The Audi R8 coupe has undeniable road presence and personality. It has a look all its own, and it is one that hints very clearly to the car’s performance prowess. Its shape belies its character, and standing behind the car, viewing its V-8 motor through the rear glass, it’s difficult not to be either content or in awe. It costs a pretty penny, beginning at about $114,000, but it looks at least that pretty and unique. Indeed, there is a lot to set this car well apart from other cars, in both appearance and driving prowess.
The gated six-speed manual transmission is quite involving and exciting to use. It feels very good and substantial in hand, and it’s hard to miss and easy to grip when reaching for it. By far the most interesting part of using this is the sound it makes at it slides through the gates. The clackety sound of metal on metal as you row through the gears gives you and your passenger a sense that this is a different, special kind of vehicle to drive.
The flip side of that coin is that the six-speed manual is pretty clumsy in its actual operation. It’s difficult to shift fast, as it binds up a bit when you try to flick it from gear to gear, reluctant to fall all the way into the gate. The trick is to learn its limits, and to move the lever into gear just a tick slower than that. Not ideal for the quickest acceleration runs, but a fact of life of owning a quirky car is that you have to learn its quirks, and abide by them. In a way, it adds a level of involvement, and makes it a fact of life that one person can be better than another at driving this particular car, and that all comes with one-on-one experience with the R8.
The Audi Quattro all-wheel-drive system is a good fit for the R8, and allows it to really lock in grip when knocking out a hard acceleration run from a stop or slow speeds. The wheels bite hard, and as the power flows to all four wheels, the R8 leaps forward like a practiced Olympic sprinter, and maintains forward grip as you shift hard into second gear, and into third.
Power delivery from the 4.2 liter V-8 that sits directly behind the front seats is impressive. 316 pound-feet of torque is enough to get this car moving rapidly, but the magic happens as the revs climb. The power curve is pretty steady in the lower and middle reaches of the rev ladder, but as the tach heads northward, you feel the power become more accessible and freely flowing. With revs in the upper reaches, the R8 eagerly surges forward all the way up to redline. Get good at making the most of this top-heavy power band and timing shifts appropriately, and acceleration runs are exciting and rewarding. Taking this engine all the way to the top, then chucking it into the next gear, landing in a place where power is ready to stream forth again, is addictive. Practicing driving this car fast takes a bit of work, but is very much worth the effort.
When it’s time to change the direction of the momentum, the Audi R8 is certainly up to the task. With the all-wheels-driven format and the big rubber shoes, this car hangs on with incredible grip. It corners flatly, tracing a perfect arc almost every time, regardless of whether you feed in throttle or haul off speed with the brakes. The “on-rails” cliché of old applies here, and the R8 tackles bends with the prowess of a smooth steel rollercoaster. Thankfully the seats offer a good amount of support to keep driver and passenger firmly planted in the chairs as g-forces build and wane. We suspect that many a driver will fall in love with the Audi R8 for just this reason.
Despite its handling prowess there’s not a lot on offer in terms of steering feel. It feels pretty natural in a straight line, but as you add in more and more steering input the weight feels a bit artificial. Also, the R8’s tiller doesn’t offer much in the way of feedback. There’s a little bit of communication as you approach the lateral grip limits, but with that being such a high threshold, there’s a lot of driving to be done where the wheel isn’t really a useful tool to judge what is going on between trie and tarmac. The driver just has to sort of trust that there is a high level of grip on offer, and that the Audi will end up heading where you point it—not a big drawback since the amount of grip exceeds the usual amount by quite a bit.
On the highway, at highway speeds and higher, the R8 handles—and forgive us for using the next three clichéd words, but they’re apt descriptors, truly—like a dream. It tracks straight and true in a way that should make even long-wheelbase limousines hang their headlights in shame. Point the car, set the accelerator, and as long as the road doesn’t curve, you could practically take a nap behind the wheel. Even larger bumps don’t knock the R8 off its prescribed course, and the steering wheel stays nicely still. This means there’s not a lot this car can do to fatigue you on longer drives. If it had more storage space, the R8, with its wide stance and excellent stability, would make a pretty decent and entertaining touring car for two. Here, on the highway, the steering behavior of the R8—which might seem a bit numb in more dynamic driving situations—is a good fit. It inspires confidence as speeds increase, which is something many fast cars can’t offer, especially in the amounts the R8 can.
In addition, the R8’s ride is exceptional in most any type of driving situation. It feels very stable on various road surface, and in less-than-ideal conditions. For as sporting as it is, it still offers an excellent level of comfort, sorting out the harshness imparted from the road. Still though, the suspension is communicative, and is the driver’s main source of information about what is going on between the car and road. The fact that it is able to offer this sort of feedback, yet still be undisruptive and connected says a lot about Audi engineering and the high level of quality of the R8.
There’s even buttons to switch the suspension to Sport mode, but we found that it only made much of a difference to put it in Normal mode when the roads got really rough. Otherwise, either setting felt fine in most situations. The suspension’s balance of comfort and communication does a lot to set the Audi R8 apart from other supercars, but it isn’t the only thing that makes this car worth comparing to other cars in the price range.
In a car like this, with the driver’s focus directed so much on the driving experience, it would be completely understandable for the occupants to basically overlook the interior. Thankfully, Audi kept it pretty straightforward, and focused on the driving. In our black tester, the cabin was dark, simple, easy to use, but also supportive, cozy, and upscale. The driver’s footwell is a bit narrow, and the dead pedal is moved a bit too far toward the seat, but it is otherwise surprisingly roomy for a supercar coupe.
It doesn’t matter that this generation of the R8 has been around long enough for people to get used to seeing it; people are not used to seeing it. More than almost any other car we’ve driven, this one garnered an incredible amount of commentary from the public—and all of it positive. If you’re lucky enough to spend some time behind the wheel, be prepared to answer a lot of questions from strangers, whether they’re already fans of the R8 or unfamiliar. Despite being such a standout, something about the car—perhaps its familiar Audi badge—makes it approachable to most people. Despite its rarity, there seems to be something unpretentious about this car, and it receives a lot of appreciation from all walks of life. That’s the perfect example of “cool” if you’re asking us.