Years ago, I had a chance to take an Audi R8 on a track, but I gave away that chance. I gave it away to repay a sort of karmic debt because I gave the opportunity to a Jalopnik reader that was instrumental in helping me recover my beloved Beetle when it was stolen all those years ago. Since that time, the chance to drive an R8 hadn’t come up again. Well, it finally did, and in a dramatic way—Audi put me behind the wheel of an R8 in the Canary Islands, and one of their PR people gave me a pair of underpants. This is all true.
(Full Disclosure: Audi flew me out all the way to the Canary Islands to drive this thing, and that plane ticket likely cost more than I do as a human. They also put me up in both fancy hotels and, on one night, in a Fiat-based RV. Audi must really be blowing through some end-of-year cash since I feel like they just sent me to Athens to drive the RS3. What’s the point of making all that money if you can’t spend it, right?)
Just to make sure nobody gets fired, I’ll clarify the underwear thing first: my luggage got lost, so I had no change of clothes my entire trip. One of Audi’s helpful PR people was in a similar predicament but did manage to get his luggage the day before we left, and so, blessed once again with clean garments, graciously gave me the lone unused pair of underpants from a pack he was able to buy.
They were Calvin Klein underpants, and my junk felt like it was staying in a fancy New York loft apartment, the kind with high ceilings and exposed brick in those things. It’s a top-notch underpants experience.
Enough about underpants, though—if you want the full underpants review you’ll have to read it on Unmentionable, G-O Media’s new underwear-based vertical. I’m here to talk about the Audi R8 because it’s a pretty fascinating car.
I’ll admit that at first, I thought this trip was going to be some announcement that Audi would be discontinuing the R8, because the cruel grind of reality has conditioned me to expect lousy news more frequently than I’d like. But that’s not the case! Audi has no plans to stop building R8s.
The R8 is Audi’s lowest-volume car, sure. It’s almost entirely hand-built on the same line as their GT4 racing cars, with which it shares 60 percent of its parts, including that 5.2-liter V10 engine.
That engine (and a lot more) is also shared with the R8's sibling, the Lamborghini Huracan, a fact that provides a lot of insight into the peculiar character of the R8.
Both the Huracan and the R8 are powerful, mid-engined supercars of about the same size, weight, and capability. And yet, they really couldn’t have more differing characters.
The Lambo, with its dramatic raked angles and loud pipes and scissor doors (okay, not the Huracan, but still) and that raging bull badge is a car that screams about what it is and what it can do. The R8 can do the same things but prefers to let you know about it by handing you a nicely-printed placard succinctly and modestly listing its potential on really satisfyingly thick cardstock. It smells like sandalwood.
If the Huracan is Superman as we all know and love him, then the R8 is an alternate universe Superman where he’s exactly the same, but the transition from Clark Kent to Superman is just the removal of the glasses. That’s it. No red-undies-on-the-outside spandex suit, just Superman doing Superman shit, but in the same tasteful gray flannel suit that Clark wore to work.
This is fundamentally why I find the R8 so fascinating; it’s a bonafide supercar with dramatic proportions that make it very obvious this car is Not Ordinary. Yet it’s skinned in the crisp, rational, and serious design language of modern Audi.
Okay, since I’m already talking about how this thing looks, let’s really do it. I know I suggested that the R8 has a more restrained look than the Lambo, but I don’t want to suggest that it’s somehow not striking at the same time. Because it absolutely is.
It’s a little bit of a mind-bender, I think. The car is clearly a supercar, with the long, low proportions of one of those little cars you made out of Pink Pearl erasers when you were bored at school, especially the drop-top Spyder version.
There are those massive, air-gulping intakes behind the doors (that you can get in black or body color, by the way) reminding everyone that the last (I think, at least) V10 you can still buy lurks back there. And on the coupé version, you can even confirm this by looking through that large back window.
This is also useful in case the Check Engine light should come on, as you can just take a quick look and not even have to open the lid.
I think the coupé looks a bit better than the Spyder, although the ones we had available to us to drive on the track were all this interesting matte red color, which I think looked great. Although it did have almost the exact same color and luster of another very famous matte red car:
I understand that most people would take this as a sort of dig at the car, but the truth is that I don’t mean it that way. Just because the finish reminds me of the color and finish of a Cozy Coupe does not mean it also doesn’t look fantastic, because it does.
