I need to warn you that this isn’t going to be just a straightforward review of the Audi R8. The R8 has now been around for nearly a decade. Plenty of ink, both the Internet kind and the real kind, has been spilled describing how it drives. I will definitely address that, of course, but I have to start instead with a eulogy of sorts for the R8.
(Full disclosure: Audi needed Jalopnik to give the 2015 R8 V10 Plus a proper sendoff so badly that they sent me a V10 Plus model for a week with a full tank of gas. The tank of gas was killed within a few hours.)
Dearly beloved, we are gathered today to remember the Audi R8, soon to be replaced by an all-new Lamborghini Huracan-based car that Audi says will be lighter, faster and more high-tech, even if it looks basically the same with a few more creases.
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From its debut, the R8 was fast, it was gorgeous, it helped put Audi on the map as a luxury brand worth paying attention to, and it served as probably the most effective halo car in the modern era of motoring.
Back in the mid-2000s, Audi was steadily recovering from two decades in the wilderness caused by a recall crisis and a kind of also-ran status behind Mercedes and BMW. Strong cars like the RS4, S6 and A8 helped pull them out of that, as did the striking original TT, a car that still doesn’t get the credit it deserves.
Then Audi had the sheer audacity to launch a sports car in 2007 with the same name as their unstoppable five-time Le Mans-winning racer. It wasn’t a front-engined compromise to keep the bean counters happy, it was a legit mid-engined beast built on a platform from Audi’s corporate cousins at Lamborghini. It was a dramatic halo car statement.
What is a halo car supposed to do, anyway? Besides the obvious effect of getting asses into dealer showrooms so they maybe drive home in an A4 or whatever, a halo car is supposed to define a brand. It’s supposed to sum up to the whole world what they’re all about and where they’re going.
A year after its launch, the R8 made a star turn as Tony Stark’s ride of choice when he wasn’t flying around in a suit of armor. I’d be remiss in eulogizing the R8 if I didn’t talk about that a little bit. The car’s starring role in Iron Man brought modern Audi to the masses in a way their obscure rally cars never could.
As much as one can praise something as crass as product placement, that move deserves a lot of it, especially for what it helped Audi say what they want to say. Tony Stark doesn’t drive a BMW; that’s too establishment. He doesn’t drive a Mercedes either, because that’s too old and stodgy. He drives an Audi, because he’s a free spirit who believes in technology and making your own way and upsetting the status quo.
That’s the kind of perception car companies kill for, the kind of cinematic marketing Michael Bay dreams about when he goes to sleep at night, and whatever Audi paid to be in the Iron Man movies, it was money well spent.
There was also the dozen or so motorsports series the R8 ran in throughout its career; it became a common sight at just about every sports car and endurance race out there. It was more than just a worthy competitor at racing, it was the beginning of a dynasty.
But all the product placement and racing in the world couldn’t help Audi, and the R8, if the car wasn’t excellent to drive. It certainly was. That’s what made the R8 the best halo car we’ve seen in decades: it was the most effective symbol for modern Audi there could be — even if my test in a 2015 model indicated that the R8 hasn’t aged that well in some areas.
Over the years its 4.2-liter V8 got a more potent option in the form of a Lamborghini-sourced 5.2-liter V10, and that model got bumped up even further with the V10 Plus. That version is what you’re looking at in these photos.
For a while after I picked this car up, I couldn’t stop staring at it in my garage. The R8 has been photographed and put on film and video so many times since 2007 it almost seems boring now, but no photos or videos can do its looks justice. It’s a stunning car, a triumph of design that’s just as gorgeous to look at now as it was when it debuted.
It’s low and wide, more compact than it looks in pictures, and curvaceous in all the right places. It looks like nothing that has come before it or will come after it. The 2016 R8 may well be a better car, but it looks more like a cheap knockoff that pales in comparison to the original.
With the passing of this R8, we bid farewell to several technologies that won’t make it onto the next car. I’m not going to sit here and blow smoke in your ass by telling you it’s this great analog sports car, because it’s not. It’s high-tech and complex, just in ways that feel a but quaint in 2015.
It starts with an actual key, not a button. It has a physical handbrake, not a switch. Its steering is hydraulic, not electric. Its two engine choices are naturally aspirated. (The new R8 packs the same V10, but turbos are probably inevitable at some point.) Most importantly, it has the option of a gated six-speed manual gearbox, the last of its kind.
I’m sorry to say my tester didn’t have that, but rather the excellent seven-speed S Tronic paddle-shift gearbox. I would have liked to have tried that gated manual before it went extinct, but I can’t argue with how good the S Tronic is, how its downshifts are incredibly quick, and how it makes the exhaust note crack like thunder as you cycle down the gears.
The R8 may be a little long in the tooth and due for a replacement, but don’t think for a second that it isn’t very fast. This V10 packs 550 horsepower and 398 pound-feet of torque, good enough to propel the car from zero to 60 mph in just 3.3 seconds when equipped with the dual-clutch gearbox.
Those numbers are nice, but this one is my favorite: 8700. That’s where the V10 Plus redlines. It’s absolutely wonderful. Most of the power is in the middle and upper part of the powerband, but still, the R8 just charges and charges, screaming wildly all the way up to that stratospheric redline.
