My brain picked a truly lousy day to wake up in a foul mood. And not just with any old headache, this was a real schedule-obliterator. My cerebral cortex could’ve elected to implode on any other Wednesday in April it wanted, but no, it selected a day when gravity was already working with twice its usual conviction to keep me down.
But there I was, barreling deep into triple-digit speeds at the wheel of Audi’s new R8 V10 Plus on one of the most famous stretches of asphalt anywhere in the world. I wouldn’t have traded this moment for anything.
Yes, my skull felt like it was collapsing under its own weight, as the few remaining drops of blood siphoned from my helmet and made a beeline for my shoes. But all I could do was grin like an idiot, marvel at my good fortune, and mash the accelerator more firmly against its bumpstop. Headache be damned, I was piloting this $200,000 mid-engined supercar on the unforgiving banks of Daytona International Speedway, and I was experiencing a gorgeous, gorgeous life moment.
That bit about my blood fleeing from my gourd and dribbling into my sneakers? I was hurting, but that part wasn’t the headache. That’s just what the 31-degree, face-mangling banks of Daytona and the business end of 610 horsepower will do to a man.
Yes, 610. While the standard R8 V10 twiddles along with 540 horsepower and 398 pound-feet of torque, the V10 Plus I drove on the track extracts 60 more horses and 15 more pound-feet than before, for a total of 610 hp and 413 lb-ft from its naturally aspirated, 5.2-liter V10.
Let me take a moment to underline those two terms not often heard anymore at new car introductions: “Naturally aspirated” and “V-10.” In an age rampant with forced induction and downsized cylinder counts, this engine stands in exception to modern performance car theory. Yet it’s plenty modern, and yoked to a standard seven-speed S Tronic dual-clutch gearbox and all-wheel drive, it’s a wonderfully flexible, characterful power train. Better still, with standard dry-sump lubrication, there’s no issue of oil starvation at the extreme angles and g-forces Daytona forces the car to adopt.
While supercars as a whole are still often tarred with the “temperamental” brush, new R8 owners have reason for optimism — that V-10? With the exception of a flange sticking off the end designed for a racing clutch, it’s the exact same engine that Audi runs in its LMS race cars for an entire season without a rebuild. The only difference is that the V10 Plus street car’s engine is actually more powerful thanks to unique software mapping (regulations hamstring the race car).
It’s not just the powerplant that will be familiar to Audi race engineers. The R8 V10’s chassis has a lot in common with its track-bound brethren, too. Its Aluminum Spaceframe chassis includes plenty of structural carbon fiber reinforced plastic — a new technology for production Audis — and is all but indistinguishable from that of its corporate cousin Lamborghini’s Huracan. Audi says the car is 50-percent identical to the race car, with most of the differences having to do with bodywork and interior. Fully dressed, the streetable V10 tips the scales at a not-insubstantial 3,737 pounds, while the harder-core V10 Plus uses lighter components to drop 110 pounds.
I’ll momentarily return to the subject of Daytona on-track antics, but let’s talk about the new R8’s over-the-road manners first, as they are quite exemplary. Despite ending up on the hallowed grounds of Daytona, my drive actually started in the Asheville, NC, where I sampled both the aforementioned V10 Plus and the standard-issue V10 model on the region’s winding mountain roads.
With less power and more weight, you might expect the “base” V10 model to be a comparative snooze, and while it has Grand Tourer undertones thanks to its available sophisticated magnetic ride control suspension (Plus models employ a stiffer and lighter fixed steel-spring setup), it’s still vividly engaging, even with no manual transmission available. In fact, if you’re not planning to take your car to the track regularly, the base V10 is likely the smarter purchase, both for your pocketbook and for ease of living. It’s plenty rapid (0-60 happens in a factory-estimated 3.5 seconds and top speed is 199 mph), and starting at $162,900, it’s a lot less scratch than the $189,900 Plus.
Admittedly, the Plus also comes with carbon ceramic Brembos and a bunch of expensive woven bits including a rear diffuser, front splitter and a prominent fixed rear wing that generates 220 pounds of downforce. The Plus’ racing shell seats are even comfortable enough for everyday use. So if you’re going to order a bunch of extras like the upgraded brakes, you’ll probably find yourself within rich-people-spitting-distance of the Plus, anyhow. At that point, it’s probably just as well to splurge for the Plus and its 3.2-second 0-60 time and 205-mph top whack. In either case, both models actually feel quicker than their already rapid official 0-60 times (some media outlets have tested the Plus and say it does the deed in as little as 2.6 seconds, which is absurdly quick).
But forget those numbers for a moment. The first-generation R8 earned a reputation as the industry’s premiere “everyday” supercar owing to its surprisingly liveable interior, sensible ergonomics, all-weather all-wheel drive and general refinement and drivability. Some armchair enthusiasts confused the car’s flexibility and relative ubiquity (globally, Audi sold some 27,000 first-generation models) with the R8 being ordinary or somehow unengaging. I always found it to be a rewarding steer, but this second generation is noticeably keener, with sharper steering and a more playful nature. It’s also just as civilized in traffic as it was before.
