bit with the top closed, due to a flatter roof profile than the coupe, and, thanks to not being able to recline the seat.
On the road, honest to goodness all aluminum unequal length wishbone suspension setups at all 4 corners give the R8 a ride that is amazingly supple, yet incredibly confidence inspiring when exercising most, if not all of the 430 horses. It corners on a razor’s edge in fact, and there is something about the 4.2 engine that makes the R8 corner a little differently than our experience with the 5.2 variant. Perhaps it’s the slightly reduced weight, or less inertia and gravitational pull of the moving bits inside the engine, but the 4.2 feels more like its happier linking from turn to turn and maintaining momentum, while the 5.2 seems a little happier using more of a point and power type driving style. Thanks to actual aerodynamic downforce generated by the underbody, the car is absolutely glued to the road, at all times.
Except when it isn’t of course. Say you feel like hanging the tail out a little. No problem. Turn the ESP off, and let it rip. As it turns out the R8 is very easy to control in such situations, and is very predictable and natural feeling as the tires lose grip and the slip angles increase. The 4.2 belts out enough power to make pendulum turns on exceeding tight corners, and while we aren’t in the habit of drifting cars on public roads, we admit to a moment of minor indiscretion on a particularly deserted bit of mountain road where some hooning took place. The quattro system kept things from getting too crazy, and the R8 seemed to enjoy torturing its tires.
The one slight problem we had with the car is the highly controversial (within circles of people who debate such things) R tronic transmission. We opine that were it not for the incredible S tronic transmissions in other Audis, we wouldn’t necessarily realize what the R tronic does that we don’t like, but nevertheless, we’d gladly sacrifice some low speed comfort for a transmission that made a full throttle shift without ripping our heads off as it struggled to sync the clutch and throttles. Because of the violence of the upshifts, we found ourselves resisting probing the loud pedal too often until we could learn how to achieve a smooth upshift under full power.
Luckily, there are 2 solutions to this problem, coming in the 2013 R8 – The brilliant and sexy 6 speed manual transmission is still available, AND, Audi have blessed the updated R8 with its own S tronic dual clutch transmission, for people who choose to not mess with a third pedal.
For us, we’d take the R8 in any flavor of engine and body style, but make ours with the 6 speed manual please.