Test Drive: Audi R8 Spyder

It wasn’t that long ago that Audi would have never been mentioned in the same breath as Ferrari, Porsche or Lamborghini. That has all changed not because of Audi’s racing success at Le Mans, but because of the car you see here, the R8. The multiple endurance victories certainly helped to elevate Audi brand awareness and equity with the sportscar cognoscenti, but the R8 takes all of Audi’s know-how and engineering prowess that has evolved through racing and puts it into a high-performance road car model – a model that is also raced very successfully around the world. I had a chance to spend a week driving an R8 and my time in the car revealed how good it really is, even as it is set to be updated for the 2014 model year.

Audi offers the R8 in a few different flavors that are differentiated by body style and engine choices. You can buy the R8 with a 4.2-liter V8 that makes 430hp, a 5.2-liter V10 that makes 525hp, or in the case of the GT model, a 5.2-liter V10 that makes 560hp. These engine choices are available in either coupe or convertible (Spyder) form, ranging in price from $114,200 for the R8 4.2 coupe to $210,300 for the R8 GT Spyder, and all R8 models come with Audi’s famous quattro all-wheel drive. While my first choice for our test would have been a GT coupe (since its closest in performance to the R8 LMS race car), I didn’t hesitate when Audi offered me an R8 4.2 Spyder to drive.

I’ve been a big fan of the R8’s design since it first came out and though I prefer the coupe, I think the car looks fantastic in both coupe and Spyder form. The Spyder is also attractive with the top up or down, which can’t be said for a lot of convertibles on the market today. One design element I actually prefer on the Spyder are the side intakes that are cleanly integrated into the body, rather than the sideblades of the coupe that look a little more ungainly. The convertible top can be raised or lowered in 19 seconds at speeds up to 31mph, and has a cover made from carbon fiber composite in order to save weight. Our test car came with Audi’s R tronic automatic transmission, wore Brilliant Red paint and had the leather and alcantara seats.

Inside the cockpit, our R8 Spyder test car was a bit on the somber side for a car that cost well over $100K. The ergonomics are spot-on and the complete set of gauges (including oil and coolant temps, as well as voltage) and overall clean design of the dash layout were appreciated, but it would be nice to have more carbon fiber trim to dress up the interior (though it is an option). At 6’5”, my legs were splayed a little more than I would like when positioned in the driver’s seat, but it wasn’t uncomfortable and didn’t interfere with driving. I am most certainly an outlier when it comes to height, and my 6’ friend that drove the car for photos fit in perfectly. The seats in the R8 are great, by the way, with the perfect blend of comfort and support for high-performance driving. It’s also nice that Audi put some storage within the cockpit, with bins behind the seats and another on the console between them. Yes, there are also cupholders if you really need them.

For me, the best thing about driving the R8 Spyder versus the coupe is that you can hear the 4.2-liter V8 so much better with the top down. Though the 5.2-liter V10 R8 model has gotten more press, the V8 is a fantastic engine – one of the best on the market. It makes 430hp at 7,900rpm and peak torque of 316 lb-ft between 4,500-6,000rpm. It pulls hard from the get-go but also loves to rev, and is so smooth and willing that it almost feels like there is no friction happening at all inside. Despite dealing with a hefty curb weight of 3,869 lbs., the V8 can move the R8 Spyder from 0-60mph in 4.6 seconds, which is just two-tenths slower than the coupe and is plenty quick for any road car, especially one that promises to mess your hair up. The optional R tronic automatic transmission is the weakest performance element in this car. It feels clunky in either manual or automatic modes and is not nearly as smooth as the more advanced dual-clutch tranny’s in other cars (including other Audi’s). A dual-clutch option is one of the key advancements coming for the 2014 R8, but if you are looking to buy a pre-2014 car, we’d highly recommend the manual.

Driving the R8 Spyder is an unforgettable experience, made memorable not just by the wonderful V8 engine and the wind rushing through your hair, but from the seat of the pants handling feel. You sit pretty low to the ground in the R8 and the driver’s seat is almost exactly between the front and rear wheels. More importantly, the V8 is mounted right behind you. I won’t get into a technical discussion on moment of inertia, but having the weight of the engine mounted closer to the center of the car allows the car to change direction more easily than front or rear-engine cars and improves handling responsiveness. Even though it’s a heavy car, the R8 Spyder benefits greatly from Audi’s decision to put the engine where they did, as it handles very well and feels almost race-car like in its handling responsiveness and balance. It’s also fast and comfortable on the interstate and when cruising at around 90-100mph, it gives the driver the feeling that it just wants to go harder and faster, like a thoroughbred that’s being held back until the final stretch. Braking performance is also excellent, with good pedal feel and stopping power. 

Besides the clunky R tronic transmission, it was hard to find any real fault with the R8 Spyder. It has great power, fantastic handling, and is an accessible supercar that you can truly drive every day if you wish. There’s limited storage in the front trunk, but it has a compliant ride on imperfect roads, is easy to get in and out of and has a front end that doesn’t scrape on speed bumps and angled driveways like some other competitors (like the Corvette, for instance). The R8 is set to get even better for the 2014 model year, most notably by the addition of the excellent S tronic dual-clutch transmission as well as some cosmetic changes, but it will retain the excellent V8 and V10 engines that it has now. Those changes may be worth waiting for if you want an automatic shifting option, but even in 2012 form with the flawed R Tronic transmission the R8 Spyder is one of the most entertaining and exhilarating cars I’ve ever driven. Now I just need to talk Audi into loaning me an R8 GT model for a track day!

The R8 has also been very successful as a race car, most notably winning both the Nürburgring and Spa 24 Hour races last year. The R8 is a popular car in European sportscar racing, but we’ll also see more of them in the U.S. this year than ever before, in both the Grand Am Rolex Sports Car Series and Speed World Challenge. 


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