Of course, since this is essentially a hand-built car, Audi has a program where you can pretty much specify any color you want, and they can even match colors to images or objects you provide. Have a bruise that’s achieved that perfect shade of purple-green that exists nowhere else on Earth? Snap a photo, and your new R8 can come in just that color.
If you have the money, this seems like the way to do it.
Audi has struck a really interesting balance with the R8; it looks dramatic, but not flashy. It’s got this sort of purposeful air about it. Like if you squint just right you can see all its dimensions listed in millimeters, penned by some careful drafter’s hand.
It’s a Serious Machine, and that’s what it looks like. Where someone may want to show up in a Lambo to convey to people that they have plenty of money, if you show up in an R8, it’s because you wish to convey that you know what you’re doing in a car — you’ve selected just the right tool, carefully crafted by people with more degrees than a bag of thermometers so that you can experience speed in its purest, most undiluted form.
Of course, this could all be absolute bullshit, and you may barely be able to parallel park. But that won’t be the R8's fault.
The Spyder lacks the exciting engine-terrarium at the rear, but in exchange, you get infinite headroom on demand, and that engine cover, which curves gracefully and has those two raised strakes of vents that visually flow from the headrests to the rear. It looks good with the top down.
The ballet of the top going up and down is a nice little party trick unto itself, too. Here, I had someone record it so you could appreciate this little dance, too:
There’s a lot going on there, but what else would you expect?
The rear heat-extraction grillework looks downright industrial and reminds all those chumps behind you that they just got passed by 562 hard-breathing horses, and the taillights and other lighting are carefully designed, with animated sequential indicators and other hallmarks of our current new golden age of lighting design.
Even the bits that tend to be ornamental on most cars have real jobs to do on the R8; take the exhaust tips, for example. On most cars, they just serve to make the exhaust pipes look more “sporty” or noticeable or whatever, and they’re often entirely fake.
On the R8, they’re actually designed to help funnel exhaust heat away from the car, which helps the overall cooling of the engine. That’s why they’re there, and if they look cool, well, that’s just a nice perk.
As you’d expect from a low-volume, rich-persons-only car like this, the interior is a luxurious cocoon of the best materials and the labor of people who give a damn about what they do, and you can feel it. It’s also notable for what’s not there, as you may have noticed in that picture above, where I’m being a dipshit.
See what’s not there?
A center-stack screen. Like almost every single car on the market has today. But not the R8 because this is very much a driver-focused car, almost to the point where it’s a little bit rude, or at least dismissive, of the passenger.
Not that the passenger’s seat is uncomfortable or anything — it isn’t — but everything in this car is designed to be controlled by the driver, so much so that the passenger doesn’t get a center screen to play with the radio or nav or anything.
The HVAC controls are available, at least, and they remind me of something very specific in the Volkswagen group’s past:
To me, they look almost exactly like the latch used on Beetle and Bus engine lids for decades. I doubt this was intentional, but, come on. Look at that. It’s what they look like.
Also reminiscent of a classic car is the R8's rear view, which passes through multiple panes of glass like an old Tatra T87. The window is quite narrow, but the visibility is surprisingly good, and you get that nice little peek at the engine as a bonus.
On the convertible, you even have the option of rolling that rear window down, if you’d like, which is a nice option.
There are all kinds of color and trim options available for the interior, so it doesn’t have to be a sea of gray and black. You can specify colored or carbon fiber trim for vent surrounds and trim pieces and inserts all over the interior.
The seats are very comfortable, but in all the cars we tested—and this is likely part of the “performance” package referenced in the name R8 V10 performance RWD—the seats are the race-bred bucket seats that do not allow for backrest adjustment.
If you like a more reclined driving position or want to easily access the cargo area behind the seats, I’d suggest getting the normal R8 seats with movable backrests instead.
Speaking of cargo areas, the R8 does pretty well considering the nature of the car. It’s a two-seater, mid-engined supercar. If this is what you show up in to help your friend move to a new apartment, you’re not likely to be rewarded with pizza and beer afterward. That’s not the point.
