First Drive Review: 2013 Audi R8 V10 Plus – Driving a Real-Deal Audi Super Seducer

 

Snap is automotive journalism’s equivalent to James Bond, this time in the 2013 Audi R8 V10 Plus.

Audi R8 V10 Plus

This is finally exactly what it wanted to be all along. So naturally it costs a crapload.

I have driven all the curvaceous R8 Audis and mostly loved them one and all. Pretty much always have hated the six-speed R-tronic placeholder automated gearbox, but an S-tronic competition grade dual-clutch gearbox in 2006 would have extended beyond the rear fascia of the R8 like the glowing butt of a howling macaque. Or, if you please, the parachute assembly on many an old-school dragster.

So, without the six-speed manual or the 5.2-liter V10 motor, an R8 has never walked the walk it so often talked about. And they still sold well to the newer breed of buyer with fresh cash from porn site profits who are frequently passionate about J.Lo’s perfume line. Audi’s quattro GmbH (pronounced “Gumby” in my small little fragile world) department of lab coat fillers could do better at the very least regarding that tranny.

Even in the supercar segments, there’s room for occasional challengers to the establishment, be it styling or powertrain technology. Sometimes, just the presence of a new marque – read the Bugatti relaunch or McLaren original F1 or new MP4-12C – is enough of a disruptor to put everyone on guard.

And that’s what happened with the original R8. Not only did it introduce Audi as a new player into the segment, it did so with iconoclastic styling and a new approach. In a way that only the Acura NSX did before it, the R8 rationalized the supercar. That might not be an inherently sexy concept, but as Honda has proved many times over, sexy schmexy. Like the NSX, the R8 gave the segment an exciting matinee idol that honestly anyone with a functional enough brain could drive well, with docile around-town manners, surprisingly good visibility and (in the R8’s case at least) a robust, ergonomic interior to go with its impressive performance. And it did so with all-wheel drive, making it the first supercar capable of traversing the Northwest Passage. Damn you, global warming!

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All of which explains how I ended up racing the latest hottest R8, the V10 Plus Coupe (try saying “koo-PAY” while flapping your hands around like a hairdresser), around the soaking wet track at Misano Adriatico, much more quickly than I would have tried with any other car. Usually, you’d never take something as low-slung and powerful as this out in inclement weather, let alone around a Moto GP circuit where the slick-surfaced asphalt could slickly scrag you in an instant. And yet, there I was, in colder temps, savaging throttle and redline downshifts at high speeds, sliding in utterly predictable fashion and not worrying at all. My Plus seems utterly oblivious to the absurdity of the situation, the high-revving 5.2-litre engine screaming out of corners – screams audible down at the wet deserted beach – swank new LED lighting piercing the grey.

Audi has equipped my V10 Plus R8 coupé with surprisingly steady Pirelli P Zero tires – 235/35 ZR19 91Y front and 305/30 ZR19 102Y rear – and combined with the R8′s quattro all-wheel drive, this 542-horsepower R8 pulled hard out of the corners like a quartet of mudskippers donning Velcro. Only the tightest of switchbacks caused split-second squiggly moments of consternation, wherein I could feel quattro shuffling torque around between my car’s four corners. It was a legitimately awe-inspiring performance – and I was just as suitably impressed when I also drove the 424-bhp R8 V8 and standard 518-bhp V10. This isn’t just a cosmetic massage on this midlife R8 family.

On the aesthetics front, there wasn’t much to alter, so the most obvious changes for 2014 are the R8′s new light fixtures. All-LED units front and rear catch the eye whether illuminated or not, with their most notable feature being a “dynamic turn signal” function that runs an amber bar of 30 LEDs in a sequential swipe from the inside of the car out. Other changes include a modestly reworked front bumper and a tapered-corner single-frame grille, and out back there’s a freshened outback with a pair of oversized round exhaust outlets punching through the flush surface. By and large, the R8′s form looks the same as it ever was, which is to say gR8.

The same can be said for the interior, which receives minor changes including some improved switchgear and “even more precisely designed” instrument needles that really really point at those dial numbers. The most noticeable change is the availability of quilted leather and a matching Alcantara headliner. Sadly, the R8 does not receive Audi’s latest MMI interface with its Google 3D Maps and touchpad, and in fact, I experienced two incidents in two different vehicles where the system failed at orienteering. I was lost, afraid, alone, and without water for what seemed weeks.

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One area that did need serious improvement was the optional no-clutch setup. As stated, the standard ML600 six-speed manual has been very satisfying since the R8′s launch, but the old SL600 Lamborghini-derived R-Tronic single-clutch gearbox left much wanting in terms of refinement. If you were piling along at 9/10ths on a circuit, its rapidity and assertiveness could be an asset, but the transmission’s often herky-jerky around-town comportment scarred what otherwise was a peerless experience.

For 2014, Audi has binned the R-Tronic in favor of a new S-Tronic twin-clutch unit, and it’s the single biggest leap forward. Oh, the console gear lever for the S-Tronic remains a bit fiddly (the forward-to-upshift scheme still feels backwards, and putting the car in Neutral before shutting it off still feels strange), but not only does this new unit pick up an extra cog, it’s more expedient, smoother and better-behaved than the old unit. Blink-quick gear swaps are a finger twitch away, with downshifts accompanied by a nice rev-matched throttle blip. You can block shift, too, changing down from seventh to fifth in one go (just squeeze the redesigned, larger and better-feeling paddle twice) for maximum passing power. Unsurprisingly, the new setup makes for a quicker car, with 0-100 kilometres per hour falling to 4.3 seconds in the V8 – 0.3 seconds quicker than the old unit. The three-shaft unit (which sounds so dirty) is actually over six inches shorter than the R Tronic and thus less manly, but it’s slightly heavier while being more efficient.

