New toys cool off after a few years, by definition. None more so than a $200,000 sports car.
Audi’s R8 was the sexy young thing in 2007, a novel-looking, mid-engine machine with a sheath of carbon fiber running down the bodywork just aft of the doors.
It was purposeful without being too gimmicky. It even had a crafty marketing tie-in with the Iron Man movie.
Any two-seat rocket is a want and not a need, and buyers are soon attracted to the next shiny thing. The 2014 model-year R8 has a number of subtle revisions -- including LED headlamps and a new transmission -- but the car is at that fragile juncture where consumer excitement has waned.
Still, the coupe is a favorite of mine for its drivability on both road and racetrack and utter ease of use. It’s comfortable and the front nose clears driveway curbs, rarities in the supercar world.
The engine is located behind the driver so there is no trunk, just a storage space in the hood. You could run daily errands as long as you’re picking up Chinese take-out and not big bags of groceries.
I wanted to revisit the R8 in its middle age, so I set a date with the top-performance model, the V-10 Plus coupe, with a sticker of $191,445 as tested. The R8 is available with either a 430 horsepower V-8 and a base price of $116,000 or a V-10 with up to 550 hp.
The R8 is shaped like a globule of water on a flat surface, and that design risks becoming dated. And perhaps it does look less of-the-moment compared to the Ferrari 458, a mid-engine supercar with more angularities and sexier curves.
The R8 is blunt by comparison. Still, there’s something compelling to its uncluttered silhouette and the poised-at-attention attitude of the triple grill, which wraps around the entire nose.
The cockpit feels more intimate than I’d remembered, and also somewhat aged with analog rather than digital gauges and Audi’s rather creaky interface for controlling stereo and navigation systems.
The company has a much fancier system found on its newer cars like the S7. An optional $5,000 leather package with diamond stitching went a long way toward sprucing things up.
I turned the ignition key and the frothy V-10 hummed behind me, a 5,204 cubic-centimeter blender of the gods, achieving full horsepower at a furious 8,000 revolutions per minute.
At idle it only gives the merest hint of its potency. Even at full bore, though, it sounds less raunchy than its VW Group stable mate, the Lamborghini Gallardo, with which it shares some parts and basic engine configuration.
Running a series of lonely back roads, some blanketed in orange leaves and loose gravel, the R8 was all fluidity and deceptive ease.
The all-wheel-drive system is tuned for performance, but it shows great confidence in bad weather and loose surfaces. I even took the car on a hard-packed dirt road, windows down and the cool fall air flowing in.
This is a sports car though, so I placed it in sport mode which makes the engine sound raspier and its automatic gear shifts sharper. The 2014 model gets a very real upgrade from a single clutch automated manual to a double-clutch transmission, which is slicker, smoother and faster.
It turns out to be a delight, downshifting with sharp intakes of breath, harsh but not irritating, letting you know the vehicle is attentive and attuned.
This car is seriously fast, and yet doesn’t give any sense of drama or fright. Carbon-ceramic brakes are standard on the Plus model, and they are superb.
The best way to really push a car like this is on the racetrack, so I brought it out to a road course that had a variety of hardcore sports cars whipping around, including Ferraris and SRT Vipers.
The original R8 had a 4.2-liter V-8 with less than 420 horsepower, occasionally leaving it gasping for breath on long straightaways. The latest combination of 550 hp and the rear-biased all-wheel-drive makes for a much more focused vehicle, carrying tremendous speed around curves.
Yet the car’s willingness to power slide through sharp corners and make quick directional changes seems almost playful. It’s easy to control, and the nose of the car follows directions as if guided by laser.
I found myself giggling as I chased down even more powerful sports cars on the track -- the R8 likes to dance.
At some point in the future, surely, we’ll get an all-new R8. But as I was so vividly reminded, the R8 has earned its place among really good, fast cars. I’d simply been away too long.
The 2014 Audi R8 V-10 Plus at a Glance
Engine: 5.2-liter V-10 with 550 horsepower and 398 pound-
feet of torque.
Transmission: Seven-speed double-clutch automated manual.
Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 3.3 seconds.
Gas mileage per gallon: 13 city, 22 highway.
Price as tested: $191,445.
Best feature: Superior traction and handling.
Worst feature: Interior systems need an update.
Target buyer: Driver who wants an easy-to-live-with
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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