The front trunk isn’t colossal, but it’s big enough to hold an airplane carry-on-sized bag and maybe a few other squishy things crammed in there, too. That bag on the Spyder shown above is for the wind deflector, and there’s also an emergency tire repair kit and other small tools in another little included bag, which looks like this:
Look at that. The car comes with a free screwdriver! Who says the R8 isn’t a deal?
The lack of folding seats made the rear cargo shelf tricky to photograph, but it is there, and you could cram some longish stuff back there.
The Spyder doesn’t have that rear shelf, but it does at least try to give a bit more storage with a little vertical locker, which is well-sized to hold a large club sandwich on the bottom floor and maybe a softball or something up top. Perhaps a gerbil in one of those little balls.
The center console hides a pair of cupholders, complete with a lid so you can make them disappear lest anyone discover you’re human and occasionally drink liquids while driving.
Have you ever used corner clamps? They’re just a pair of clamps joined at a 90° angle, but when you’re trying to build something with angles like that, they’re shockingly useful. I remember how I felt when I finally realized they existed and how much easier they made building certain things. It was that moment of discovery of the right tool for a job, and it makes you feel like a positive idiot for ever trying to do that particular job without it.
That’s close to how the R8 makes you feel when you take it on a track: It’s the right tool for that specific job.
I mean, sure, there’s plenty of supercars that are rewarding to drive, especially on a track, but the R8 is the one I’ve driven most recently, and I can say that it is extremely obvious that this is a car that has been meticulously designed to do this very specific thing.
What makes this particular version of the R8 interesting is that it’s rear-wheel drive, which, for an Audi, is kinda weird. Audi has never been about RWD. Even from their larval stage of development when modern Audi emerged as the four-stroke evolution of DKW, it’s always been FWD, and later Audi’s real modern identity came with their development of the Quattro all-wheel-drive setup.
One of the Audi PR people even said “Quattro is Audi, and Audi is Quattro.” That’s not always the case, though, as this R8 RWD shows.
The point of the RWD version of the R8 seems to be twofold: first, to create a new “entry-level” R8 (whatever the hell that means for a car that starts at $142,700, but that’s still about $50,000 less than the Quattro one) and to provide a bit more of a visceral, and maybe even raw driving experience.
You can’t get the R8 with a manual anymore — the only transmission is the seven-speed dual-clutch one — and while it seems like that could be a lot of fun in a car like this, the truth is that the DSG does shift better than you (well, at least me) and the car remains plenty engaging anyway.
There’s a decent amount of rear weight bias here, as you can likely see from that diagram there. The front axle has 40 percent, the rear 60, which is around what a rear-engined car like a Beetle is, even though this is a mid-engined car.
The handling is far more predictable and manageable than an old Porsche 911 or 356, of course, but Audi has allowed for a little bit of oversteer/controlled drifts to happen in their Sport driving mode, and that does make things pretty fun.
The track where we drove these in Gran Canaria was kind of a challenging track, especially because there were sections with lots of loose dirt and gravel that could make things a little hairy.
In fact, I did overcook it stupidly into a turn and hit a gravel patch, which caused me to slide into the much bigger gravel patch off track. Thankfully, I didn’t hit anything, but it was a good reminder that I, you know, suck a little bit.
That screw-up aside, driving the RWD R8 on a track is immensely fun and satisfying. The naturally-aspirated V10 makes 562 hp and 419 pound-feet of torque, and it will get from parked to 62 mph in 3.7 seconds (add a tenth if you’re in the Spyder, hair whipping around and your glasses flying off into the aether).
It’s gut-punch quick, and if you have enough road you can get it to over 200 mph, but I didn’t get that chance, and I don’t honestly think anyone who buys one of these will, either.
But that’s fine, because as good as this car is at just straight-up speed, it feels best when you’re wringing it out through turns, stomping hard on the big brakes (18 inch steel ones or optional 19 inch ceramics) and generally pushing it hard, enjoying it for the absurd and wonderful experience that it is.
