Jan. 6 (Bloomberg) -- The Audi R8 Spyder makes me want to move to California.
A few minutes in the convertible, sun pinking my nose, and I’m ready to trade my life in the blizzard-prone Northeast for earthquakes, fires, state bankruptcy and paparazzi.
Since the Spyder sports car starts at $161,000, I’ll probably have to live in a rundown place in the Valley, but I’ll still be ruling Los Angeles from the Audi’s leather-bucketed throne, with the V-10 engine right behind me.
I’m a fan of the R8 coupe in both 4.2-liter V-8 and 5.2-liter V-10 guises, and was not surprised to see Audi roll out of a topless version. It’s a time-honored -- and bottom-line pleasing -- tradition among makers of exotic cars.
What I didn’t expect was that trading its metal lid for a soft top would also set the rather constrained R8 free. It ditches the Hugo Boss suit and briefcase for board shorts and aviator shades. The convertible looks different, handles differently, and completely changes the perspective from inside the car.
My metallic-brown test model twinkles in the L.A. sunlight as I snap down the freeway at 85 mph, other cars ceding territory to its bright LED running lights. Then, into Beverly Hills for a latte, where I’m one of the tribe. No matter that I’m an arriviste -- so is everybody else.
This R8 has the larger V-10 engine, and it’s arguably more power than you need in a convertible. After all, ditching the top also means that the R8 could no longer function as a weekend racetrack car, a personal fantasy I often entertain on snowy Sundays in New York City.
In the coupe, I prefer the superfast 6-speed automatic transmission, controlled by behind-the-wheel paddles. You can shift in a tenth of a second. Yet here I’ve got an old-world, six-speed open-gate manual shifter. You have to negotiate the metal stick through a series of open, gaping slots large enough to drop a nickel into.
On the racetrack you lose too much time finding those gears. Yet in the convertible it’s perfect: Passengers in higher-riding cars get to look down into the open cockpit and watch the operation. Every time you shift, there is a soft clink of metal on metal.
Caffeinated, I head for the Angeles National Forest north of the city, a place I’ve always imagined as primeval timberland, but which suffered a terrible fire in 2009, so I find instead spindly copses of flame-touched foliage. What it still offers are thickets of looping ridge-side roads.
I drive for hours and hours and am never once behind another car. The R8 pulls me relentlessly along, grabbing purchase with all four tires through tight corkscrew turns and open sweepers. The combination of all-wheel-drive, mid-engine layout, manual transmission and big engine is the perfect algorithm for a convertible.
It’s not as stiff as the coupe, true, yet it feels more like motoring. The weight is ideal, and even though I’m shifting mostly between redline at third into fourth, I come nowhere near the limits of the car. If I heard tires shrieking on these narrow roads, it would mean I’d done something grievously wrong.
The brake and accelerator pedals are perfectly situated for blipping the gas as you downshift -- a racing technique used to blend engine speeds and one of those esoteric techniques that’s both pleasing and rare to get right. I do it correctly almost every shift in this car.
There are a few things I’d change. Mostly, I wish the R8 had a “mean” button you could engage, which would open up the engine and allow it to get really throaty and wild, more like the Lamborghini Gallardo from which it is derived. Even when you’re really gunning it, the V-10 is too polite by half. Fine around town, but out here I want to hear myself.
The footwell is also cramped, with the left-side dead pedal pushed too far forward, so my left leg cramps. I wish the seats had slightly better lumbar support, too.
In the shadows of the mountains it’s much colder, in the 50s, but it’s below freezing back home so no worries. I’m in a T-shirt with the top down. I get out at the crest of a 7,000-foot ridge, ostensibly to look at the view. I soon give up peering through the smog and just stare at the car.
The Spyder has lost the coupe’s signature side scoops, and you can no longer see the engine itself behind glass. Yet with the top missing, the proportions are better -- wider and more squished. More exotic.
I leave the mountains far to the east of the city. It’ll be a long ride back on highways, along flatland that’s already full of traffic moving at 80 mph. I hurl myself into it, confident in my machine.
No more snow days -- just warm wind in your face. It’s a California dream.
The 2011 Audi R8 5.2 Spyder at a Glance
Engine: 5.2-liter V-10 with 525 horsepower and 391 pound- feet of torque.
Transmission: Six-speed manual or six-speed automatic.
Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 4 seconds.
Gas mileage per gallon: 12 city; 19 highway.
Price as tested: $171,915.
Best feature: That sense of entitled freedom.
Worst feature: Can we get a bit more noise, please?
Target buyer: The Los Angeles titan.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper at Jason@JasonHharper.com or follow on Twitter @JasonHarperSpin.
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