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Audi R8 review

It's the replacement to one of the greatest cars of the 21st century

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What is it? The second-generation Audi R8 supercar.
Key features: Lighter weight, more power, new all-wheel-drive system, more tech.
Our view: The new Audi R8 has very big shoes to fill, but does so admirably
Review type: First drive

The Audi R8 is without doubt the most iconic car in the premium brand’s line-up. Its sheer potency, derived directly from the race machines with which Audi has dominated the Le Mans 24hrs for almost two decades, has placed the R8 on performance wish lists as a serious rival to cars with rather more evocative badges, such as Porsche, even Ferrari.

Most who were lucky enough to drive the original Audi R8 came away smiling, and so they will be all the more amazed that in the second-generation version, arriving with its initial UK customers in November 2015, Audi has made such major steps forward.

The basic format is unchanged, untouchable – a two-seater coupe with a mid-mounted powerplant, a car still directly relatable to those Le Mans race machines. In fact, Audi developed the road R8 and the GT3 race version alongside each other – they share around half of their components. In May, long before the road car’s launch, the new racer gained its first victory, not in any club event but besting a 150-car grid over 24 hours around the feared 14-mile Nurburgring in Germany.

Audi says the new car is redesigned from the ground up, starting with the shell. The Audi Space Frame (ASF) combines aluminium and carbon fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) for more rigidity but less weight. The double-wishbone suspension, again derived directly from motorsport, is also aluminium, all of which contributes to a dry weight of 1,454kg – 50kg less than the outgoing car, despite a host of extra equipment.

The car looks the part, without being shouty and aggressive. It is low, wide, with carbon fibre detailing in much evidence, including on the splitter, the sideblades, the long aerodynamic diffuser emerging from under the rear. Atop this rear end is the most obvious differing feature between the two models – the ‘stock’ R8 boasts an extendable rear spoiler, while on the more powerful Plus sister it is fixed, and again moulded in carbon.

There are other signature features too, most notably the LED head and tail lamps, with indicators that when activated scroll, giving no doubt as to one’s intended direction. And the headlamps can optionally be added to with laser spots that stretch the field of vision further than ever before.

Perhaps best of all is the engine, nestling under a clear cover just behind the cabin, and its surroundings lit so it can be admired to the full, especially at night. Said powerplant, mostly hand built, is still a 5.2-litre unit in a V10 configuration, but now the fastest, most powerful series production unit Audi has ever offered. It produces 532bhp in the stock car, 600 in the Plus – almost 60 horses up on its predecessor.

There is new engine tech too, taking full advantage of Audi’s most recent advances. The dry-sumped unit has added indirect fuel injection to its familiar TSI direct injection, along with the cylinder-on-demand system which shuts off one of the banks of cylinders when coasting. Add in start-stop as well and, as a result, fuel economy is improved by around 13% – admittedly to a mere 24.8mpg (23mpg in the Plus) but better than it used to be.

Audi’s latest interiors, and in particular the Virtual Cockpit with its digital dashboard, have attracted widespread praise and in the R8 they reach a new level. Slip into the car and you feel cosseted (particularly in the Plus with its sculpted bucket seats) but not cramped, facing controls that are as enticing as they are practical.

Everything is grouped for the driver – there is no centre console full of buttons with a screen above. Such essentials as the sat nav are incorporated into the 12.3-inch display of the digital dash directly ahead, with its simple push-button operation allowing one to toggle through various modes from large speed and rev counter displays to a version that stretches Google Earth mapping right across the dash.

The more vital buttons, meanwhile, are mounted on the multi-function steering wheel. Press the start button, coloured a deep red and leaping out of the wheel, and the V10 comes to life with a sound that is nothing short of intoxicating, burbling away just beyond one’s head. Its audio signature is just one of many aspects that can be tuned, a second button adjusting flaps in the exhaust dependent on how noticeable one wishes to be.

Opposite the start button is that of the Drive Select system, offering a choice of modes between comfort, auto, dynamic and individual. Select comfort and the R8 behaves like one wouldn’t expect from a supercar – cruising along in traffic as smoothly as any ‘normal’ car in almost a dozing mode.

Once out on the open road, one can floor the accelerator, and so much pace is unleashed. Yet it is still in such a refined manner, the car behaving impeccably while dialling up the acceleration at a rate that can so easily land one in licence-losing territory almost without realising it.

Then there is Dynamic – the R8’s Jekyll & Hyde mode. A simple press of that Drive Select button turns smooth companion into a rampant beast. Suddenly the engine note is far more urgent and insistent, the acceleration keener, the whole car seemingly tightened for action. Choose to ignore the steering wheel paddles and let the car select the seven speeds of the S tronic dual-clutch transmission, and it will blip the throttle menacingly as it downshifts in response to slowing for a corner or junction, while the exhaust pops and bangs behind one’s ears.

Alongside this is a handling package that is simply mesmerising, the grip so impressive, particularly if one has the optional magnetic ride adaptive damping system installed. Meanwhile, the ceramic brakes that are standard on the Plus ensure this car slows as impressively as it accelerates.

Close to the press launch venue in the south of France is a road of twists and turns and changing gradients that could have been created simply to test the R8 on, and tackling it in the Plus is an all-encompassing performance pleasure, truly the nearest thing to driving a proper race car on the road.

All the while, however, one must remember that the impressions the R8 gives out are more than just sensual. Yes this can be an everyday supercar and one really can go to the shops in it, but it should never be forgotten just how the vital performance figures have been enhanced. This road car is capable, in Plus form, of cracking 62mph from rest in a mere 3.2 seconds, and going on to 205mph – a speed only the very fastest race cars attain…

All of which emphasises why the criteria required to own an Audi R8 will extend beyond a pocket deep enough to afford the £119,500 selling price, or the extra £15,000 for a Plus version – and that’s before sampling the ever-plentiful options list.

One will also require the focus and willpower not to be tempted into fully exploiting this car’s capabilities on a public road. And the final essential will be track day membership, because there will be no sense buying an R8 without experiencing – in a safe environment – all it can do, because it can do so much.

The Audi R8 was one road test car this reviewer was truly sad to walk away from. The King is dead, long live the King…

Audi R8 V10 – key specifications

Model tested: Audi R8 V10 Plus Coupe.
On Sale: November 2015.
Range price:
Insurance groups:
Engines: Petrol 5204cc V10.
Power (bhp):
Torque (lb/ft): 398/413.
0-62mph (sec): 3.5/3.2.
Top speed (mph): 198/205.
Fuel economy (combined, mpg): 24.8/23.0.
CO2 emissions (g/km):
Key rival
s: Mercedes-Benz AMG GT S, Jaguar F-Type R AWD, Porsche 911 Turbo Coupe PDK
Test Date: November 2015.

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Andrew Charman
Andrew Charman
Andrew is a road test editor for The Car Expert. He is a member of the Guild of Motoring Writers, and has been testing and writing about new cars for more than 20 years. Today he is well known to senior personnel at the major car manufacturers and attends many new model launches each year.