Oh, the track also had these tube-framed and fiberglass Beetle-bodied Fun Cup cars, but they wouldn’t let me take one for a spin to, you know, compare:
I’m guessing no one here really wants me to try and describe every detail about how this car feels on the track because I always feel like those descriptions fall short and sound kind of, I don’t know, douchey.
Let’s just leave it at this: this is a car that feels like it wants to work with you, and is a willing partner in your quest to have fun and go fast around a track. You can out-drive your skill, sure, like anything, but I found it to be forgiving and stable and a hell of a lot of fun.
What’s also impressive is how well the R8 RWD transitions from screaming along a track to navigating normal roads. It’s wide and long and you had to be aware of its wide butt in those narrow streets, but once you got a feel for your footprint, it wasn’t hard to weave around town or along windy mountain roads.
Even with the top down on the highway, it’s a remarkably relaxed cruiser, and you could do a long road trip in this thing no problem. Again, that all kind of fits the overall character of this car—it’s a supercar, with all of the exuberance and extremes that entails, but it also keeps things under control and isn’t going to make a scene in public.
I mean, unless you really want to. And you probably will, at least sometimes, because the sound of that V10 pushes all kinds of silly buttons inside you, which means when you hit a tunnel, you may do this:
That video doesn’t really do it justice, but trust me, it’s great.
Oh, and speaking of great, look what I saw as I was driving around over there:
An old Mini seems like an ideal car for these islands. Good choice, buddy!
I mostly mention this to let potential buyers know that if you’re looking for the latest driver-assist systems or CarPlay integration or whatever, you’re very much looking in the wrong place. Which I suspect you’d already knew.
Why would you want an L2 driving assist system on this car? You wouldn’t. That would be ridiculous, like if you bought an automated steak-eating machine. So there’s none of that bullshit here.
The car is, of course, packed with all kinds of tech, but it’s the kind used to make the car drive better and faster and safer and all that.
The only big screen is the instrument cluster, though that can be configured in a variety of layouts, so you can have a map/nav display or just your main instruments or a special track-focused layout or whatever.
The steering wheel has between two and four “satellites,” which is what Audi calls the little floating buttons there, and those are a visually fun way to turn the car on or off, select drive modes or make the exhaust louder. It’s not going to change your life, but they add some distinctiveness.
I think the only way to change radio volume is on the steering wheel there, so, again, tough nuts to your passenger.
There is one little techno-toy thing on the car that I think is genuinely clever and useful, and it’s in those little buttons on the seat belt. Those are microphones, so that even if you’re tearing ass around with the top down and all the engine noise, you can have a conversation with someone on the phone and they can actually hear you. I tested it and was told it works surprisingly well by the person on the other end.
For whatever reason, I think the Audi R8, in all its forms, gets kind of forgotten in the supercar space, and that’s a shame. It definitely has a different tone than most other supercars, a certain seriousness that might turn some people off and might attract others from a niche that I think is likely smaller, but I’d think quite passionate.
I had a blast driving this thing around that island, on the track, through the towns and winding through the mountain roads, but it’s not something I think I could personally ever own.
And that’s not just because I’m a perpetual broke-ass who had to be gifted underpants — it’s because, deep down, I’m not sure I’m a Serious Enough Man (I say man because the sales for these are about 99 percent male, according to the PR guys) for a car like this. I’m not even entirely certain I’d get along with those people who are?
Pulling up in an R8 makes a pretty distinctive statement, confident yet quiet; saying it’s not a showy status symbol would be delusional. Of course, it is, but it goes that extra step and becomes a showy statement that says you’re the sort of person who looks down on showy statements — which is a sort of showy statement unto itself. It’s an ouroboros of posturing, and not everyone can pull it off.
Look, if you have the money and love to drive, why not get yourself an R8? And if you’re going to get one, why not get the more visceral RWD one and save a bit of money that you don’t really need to save, anyway? It’s a blast to drive, it’s easy to cruise in and, according to some PR pitch I got just now, the R8 is even the most reliable supercar, which it better be, considering how it’s built.
The R8 is an odd sort of supercar, a self-conscious and refined supercar, a capable track monster that you can also take your mom to her fight club in without upsetting anyone in the gated community.
It’s a little confusing, a lot impressive and an absolute blast to drive. The R8 is still here, and it’s worth remembering that.