The 2020 Audi R8 is kind of the ultimate mass-appeal supercar, but that feels like an undersell. It’s really fun to drive and ride in regardless of how talented or “into cars” you are, and somehow it manages to be imposing without being intimidating.
(Full Disclosure: Audi got me a lovely room at The Californian hotel in Santa Barbara and then let me lap the region in an R8 Performance and an R8 Performance drop-top. The company also closed a small strip of road so we could legally test the car’s stopped-to-screaming-fast behavior.)
I remember the R8 seemed to come out of nowhere about a decade ago, and its mid-engined jetpack design looked downright preposterous parked next to the simple and smooth sedans Audi was selling at the time.
I also remember the immense unpainted carbon fiber gills being a point of major controversy on car forums, but the gated manual shifter was undeniably badass. The whole car was badass, really. And guess what, so is the new one.
The 2020 R8 is kind of parked at a perfect confluence of futuristic/fashionable and Classic Good Car. The design, inside and out, is simple enough to be aging well but intense enough to break necks on the sidewalk. And of course, the heart of the car, its enormously powerful naturally-aspirated engine, will never go out of style. Though it may be one of the last of its breed–It’s not particularly efficient or environmentally friendly, after all. But it is smooth as a freshly Zambonied skating rink under all kinds of acceleration.
Unofficially, I keep hearing rumors that the R8 will be discontinued or radically altered in the near future. But for what it’s worth, Audi’s people scoffed at such a suggestion.
Regardless of what the R8’s future looks like, its present feels just right.
The vehicle looks “new,” as in modern, but Audi hasn’t futzed with the formula much: It’s still a couple of comfortable seats strapped ahead of a 10-cylinder 0-turbo engine.
Audi’s designers’ fondness for sharp creases has obviously been indulged at the car’s edges, but the silhouette has been with us for about 10 years and even this second-generation body style has been out since 2015.
For the historians digging up this post in the distant future, here’s exactly what Audi would like you to know has been changed for 2020:
“The updated front bumper includes a new honeycomb grille with R8 badge, front spoiler lip, and lateral air intakes. The updated rear bumper continues with honeycomb air outlets, oval exhaust pipes, and a new rear diffuser. The headlights have also been darkened, and the rocker panel has been redesigned and includes an inlay. On the V10 model, the lower trim is finished in high-gloss black, and on the V10 performance model, the lower trim is finished in titanium color, with an option to select carbon fiber.”
All new R8s run Audi’s 5.2-liter V10, a seven-speed manually shiftable dual-clutch automatic transmission and all-wheel drive. Audi claims the engine makes 562 horsepower and 406 lb-ft of torque, and if you spring for the Performance spec the output steps up to 602 HP and 413 lb-ft.
That strong heart beats just behind the car’s occupants’ heads, right around the middle of the vehicle, and both the standard and Performance variants can be copped as a hardtop coupe or Spyder convertible.
(Fun fact, as explained by Carfection, “spider” or “spyder” denoting drop-tops goes back to the pre-Ford Model T carriage days, when roofless vehicles were said to have had a spindly or spider-like appearance, apparently.)
Regardless of whether or not you order your R8 with a roof or the Performance model’s extra 40 ponies, every version of the car’s supposed to be good for more than 200 mph and a 0 to 60 time under 3.5. The base coupe lists at $169,900 but versions of the car can be optioned to $220,000 and beyond.
Base R8s get magnetic ride suspension, which is supposed to be able to snap from hard to soft in no time at all. The R8 Performance, which I drove, has fixed suspension for hard-driving optimization, but I was surprised to find it plenty compliant for quite a few kinds of California roads.
It’s a pretty long drop from standing-next-to to seated-in the Audi R8, but ingress is actually pretty painless compared to what you have to go through to get into most McLarens and Lamborghinis I’ve ridden in. Then once you’re inside, it’s much better than painless, it’s freaking cozy as a bolstered suede hammock. Not that such a thing exists, but, what I’m trying to say is, the cockpit of the R8 is very soft and supportive.
There’s also plenty of headroom and a lovely dashboard that’s devoid of a big ugly infotainment screen entirely (what a concept!) but embellished with a trio of sleek comfort controls that are fun to look at and flick.
Revving the car up with launch control and rocketing down the road feels fast, obviously, but raw acceleration isn’t even the R8’s best trick. That would be decisive and lively steering paired with supreme stability.
The way you can slingshot this car around corners is to driving as whipping a tennis ball 200 feet down a beach for a dog with one of those springy lever launchers is to playing fetch. The ratio of work-to-reward is just hilariously imbalanced in your favor.
I found the S-tonic transmission pretty pleasurable to snap off gears with, too. I don’t always feel compelled to use paddle shifters with manually-shiftable autos like this, but the pulling R8’s paddles made hard driving a lot more fun even though the controls themselves aren’t the nicest touchpoints ever. I even ended up manually shifting in relaxed town driving. It just felt right.
When you do want to cool off or just get stuck in traffic on the way home from your canyon run, the R8’s just as happy to cruise at low RPM in high gear and just watch the world roll by. It’s very comfortable to sit in, I think I mentioned that already, but more importantly it really doesn’t demand to be driven in anger.
If you go for the convertible, and you totally should, because modern droptops at this level make a negligible real-world performance sacrifice for open-air sweetness, you get the added bonus being able to retract the rear window only.
That means that, even if it’s too hot or cold to be totally topless, you can effectively turn up the volume as the V10 sings you the song of its people.
It’s not easy to find faults with a brand-new supercar in a few hours of pleasant driving under the pre-apocalyptic California sun, but I gave it my best shot.
Straight off I have to mention that in a group of about 10 cars, two got flat tires on the generally smooth and clean Route 33. Those Michelins, they’re Pilot Sport 2s made especially for the R8 and as such branded “Audi Original,” had no shortage of grip for serious driving but didn’t seem to be particularly robust.
Other than that, the R8’s only readily apparent weak spots are just the same inconveniences that come with any low, small supercar that obviously costs a lot of money. It attracts a lot of phone camera lenses, it’s slightly laborious to climb in and out of, there’s not much cargo space (like, at all) and nosing it around parking lots is slightly stressful.
The car’s frunk swallowed my tiny hipster backpack, one nuclear football-sized Pelican hardcase, and a tiny little roadside kit but it wasn’t having another ounce more.
I was pretty smitten with the R8 Performance as soon as I got my ass installed in the driver’s seat, hit the gas and basically didn’t stop smiling until I brought the car in for a landing and a driver swap, then ended up enjoying riding shotgun with Matt Farah at the wheel almost as much.
It’s an extremely well-balanced car on every plane. You get truly exhilarating supercar performance married to earnestly easy daily drivability and it’s all wrapped up in a kit that’s as cool-looking as cars get.
The only real downside is that the car’s priced appropriately. Some $200,000 buys a lot of hot shit after all. It could also buy you a house, start a business, put somebody through college, or pay for most of the maintenance on a 1970s Alfa Romeo. But if you have the means and desire to sink a small fortune into a single car, you could do a lot worse than the R8.
And from another point of view, the R8 could be called a great deal. A Lamborghini Huracan with the same V10 engine can list for something like an extra $90,000, anyway.
Regardless of your budget though, I almost always advocate for building a collection of less expensive, more mission-focused vehicles rather than a single really great one. But unless you’re into off-roading, the R8 is one of the most versatile extreme sports cars on the road. You can never really have it all, but you can have a hell of a lot of fun without working too hard here.
If you wanted to hear some more impressions from inside the car at a hard gallop, stick around and check out Farah’s road test video I cameoed in: