Road test: the Audi R8 sticks a middle finger up to the emissions police

Nick Francis

21 Dec 2020

In a world of emissions caps and turbocharging the Audi R8 is a refreshing - if endangered - reminder that a naturally aspirated V10 engine is a thing of wonder.

It’s difficult not to get a little misty-eyed when you look at the Audi R8. It is a dinosaur, the last T-Rex waiting for the asteroid to hit earth or ice age to arrive and lay it down forever in an icy tomb. Frankly it’s quite astonishing that Audi will still sell you a naturally aspirated 5.2-litre V10 engine at all, when you consider the pressure heaped upon manufacturers by Europe-dictated emissions caps. Of course its price tag has something to do with it – at £141K for the full fat Performance model it only sells in handfuls and therefore doesn’t do too much damage to fleet average CO2 figures. Still, we ought to be thankful that Audi is still prepared to stick it to The Man and hasn’t yet turned its flagship model into a V6 hybrid, or something equally polar bear friendly.

We had the Performance model for a track test and road test recently. While the car isn’t especially new, it was facelifted in 2018, its days are numbered, at least in the case of its engine, so we wanted to get our hands on it before it becomes a museum piece. The R8’s vital statistics paint a compelling picture: the 5.2-litre V10 engine produces 612bhp and means the car can cover 0-62mph in just 3.1 seconds, helped by a launch control function. It tops out at 205mph and power is directed by a seven-speed dual clutch automatic gearbox, with the obligatory paddle shift of course.

There are two reasons you would buy the Audi R8 over other cars in its class, such as the Porsche 911 Turbo. The first is that engine: it’s one of only two V10s you can still buy new today, and the other model is its sister car, the Lamborghini Huracan, which is more expensive and more flamboyant. The second reason is its everyday drivability. Despite the fact its power output is enough to make you go weak at the knees, it’s an incredibly approachable car.

That is in part down to the Quattro system which gives you bundles of grip and, in turn, confidence. But there’s more at play than that. While the steering could never be considered full of feedback, its lightness and directness means the R8 is incredibly easy to control and makes the car 100% obedient to your inputs, endowing it with supreme agility at both low and high speeds. You easily forget the size of the R8 as you pick your course along narrow country lanes, easily dodging on-coming cars which invariably don’t feel like yielding any more space than they absolutely have to for the hooray-Henry in their supercar.

In Normal and Comfort drive modes the R8 actually feels rather sedate, in a good way. The throttle map is balanced perfectly and the gearbox moves up and down the cogs with almost imperceptible shifts. It handles bumpy ground far better than most cars in its class and if it wasn’t for the V10 growling menacingly from behind your head you could almost be driving an Audi A4 or TT.

But the beauty of the R8 is the fact all that driving refinement belies what it's capable of when it’s asked to perform. With Dynamic mode selected the engine comes alive with impressive anger, that same slick ‘box now scything through the gears at a brutal lick. Changing gear via the paddle shift means you can hang the revs on to 8,500rpm and feel that V10 scream, a noise you will never tire of hearing. At pace the R8 loses none of its cornering prowess, burying its nose wherever you ask it to without question. On corner exit the Quattro keeps everything absolutely glued and body control is optimum at all times, the R8 has a superbly rigid chassis which keeps things predictable and stable during faster bends. If you are so-minded you can monkey around with the safety parameters to send all the power to the back wheels, but on a cold and wet day on the roads that was a hairy experience. Those shenanigans are best left for the track, but it’s good to know you can still get playful with the all-wheel drive R8 should you wish.

That engine though. Oh boy that engine. Unlike turbo-charged offerings from its rivals, the R8’s power is delivered in the smooth and linear way only a naturally aspirate engine can, building to drop full torque at 6,500rpm. Getting to that point isn’t exactly a case of hanging around and twiddling your thumbs, it’s brisk from the get-go, but to make the most of the power you’ll be spending a lot of time in the upper rev band, and it’s a hell of a place to be. Too much power for UK roads? Of course it is, but managed correctly you can still exploit more than enough shove to grin from ear to ear and you’ll be completely smitten with the car within minutes. The noise is simply intoxicating, especially with the mischievous throttle blips as you come back down the ‘box. Not only is the V10 engine what makes the R8 so much fun to drive, it also contributes to its everyday nature. Its buttery smoothness and Germanic predictability mean you’re never second-guessing what’s going on, its power is easily managed and user-friendly.

The R8’s ultra-minimalist interior, achieved by confining all controls and graphics to the 12.3-inch virtual cockpit display, is quite a feat but some may feel cheated by the fact it’s barely different to the cabin of the Audi TT. If you’re looking from some theatre from the interior then you’re better off with the 911 Turbo, but if you like things neat and tidy then the R8 is your girl. Functionality is superb, Audi’s rotary dial works far better than any other on the market, and the build quality more than befits a car of this price tag. The steering wheel hosts many of the important functions, such as the drive mode selector, and the big red stop/start button adds a dash of performance car feel.

Even though it’s two years since the Audi R8 was refreshed it’s still hands-down the easiest supercar to live with, but its success might also be its failure in the eyes of some. Many buyers will want to work a bit harder to tame all that power, and inevitably the more Audi has done to make the R8 a Supercar for Dummies, the more the driver is removed from the experience. Unlike the Porsche 911 Turbo the R8 leaves the driver out of the conversation, instead using its array of impressive technology to take care of the hard work and ask only for steering, braking and acceleration input from the pilot. It won’t let you know when it’s running out of grip because, well, even if that does happen its failsafe stability systems will have taken care of business long before the driver needs to be made aware of what’s going on.

For many though, that’s the appeal. And if it means we get a year or two more with a V10 engine on sale, we're all for it.

Model tested: Audi R8 Coupe V10 Performance

Price: £144,130

Engine: 5.2-litre V10

Power: 612bhp

0-62mph: 3.1 seconds

Max speed: 205mph

MPG: 22.2 (combined)

CO2: 288g/km

Nick Francis

21 Dec 2020

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