Ultimately, I still prefer the stainless-gated clack of the six-speed manual for maximum driver involvement, but this is still an engaging setup and one of the best dual-clutch units on the market. The only time I caught it out was the occasional low road- and engine-speed ‘thunk’ upon manually downshifting when the transmission was in Sport mode, as when coming to a stop. And there was a little stopping practice on this day with the Plus car’s standard carbon ceramic brake discs workin’ it.

The R8 didn’t really earn its supercar wings until the Gallardo-sourced 5.2-litre V10 came along in 2009, bringing with it a full 518 bhp and 391 lb-ft. In this latest generation, the V10 Coupe comes standard with the S-Tronic ‘box for the most rapid progress – 3.6 seconds 0-62 – but the manual is optional, carrying with it a 0.3-second penalty. The S-Tronic Coupe tops out at 196 mph, while Audi says the manual will earn an extra mph for bragging rights. Is this fast enough for your crap commute over insanity-inducing expansion strips from the Eisenhower administration?

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Opt for the V10 Spyder and the figures are 3.8 seconds (S-Tronic) and 4.1 (manual). That’s a commendably small penalty for the joy of droptop motoring – especially when it lets you better hear the V10 shrieking its lungs out at 8,700 rpm. Even so, I prefer the lines of the coupe, as the convertible’s deletion of the side blade not only makes the design somewhat more ordinary, it also makes the wheelbase look a bit too long. But I do like the design of the rear half of the Spyder with its CFRP back deck for covering the motor and the roof stowage.

All-wheel drive can leave cars feeling somewhat reluctant to change direction, but the R8 remains game. Yes, there’s still the same safe-as-houses veneer of initial understeer if you enter a corner too hot and on a frequently incorrect line or try to get on the power too soon (especially in this wet I had to deal with), but get it right and the R8 rewards with the neutrality of a pudgy eunich. You can even hang its tail out if you let the onboard techies off their leash a bit. With a default power delivery of 85-percent rear and 15-percent up front combined with mid-engined packaging, the R8 never feels nose-heavy or sloppy, and steering feel from the hydraulic system is very good. The brakes for the V8 R8 can stay iron and steel, but any V10 R8 must have the carbon ceramic units which bite hard early and peel 26 avoirdupois from the all-important rolling weight.

Despite its aluminum and magnesium-intensive construction, the R8 still needs help being carried across the threshold – the base V8 Coupe tips the scales at 3,440 lbs. That’s pretty light all things considered, but it’s still nearly 350 lbs more than a Porsche 911 Carrera 4. To be fair, the Porsche is also a lot less powerful and comes with less standard equipment, but still the Audi gets some premium German tummy rolls to hide that belt.

That’s where the new hardcore V10 Plus coupé comes in. Picking up where last year’s R8 GT left off and available only in hardhat format, the Plus gets the lead out, purging superfluous sound insulation and substituting thinner carpets, lighter and larger forged alloys in a dark finish, a specially tuned suspension similar to that of the GT (dropping the heavier adaptive magnetic ride control setup that comes standard on other V10 models), a bunch more carbon fiber reinforced plastic parts and standard ceramic brakes. Those changes add up to a 110-lb weight savings in Euro trim, which also includes special lightweight seats. Them seats be not available for North America due to lack of all necessary airbags, damnit.

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The V10 has been retuned as well, and it now delivers 542 horses and 398 lb-ft – enough, Audi says, to shave the run to 62 mph to 3.5 seconds and push top speed to 198 mph. It’s even faster than that, though, judging by the expert seat of my pants. Even in the wet, this thing sets images of Vettel or Schumi dancing through the head. Shifts are bam-bam-bam specific and the Pirellis, though not made for this treatment, didn’t bitch much at all. Natural aspiration and quattro and high flexible revs have their desired effect.

Driving the Plus, I see it’s not as out-and-out circuit-focused as the departing R8 GT, but it’s not that far off, either. If owners of the V10 R8 Plus leave it parked in heated garages more often than a standard R8, I shall find them all and bitch-slap them in front of their wives with my bare little hands.

If we are to innocently follow the 12.7-percent price hike for the V10 Plus car versus the standard V10 R8 hardtop (with new S-tronic, that is, so take this math with a grain of salt, pepper boy), Audi will want around  $180,000 when the R8 V10 Plus coupé starts showing up in showrooms in early 2013. Sheesh, Louise. Sure is nice and purty, though.

The Plus-y touches are greatly appreciated, but it is the job-specific new S-tronic that Audi is loudest and proudest about, and quite rightly so. It alters the car to what we’ve all always wished it to be when we dump the reliable manual six and go for the anyone-can-drive-it automated system.

In an odd side note, howsomever, the Lamborghini Gallardo will not get this new gearbox but stay with the existing six-speed clunker, probably really because Audi said “Screw you.” But what they’ll tell us, of course, is that the R-tronic/E-gear is “more sportier-y feeling”. Uh-huh.

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