With more power and right-wheel drive is this the R8's greatest hits compilation?
By Mike Duff / Sunday, December 19, 2021 / Loading comments
Audi might seem like an unlikely champion of dynamic purity given the quantity of tech normally ladled onto it top-enders, but that is the role that the new rear-drive R8 Performance is being cast into. The relative lack of driven wheels is in obvious opposition to the long-running corporate commitment to quattro, but the rest of the spec sheet also carries some obvious gaps compared to rivals.
The R8 has always lived in the hinterland between sports car and supercar. Officially it is the former, pitched (and priced) by Audi as a Porsche 911 rival, yet it also shares much of its structure and powertrain with an undisputed junior supercar, the Lamborghini Huracan. Both use the same floorpan, rear bulkhead, base 5.2-litre V10 engines and seven-speed double-clutch gearbox. The Lambo gets a much louder character, more performance and more toys, of course – with the R8’s subsidiary position meaning the RWD Performance won’t have the option of adaptive dampers or carbon brakes, and uses a conventional limited-slip differential rather than a torque juggling active one.
That was true of the former RWD R8, to which the new Performance iteration doesn’t add much beyond a modest increase in power. The sonorous V10 now makes 562hp, 30hp more than the outgoing rear-driver (which it effectively replaces), but still 40hp less than the Performance quattro that tops the range. The rear-driver’s subsidiary position in the hierarchy is also indicated by 19-inch wheels, steel brakes and body coloured ‘side blade’ air intakes; the Performance quattro gets 20-inchers, carbon-ceramics and dark exterior trim as standard. Beyond the Performance branding and the price tag – which now kicks off at £126,885 for the Coupe and £135,575 for the Spyder – not much has changed over the previous RWD version.
Audi chose to launch the R8 Performance on Gran Canaria, where I got to drive a Spyder version over a route mostly made up of mountain roads while also getting a briefer experience of the Coupe version around the tight Maspolomas Circuit which sits next to the Atlantic Ocean, and where a serious error would finish in the crashing surf.
Despite the new name the RWD Performance’s main role is as an entry point to the R8 range, and therefore the cheapest way to experience what will likely be remembered as one of the great late-era combustion engines. As always the V10 is strangely muted at lower revs, presumably to help distinguish it from the much shoutier Huracan. But it finds its voice around 4,000rpm and gets progressively louder and angrier until the redline arrives at 8,700rpm. The chance to drive the Spyder, roof down, through an otherwise deserted Autopista tunnel while working the engine hard in its lower gears gave the chance to experience it in full song, and to confirm its continued ability to tingle spines. I genuinely struggle to nominate a better sounding engine in a current production car, and that’s even with the slight muffling effect of a newly arrived gasoline particulate filter in the exhausts.
For cruising and even enthusiastic road driving the loss of front driven wheels makes little difference; it certainly hasn’t turned the R8 into a sideways muscle car. In tight corners, or on cold tyres, it is definitely easier to push the RWD Performance to the point of traction control intervention than it would be the quattro, but this happens gently in the default Comfort mode, certainly well before the rear Michelin Pilot Sport tyres relinquish grip. Selecting the Dynamic setting raises the intervention threshold and allows some rear end slip, but this definitely isn’t the most natural way to push hard; like a 911 the R8’s cornering line is always more easily tweaked through gentle inputs and weight transfer than brutality.
My drive in the RWD Performance Coupe was limited to following a pace car being driven by Audi race veteran Frank Stippler at a pace that reflected the fact somebody in the previous group had got properly embedded in a gravel trap. It was still great fun, but didn’t help much with the review given the many points of difference between the European car I drove and what will be British spec. My Coupe had been enhanced with carbon-ceramic brakes, track-biased Cup 2 tyres, the variable ratio Dynamic Steering and the optional ultra-permissive Performance dynamic mode – none of which will be offered in the UK. The chance to experience both higher lateral loadings and less traction control proved the R8 could be made to go impressively sideways – especially when a timely shower of rain arrived to dampen the circuit. But it still never felt like a particularly natural way to drive the car.
While the R8 felt impressively potent being wrung out on a tight-fitting racetrack, real roads also confirmed that the V10 will feel outgunned by almost every obvious alternative. It might seem daft to criticise any car with a 3.7-second 0-62mph time for feeling slow, and in objective terms a brutally launched RWD Performance clearly isn’t. But anyone coming from a turbocharged 911 or an AMG GT is going to find the Audi lacking in low-down, or even mid-range, torque – considered gear selection is required ahead of the need for full acceleration. For the faithful that is definitely part of the appeal, and it does give the chance to experience the scintillating soundtrack, but it is a very obvious point of difference from whizz-bang rivals. The Performance’s insubstantial gearchange paddles remain a real disappointment, too; they’d feel underspec in a car costing half as much.
The R8’s role as an exemplar of back-to-basics dynamics takes its biggest knock with the steering. It’s certainly not bad, but nor is it especially good – an area where it feels close to the wider Audi range. Both the Coupe and Spyder I drove on Gran Canaria had the rack-tightening Dynamic set-up which won’t be offered in Britain, but even behind the low-speed ratio tweaking feedback felt distant and muted, much less natural than the sensation Porsche manages to conjure up with the 992’s all-electric rack. Final judgement will have to wait until we get the fixed ratio system in the UK, of course – and, unlike the quattro, the rear-drive car never has any hint of torque corruption from effort behind sent forwards.
The R8 will live for a while longer, but barring limited editions – at least one of which is likely to be an equivalent to the first-gen R8 GT – it is clearly on the ramp to retirement. The UK configurator page has to be about the least configurable of all time; beyond colour and wheel patterns the only options for the regular Performance are silver or black sideblades – a snip at £150 – and the £3,250 substitution of the standard adjustable sports seats for fixed back buckets. Compared to the bottomless complexity of the 911 configurator, which offers the choice between nine different seat belt colours, Audi isn’t encouraging engagement. Or maybe the company is just demonstrating a single-minded clarity of purpose.
But the R8 has always done things differently, and ploughed a lonely furrow. It remains a compelling car, and although the Performance is more expensive than the outgoing RWD model it is well priced against the top end of the sports car segment, and looks like a bargain compared to the junior supercars, especially as it shares its hugely characterful engine with one of them. It won’t exist for much longer, and Audi has confirmed its next R-car will be pure electric – so we should celebrate this R8 while we still can.
SPECIFICATION | AUDI R8 PERFORMANCE RWD
Engine: 5,204cc, V10
Transmission: 7-speed twin clutch, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): [email protected],900rpm
Torque (lb ft): [email protected],400rpm
0-62mph: 3.7sec (coupe), 3.8sec (Spyder)
Top speed: 204mph (coupe), 203mph (Spyder)
Weight: 1,590kg (coupe), 1695kg (Spyder)
Price: £126,885 (Coupe), £135,575 (Spyder)
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