The roots of the Audi R8 go back to a winning performance in the 2000 Le Mans 24-hour race. The striking mid-engined car continued to win over the years, until Audi finally made the production supercar in 2008. Since then it’s just gotten better, while maintaining and even enhancing its civility and capability as a daily driver, with a supple ride and fully finished cabin.
The all-wheel-drive Audi R8 comes as a Coupe or Spyder roadster. With its combination of power, handling, style and comfort, the R8 is a solid competitor to cars like the McLaren 650S, Mercedes-Benz AMG GT, Porsche 911 Turbo and Corvette Z06.
The restyled 2017 Audi R8 marks the second generation, and features a new platform, built on the Modular Sportscar System (MSS) that’s also under the Lamborghini Huracan. It’s an aluminum monocoque spaceframe that uses carbon fiber in the firewall and backbone tunnel to gain 40 percent in torsional rigidity, aided by two big X-shaped engine braces, over and behind the engine. The chassis structure saves about 70 pounds, helping the whole car lose a total of 110 pounds.
The R8 comes with two new versions of its 5.2-liter V10 engine, one making 540 horsepower and 398 pound-feet of torque, and the other 610 hp and 413 lb-ft. (Gone is the 4.2-liter V8 that was previously available, along with the 6-speed manual gearbox.) The only transmission for the 2017 R8 is the S Tronic 7-speed dual clutch, and all R8s use quattro all-wheel drive.
Audi hasn’t ruled out a smaller engine in the future. They have a twin-turbo 4.0-liter V8 in other models. In fact, Audi has hinted that there will be a less-expensive model coming.
The R8 might be so tame your grandmother could drive it (in Comfort mode), but when you put the hammer down (in Dynamic mode) it flies. The base V10 shoots the car to 60 miles per hour in 3.5 seconds, and the V10 Plus, which is what they call the 610-hp version, does it in 3.2 seconds, using Launch Control to keep the tires from spinning.
The EPA fuel mileage numbers are 14/22 miles per gallon City/Highway and 17 mpg Combined, using deactivation down to five cylinders, and a sailing feature that eliminates engine braking at low speeds in Comfort mode. We like that feature because it contributes to smooth driving, and also goes against the annoying trend of transmissions that do the thinking for the driver. The 2017-spec V10 also has port injection, which reduces emissions at startup and increases electronic calculation of the fuel mixture depending on the throttle position.
There are no crash test results because the NHTSA and IIHS don’t destroy expensive low-volume cars, but with the race heritage and monocoque chassis, not to mention extra airbags in the doors and roof, you can be confident you would walk away from an incident. A rearview camera will probably be standard, because rearward visibility is poor.
Audi R8 comes standard with Nappa leather upholstery, black Alcantara headliners, heated power sport seats, LED interior lighting, Audi’s MMI Plus with Navigation infotainment system, magnetic ride damper control, 19-inch alloy wheels, and V10 engine.
The V10 Plus adds racing bucket seats and carbon ceramic brakes, and cuts the magnetic ride dampers in favor plain old shocks and springs, because they are stiffer.
Racy options include active dynamic steering with variable assist and variable ratios, and 20-inch wheels.
The supercar profile is low, cab forward, coupe roof arcing from the windshield to the carbon-fiber rear spoiler that raises at speed. The new R8 is 1.6 inches wider at the shoulders, with emphasis on its horizontal lines. The carbon-fiber side blades are now two pieces rather than one, and serve as air intakes.
The grille is a flat and wide three-dimensional trapezoid that flows into wedge-shaped LED headlamps. At the rear, LED taillamps match the shape of the headlamps.
The V10 Plus also has carbon fiber front and rear diffusers and black exhaust outlets.
The R8 interior is among the finest in its class. The materials are Audi quality with impeccable fit and finish. The sport seats are comfortable and supportive, with adjustable bolstering. The racing buckets in the V10 Plus are thinner, and thus allow more legroom, but the seatbacks don’t adjust. Both seats are fairly upright, affording good visibility through the windshield. Rearward visibility is poor thanks to the steep low roofline.
The V10 Plus has leather seats and dashboard, carbon fiber trim, aluminum pedals, and an Alcantara headliner. The stitching on the doors and dashboard is in black and the color of the body.
The cabin is small but comfortable, and roomy enough for two people in front, but not storage of much stuff. Even the front trunk is only big enough for a couple of overnight bags.
The 2017 R8 brings Audi’s new virtual cockpit, with a 12.3-inch screen in the instrument panel that keeps most of the controls directly in front of the driver, counting the steering-wheel switches. The screen is configurable to the information the driver chooses to see, while a button on the steering wheel allows viewing of things like the Google Earth navigation.
The virtual cockpit can still be controlled by the MMI on the center console, but passengers can’t access the sound system. Also, the screen is easy to see but in some cases it only shows one function at a time, so for example you can’t multi-task with navigation and radio.
With Audi’s Dynamic Select modes, the character of the car is flexible and versatile. In Comfort or Auto, it’s relaxed and very easy to drive. The S Tronic dual-clutch gearbox makes shifts that are perfect for everyday driving. There’s always power to spare, linear and constant, not arriving with a burst, like a turbocharged or supercharged car.
In Dynamic or Performance (which shuts off the traction control) mode, the R8 is ready for the track, ready for a top speed of 199 mph for the V10 and 205 mph for the V10 plus.
In Dynamic mode, the throttle response is quicker and so are the gearshifts; the dual-clutch transmission also holds the R8 in each gear for a longer time.
We’ve only gotten to drive a V10 Plus pre-production car. First thing you notice, after the brute acceleration (0 to 60 in 3.2 seconds will push your eyeballs back into your skull), is that the big carbon ceramic brakes can stop the car in such a short space that your eyeballs will pop back out. But they demand a light touch on the street.
Our pre-production R8 had the available active dynamic steering, which is quick and precise, but felt too light to us.
Approaching a corner, turn-in response is quick. If you enter a turn too quickly the R8 will understeer, and if you accelerate too hard through the turn it will oversteer, all as it should be. In a medium- or high-speed turn, grip of the Pirelli P Zero tires feels limitless, although of course it’s not, and if you believe it is you’ll come to grief. But if they do give up traction, as they did on us, the R8 recovers with relative neutrality and obedience. No matter the situation, the cornering limits are higher thanks to the all-wheel drive.
The Audi R8 supercar brings its own qualities into the game against McLaren, Mercedes, Porsche, Corvette, Ferrari, Lamborghini, and the discontinued Viper. They’re all worthy, so the call is up to you. However, we’re inclined to say wait for the upcoming R8 with a smaller turbo engine.
Sam Moses contributed to this report, with driving impressions by The Car Connection.