There are more competitors trying to strike that same work/play balance these days, including Porsche’s 911 Turbo, McLaren’s 570GT and Acura’s new NSX, so Audi engineers knew they had to up their game. In particular, they spend a lot of time reworking the R8’s front suspension and developing a new variable-ratio electric power steering system.
The result? Very quick turn-in — noticeably more than previously seen — along with improved feel. The wide-carriage chassis (76.4 inches — a few tenths off the span of an A8) admittedly still felt a bit, well, Kardashianesque, on some of the narrower stretches of Great Smoky Mountain tarmac, but upon building rapport with the car, I found it possible to confidently pitch it into corners into corners better suited for something the size of a Mazda Miata.
While it was tempting to put the standard R8 V10 into Dynamic mode in such conditions, the truth is that on public roads, the car was often both happier and quicker set in Auto, though the suspension was never punishing in any mode.
Crucially, it was still easy to take full control of the transmission manually with the paddles the entire time when I wanted to. (Fully automatic is damn clever and hard to improve upon, but using the flickshifters remains more fun.) In most cases, the 120-ms shifts are so quick that there’s zero shift shock — only the tachometer and your ears register the cog swaps — and grabbing the paddles allow you to better hear the V-10’s captivatingly unique soundtrack, uneven firing order and all. You just don’t get to hear free-breathing, high-cylinder-count engines much anymore, and sending the tach needle soaring to the sky-high 8,700-rpm fuel cutoff makes the R8 experience that much more special.
Even with its switchable exhaust bypass opened, the R8 won’t wake all the neighbors the way a Jaguar F-Type SVR will, but neither is it as likely to run afoul of racetrack decibel restrictions. Its sound is so intoxicating that I actually wouldn’t mind a third, even more vocal mode for empty back-road blasts, but I suppose succor will come in the form of the open-top R8 Spyder.
Roof or no roof, the R8’s cabin is clearly a special place, from its quilted Alcantara headliner on down to its metal pedals. The interior is as well-appointed as any other high-end Audi, including the latest MMI navigation system with finger-swipe pad and Google Earth imagery, standard 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot and Internet radio. A 550-watt, 13-speaker Bang & Olufsen audio system is standard on the V10, but it’s optional on the V10 Plus (to keep weight down).
It’s an intensely driver-focused environment, this cabin. Note how there’s no conventional center screen, or really, many controls between the driver and passenger at all. Instead, a crisp 12.3-inch display functions as the all-in-one gauge cluster, navi and infotainment screen. Dubbed Virtual Cockpit, this arrangement will be familiar territory to anyone who has driven Audi’s latest TT.
VC works in concert with an excellent flat-bottomed steering wheel housing a host of multi-function controls, including ignition, drive mode, exhaust mode, and so on. Unlike the functionally similar wheel on Ferrari’s 488 GTB, this control array is easy to get used to and soon becomes second nature. The single-screen system saves weight and decreases build complexity, but passengers may feel a bit left out of the fun, since it’s all but impossible for them to play deejay or input navigation directions. Regrettably, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto aren’t along for the drive, but officials tell me compatibility is expected in the future.
One last cabin note: In direct sunlight, a few drivers on this trip — myself included — noticed some pretty wicked windshield glare coming off the instrument cluster’s carbon fiber trim sitting atop the dashboard.
You notice I haven’t mentioned the R8’s looks until now. That’s partially because I imagine you’ve already clicked through our gallery, and also because even if you haven’t seen a 2017 R8 in the metal, you probably already have a good sense of what you think about the design. Yes, it’s very safe evolution of the fast-becoming-iconic original. The big changes include what is now a two-piece sideblade look, and in general, crisper, more defined character lines in the bodywork, and a slightly more angular overall aesthetic promoted by the new six-sided grille and headlamp elements.
Me? I loved the one-piece sideblades of the original, and frankly, I might even prefer the cleaner, more horizontal graphic on the nose of the original R8, a car that for me remains a high-water mark of design. It’s all a matter of opinion, of course, and I still like the new car, especially some of the subtle detailing including the head and tail lamp innards, the better-integrated door handles and so on.
Overall, if you liked the original R8, you’ll probably still think this one looks the business.
You’d certainly have a much greater appreciation for the R8’s design and abilities were you to get unfettered access to the R8 on the road course at Daytona. Audi itself did, back in January, when its R8 LMS won the 2016 Rolex 24 endurance race at this very track.
Thankfully, I did, too. It’s worth noting that it’s rare for automakers to grace journalists with such unrestricted access at such legendary temples of speed. Simply put, we got more time on the circuit, and with fewer constraints (pace cars, abbreviated courses) at this truly high-speed, “Big Boy” circuit than at any such track in recent memory.
Fortunately, the new R8’s performance justified its handlers’ confidence, with significantly improved dynamics, including remarkable mid-corner grip, tremendous brakes, and notable stability under hard braking from high triple-digit speeds. It was such a convincing performance that I actually came away wondering why anyone would spend the extra $65,000 for Lambo’s Huracán, a car my contemporaries assure me is the bee’s knees.
At the end of my Daytona drive experience, despite a long day filled with loud noises, harsh sunlight, intense g-forces and the mental stress of hitting 170+ mph, I realized something remarkable: My headache had passed, and I felt invigorated.
Is there anything the R8 can’t do?
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