With every car there is a moment that makes you decide whether you love it, or hate it. It could be a great run up a mountain two-lane, discovering that your hybrid has a seemingly bottomless tank of gas or, literally, a bump in the road.
With the Audi R8 5.2 this event took place about 15 seconds before it pulled up to the curb in front of Fox News HQ, right when it turned the corner and came into my field of vision. In the wild, the R8's mix of science and sexiness elevates it to a level rarely reached by earthbound vehicles, and anyone who thinks German cars should only be painted silver needs to see this one in Sepang Blue. It’s like making first contact. And it only gets better from there.
Absurd hyperboles aside, when the R8 was unveiled in 2006, it did appear to be a prop from a science fiction film set a few years in the future. It still does, and probably will a few years from now. The difference between this one and that one - aside from the slightly wider air intakes at the bottom of its sideburns...uh, that's side BLADES - is the V10 engine on display under the rear glass where a V8 used to be.
Derived from the one found in the Lamborghini Gallardo - the R8's Italian, VW-owned corporate cohort - the 5.2-liter is rated at 525 hp, fully 105 more than the V8 that's been far more than adequate in the R8 these past few years and is still available for the now discount price of $114,200.
The 5.2 starts at $146,000, but that premium includes a batch of standard features that are optional on the base R8, including $3,500 LED headlights, a backup camera and a 12-speaker Bang and Olufsen sound system. Icing on a very tasty cake.
The interior of the R8 is dressed to the nines in leather, and has the clean, perfectly executed lines and finish that Audi’s are known for. The instrument cluster may be low-tech compared with the configurable flat-panel displays that are starting to show up in sports cars today, but it has a sharp, racy design. Same goes for the steering wheel and climate controls – all surprisingly simple in form and function, and that’s not a criticism.
Seating is upright for a car that sits so low, and visibility to the front and sides is better than you get on a motorcycle – at least while wearing a full-face helmet. On the other hand, the blind spots to the rear are enormous, but at least they are filled with those beautiful buttresses.
Order up some carbon fiber accents for $2,500, and the purposefulness of it all is enhanced further. It’s worth the outlay just for the parabola of the material that encompasses the driver’s side of the dash. But it is the things that you don’t see that make this sculpture a rolling one.
There’s Audi’s quattro all-wheel-drive, of course, but also a magnetically-controlled adaptive damping system for its double-wishbone suspension. A gated six-speed manual transmission is standard, but my tester was fitted with the R-Tronic single-clutch automatic – a $9,100 option.
That’s not cheap, especially considering that dual-clutch transmissions that are both quicker and smoother in their operation are quickly becoming the new norm, even in other Audis. But I’d like to make the case that this kind is actually better, and here’s why. Car enthusiasts often mourn the coming extinction of the manual transmission, arguing that automatics of any kind lessen driver involvement - and they’re right. But the newest automatics are simply better from a performance and efficiency standpoint, two things every car aims to maximize. The problem with the dual-clutch type is that they are so seamless, you feel absolutely nothing. Not so with the R-Tronic. Each shift is accompanied by a nice little surge, just as if you were changing gears yourself, which adds to the physical experience of driving the R8. It’s not quite the best of both worlds, but a fine compromise. Even if you’re not tearing it up on a track, it makes a highway slog that much more entertaining, as does the engine.
It’s a wonderfully high-strung unit. At 75 mph its 10 cylinders are already singing at 3,000 rpm in top gear. To put that in perspective, the V8 in a Porsche Panamera doesn’t even break 2,000 until you hit 90 mph, and it never sounds as good. Audi’s version of the motor has a unique intake and exhaust system that gives it a decidedly different character than the one in the Gallardo. It doesn’t scream at the top of its lungs all the time the way everything about its cugino does, so you can sneak out of the driveway in your dad’s R8 without waking him up.
Unleash it and it belts out a rich, aural massage. Better yet, engage the launch control, floor the gas, drop the brake and you’ll find out what a golf ball feels like as you are violently whacked in the back when the transmission engages and sends you on your way with an arpeggio of power filling your ears.
At this point, you have a choice: let the R-Tronic continue to take care of business, or start changing gears yourself. There is a pair of paddles behind the steering wheel to do this with, but they’re so small it’s almost as if they’re hiding back there. Better for once to use the chunky, aluminum shift knob in the center console that’s just begging to be slapped around. One nice feature about the R-Tronic is that if you give it three quick taps, it’ll jump three gears, rather than force you to stop and wait at each one in between like a lot of so-called automated manuals do. Braking hard for a turn and need to go from sixth to third? Fifth and Fourth can suck it up and wait until next time.
Steering response is as quick as you’re driving. Its variable ratio and resistance features reacting to speed and inputs, as does the suspension. You can lock the dampers in Sport which keeps things on the firm side, but even Normal the R8 is painted to the road, with barely a hint of body roll. Amazing, given how compliant it remains over beat up surfaces.
I drove the R8 down a gravel path to take some photos, only to discover that it quickly deteriorated into a rutted mess, with inches high rocks jutting out from the surface, but there was nary a scrape or scratch. It was all I could do to keep myself from pressing the accelerator to the firewall to see how much the car could take. Given Audi’s rally history, I’m sure it would’ve been just fine – but wasn’t about to pay the bill if I breached its limits.
I was less kind to it on pavement where the rear-biased all-wheel-drive system extracts the maximum potential of the fat Pirelli P-Zero tires, despite the R8 5.2’s relatively hefty 3,726-pound weight. Centrifugal, centripetal, whatever kind of force you throw at it, the R8 shrugs it off as if it has a grip on some fourth dimension. You can attack a hairpin turn with one hand on the wheel – not recommended, but fun nonetheless – crank it around, give it all the gas you can, and it executes a four-wheel shuffle while it figures out how to get you to the other side without incident – and always does. Even with the driver aids turned off, good luck getting the R8 to slide.
Look, if a Gallardo, a Ferrari 458 Italia, or even one of those pesky Corvette ZR1s showed up for a race, the R8 would likely lose – by a hair - but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable to drive. The R8 walks the line between grand tourer and demon seed like no other. It is such a satisfying car on so many levels that it could easily be a daily driver. But that’s crazy talk.
People who can afford an R8 don’t own just one car, they don’t even own just one home. But, they might own only one supercar, and if I were one of those people, there’s a good chance this would be it.
After all, it was love at first sight.
2010 Audi R8 5.2 R-Tronic
Base Price: $155,100
As Tested: $179,200
Type: 2-passenger, all-wheel-drive, 2-door coupe
Engine: 5.2-liter V10
Power: 525 hp, 391 lb-ft torque
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
MPG: 13 city/20 hwy