You’ll encounter few cars on the road you can’t blow the doors off of. Triple digit speeds on the State Highway 130 toll road (where the speed limit is 85 but everyone goes close to 100 because Texas) arrived with hilarious ease.
The best thing about the V10 isn’t the acceleration it provides, but rather its sound. This naturally aspirated motor is a treat for the ears during every fast run.
What’s interesting is the way it changes throughout its rev range: it starts as a low growl, changes to a mid-pitched scream before going full wail at redline. I found constantly myself praying I’d find enough road to let the V10 sing its entire song.
But aside from all the sound and speed, acceleration in the R8 comes with surprisingly little drama. Thanks to Quattro all-wheel drive, it just kind of buckles down and goes hard with no wheelspin, and thanks to that naturally aspirated V10, power delivery is refreshingly linear. It just gets the job done, albeit loudly, with no fuss. Normally 85 percent of power goes to the rear wheels, but it can send up to 30 percent to the fronts when needed.
The R8 really comes alive in sport mode. I’ve made fun of this feature on the R8 before, because it’s a bit silly that a V10 supercar needs a separate setting to make it “sporty.” But it succeeds in making the car a lot louder, a lot angrier, and a lot sharper when you want it to. In this mode it’s best to shift gears yourself, as I found that the automatic shifting never quite did what I wanted it to.
Inside... well, here’s where the R8 shows why it needs a replacement. I’m kind of amazed Audi did such a poor job of keeping their six-figure halo car up to date — inside it pretty much pales in comparison to a comparable 911, or even a nicely-equipped Cayman.
Carbon fiber accents are offset by cheap plastics that would seem at place on a lesser sedan. The navigation is DVD-based. It uses a much older, much clunkier MMI media interface than you get on modern Audis. And there’s no Bluetooth streaming audio at all.
One could argue that you shouldn’t care about Bluetooth streaming music because you’ll be too busy listening to the scream of the V10; I’d argue that it would be nice, on a $196,000 car, to have a feature you can find on any $25,000 car.
With all that power, you might think the R8 V10 Plus is one of those cars whose potential can never be exploited away from a racetrack. But with motorsports photographer and friend of the site Kurt Bradley riding shotgun, I took the car up to some of Central Texas’ finer empty backroads and found it to be on the upper end of streetable. You can drive it pretty hard out there and still get a good sense of what it’s all about, but it’s still best on a track.
While the R8’s suspension isn’t as sophisticated as some newer supercars, like the McLaren 650S we tested last month, the car is an extremely adept handler, with hints of understeer that are easy to mitigate with the right throttle control.
At the same time, it doesn’t hold your hand the way the McLaren does; you have to know what you’re doing in the R8. The steering, while hydraulic and nicely weighted, is a bit numb in terms of outright feel.
I have to give a lot of credit to the ceramic brakes on each wheel. They’re among the best brakes I’ve ever tested on any car, providing tremendous amounts of grip and confident stopping force. Pedal travel is minimal enough to make the brakes feel like an on-off switch, so I had to learn how to modulate them properly.
It isn’t perfect, this R8. It’s really only fun to drive when you’re thrashing it. It’s not as hard-edged as some supercars, but it’s a bit of a chore to drive in traffic. While I daily-drove the R8 for a week, I sometimes felt like I was doing it a disservice by taking it on normal everyday errands. (It’s also horrible on gas, but that practically goes without saying.)
And yet, in spite of all the praise I can heap on it, I found myself struggling to make a true emotional connection with the R8. That sentence sounds ridiculous to non-car people, but to enthusiasts, it means everything.
I’m still not quite sure why I felt this way. The R8 checks all the boxes: it’s pretty, it sounds amazing, it’s fast, and it’s probably one of the best-handling cars on the road. I think it was that maybe it did all of these things too well; it’s so polished and perfect that it comes off as a bit cold and sterile, like it’s trying too hard. It could use a bit more edginess than it has.
Some critics say the R8 has no soul. I think that’s a lie. I just think it didn’t have quite enough soul to stir mine.
It’s like going on a date with someone you have no real chemistry with, even if that person is smart, educated, attractive, has a good job, comes from a good family and is highly recommended by all your friends. But even if you don’t fall in love, you can still have a good time hanging out, and that’s exactly what I did in this R8.
Will the next R8 be different? I have no doubt that it will be a better car, a lighter and faster car with much needed updates inside. I’m not sold on its design yet, but maybe it will grow on me in time. The one I’m really excited about is the R8 E-Tron, because an electric supercar is the kind of future we all hope for.
Then again, the new R8 is based on the Huracan, another sublimely fast but flawed car that has also been accused of being too buttoned-down and too Audi-ish for its own good. The R8 has always been, essentially, a Lambo in a nice business suit. I’m hoping the next R8 will find a way to be a bit less business and a bit more party.
Despite whatever criticisms I had, I will miss this R8 as it drives off into the sunset. It was a hell of a car, and a bold move from Audi that helped them immeasurably and became an unqualified racing success. Whatever the next R8 will be like, it has much to live up to.
I hope it’s got what it takes.
Photos credit Kurt Bradley, Getty Images
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