First drive: the Audi R8 V8 Spyder
"The combination of soft-top with V8 makes for possibly the sweetest R8 of all..." Ollie Marriage reports
We heard the R8 had been facelifted, but...
I take your point. Not much has changed here. Did it need to? Probably not - surely it's a mark of successful design when a car that's been around for almost six years is still deemed not to need a proper overhaul. Well done Audi, this one's standing the test of time just fine. That's not to say it's completely untouched. The exhaust pipes of this V8 are now round not oval, the front grille and rear bumper are new and LED headlights are standard.
Hardly a transformation, then?
No, but the last of those is interesting as it points to a shift in Audi's sales strategy. When the R8 was first launched in 2007 it was arguably the least well equipped Audi of all, more poorly kitted out than a boggo A3. Audi took a look at the Porsche 911 it was aiming the R8 at, saw Porsche charged extra for everything from coloured wheel centres to embossed headrests and followed suit. Now it's changed tack and shoved a load of standard kit back in, sat nav and Nappa leather the two most obvious benefits. Trouble is that the price has gone up. Now it will be even more expensive, because you'll want it with the new S Tronic transmission.
S Tronic? That's only one letter away from R Tronic...
One letter, but a whole world of difference. R Tronic was the old single clutch six speed sequential and wasn't very good, often sluggish, jarring and uncomfortable. S Tronic means twin clutch and is very good indeed. It's taken Audi a while to do the engineering for the twin-clutch transmission to cope with the R8's torque, but this is the gearbox we always hoped it would have. The shifts are instantaneous, so there's no neck snap on full throttle upshifts, plus they're accompanied by a quick exhaust pop. The downshifts are even better, with a lovely crackle and thrum. S Tronic is beautifully matched to the car, wonderfully crisp, satisfying enough to be enjoyable and even has one or two flaws that help give it some character.
Yes, it struggles a bit at low speed. Not in a particularly bad way, but it doesn't quite blip the revs properly when changing down from second to first, so there's a bit of lurch there. And, because first is quite long, when moving off from a standstill there's some clutch slip initially. That's about it, though - not perfect at low speeds, but otherwise ace: smooth, accurate and with a hint of aggression.
So it's worth the extra cash charged then?
Yes, and Audi reckons 82 per cent of R8 buyers will tick the S Tronic box (up from 51 per cent who had R Tronic). I wouldn't be one of them, though.
Because the standard six speed manual is utterly brilliant, one of the very, very best of its breed. An open gated, slick shifting gearbox that adds a whole different dimension to the driving experience. Don't get me wrong, the S Tronic fits the R8's character better - it's as effortless and undemanding as the R8 itself, making it the easy option for those driving the car everyday. But there's another side to the R8, and that's best unlocked with the manual. There's more interaction with the car, more challenge, you have to concentrate and be involved in the process. I appreciate that I am a bit funny like that, but for me the speed of the shift is never as important as the quality and involvement of the action.
Enough about the gearbox already, what else has changed?
Not a great deal. The V8 I drove is still the 424bhp 4.2-litre V8 - and that certainly didn't need to change. Personally I've always preferred it to the mellifluous 518bhp V10, which although more powerful, doesn't quite have the raw, raucous engine note and savage response of the V8. Audi claims a 0-100kph time of 4.5secs for the S Tronic V8, against 3.6secs for the V10, but I always thought Audi cheekily skewed those figures to make the V10 look good. In testing, the old car would regularly post 0-100kph in 4.2secs and I reckon the S Tronic might dip under 4.0secs. It's plenty quick enough with a lovely spread of power and wailing top end.
You really get to hear that in the Spyder, too, I imagine?
You do. Even with the twin-clutch ‘box, this is such a good car - the combination of soft-top with V8 makes for possibly the sweetest R8 of all. It drives beautifully and the only drawback I can put my finger on is the lack of storage behind the seats compared to the coupe as the bulkhead has been moved. The roof takes 19 seconds to do its business and doesn't need to stop while doing so. Just keep below 50kph.
What about other cabin elements?
Well you still sit too high, but the only change I spotted was the new paddles that team with the double clutch gearbox. Outside I did notice that the LED indicators rather than just flashing, light sequentially as the individual bulbs illuminate, just like the red lights on KITT's nose. It's clever, but possibly a bit gauche.
Is the R8 still as exceptional to drive?
Absolutely. No changes have been made to the all aluminium double wishbone suspension, the heavily rear biased 4wd system, nor the 43:57 weight distribution. The R8 is an effortlessly rewarding car to drive. It pootles about majestically, suspension so supple and accommodating, but has the ability to raise its hackles and change its personality in a split second. I'm still not sure that even a 911 does this better. What you discover on a good road is a car that's pin-point accurate, with lovely feelsome steering and body control that's rock solid, yet utterly placid. Accusations of blandness are ludicrous, they only come because of the ease with which the R8 goes about its business.
Anything else I need to know about the R8 range?
Yep. You can now have an R8 plus, an upgraded version of the V10 with 542bhp instead of 518bhp, plus carbon brakes and uprated suspension. It's only available in coupe guise, mind. Also, if you, like me, fancy a manual, it'll have to be a V8 - the V10 is now only available with S Tronic.