Car names are so homogeneous these days. Shopping for luxury sports sedans sounds like a trip down the microwave appliance aisle. Quick — what brands make the AMG CLA45, 3-Series M3, ATS-V and WM009? Answer: Mercedes, BMW, Cadillac, and that last one is a Westinghouse microwave.
Even sports cars aren’t spared. Audi’s expensive goods department, for example, offers a choice of A7, S7, RS7, A8, S8 or R8. Which one’s the mid-engine coupe?
You: I just bought an R8.
Neighbor: Oh, yeah, I love the big back seat.
You: No, that’s the A8. I have the two-seat sports car.
Yeah, that one. The one that shares a chassis and engine with the Lamborghini Huracan. The one with 610 horsepower and dual-clutch S-tronic tranny that shifts in under 100 milliseconds. The one that goes 0-60 mph in 2.6 seconds, faster than any naturally aspirated car on the planet. At least Lamborghini names its rocketship after a bull. I mean, c’mon, Audi! If you had to go alphanumeric, you couldn’t have named it the XXX? Or PDQ? Or OMG?
I particularly like that last one, because that’s what people kept shouting when I prowled the Dream Cruise last month. Even at 3 mph, the R8 looks like it’s doing a million. Heads snapped around like Beyonce had appeared in the middle of Woodward.
Oh, my god, Dad! It’s an R8!
Oh, my god! What is that?
Oh, my god! Is that the new R8?
OMG, this thing is intense. The Audi’s badge may be antiseptic, but it purposely echoes the brand’s legendary R8 race car that dominated LeMans at the turn of the century, proving Audi could compete on the world sports stage with Porsche and Mercedes. Like the racing prototype, R8 is the distillation of Audi’s best technology.
Now in its second generation, the R8 is uncompromising in speed and comfort. Audi nixed the previous gen’s lower-priced V8 option, meaning your choice is a 540- or 610-horsepower V10. As such, the $164,000-$200,000 Audi occupies a competitive market space with other powerful cyborgs like the Porsche 911 Turbo, McLaren 570S, Acura NSX and Mercedes AMG GT S.
With their conventional drivetrains (the battery-assisted NSX excepted) and sub-$200K stickers, these greyhounds put up similar performance numbers to gold-plated exotics like the $1.4 million Ferrari LaFerrari, $450,000 Ford GT, and aforementioned, $260,000 Huracan. Rare but hardly unicorns (by contrast, there are only three LaFerraris in all of Michigan) they are the face of GT racing, slugging it out in IMSA’s Weathertech series at venues like Detroit’s Belle Isle Grand Prix weekend where R8 finished 5th in the GTD class ahead of a Huracan. They are the cars that the $100,000 Corvette Z06 use as a performance baseline (thus its rightful place as the “budget supercar”).
Call them the Junior League of Supercars (taking a page from Marvel’s young superheroes). At $199,925, my Audi R8 V10 Plus may be the best of the breed.
Auto critic Payne tests out the Audi R8 on Pontiac's MI Concourse racetrack.
I say that having tested the class’s best athlete, the 2017 Porsche 911 Turbo, at California’s Thunderhill Raceway just days before delivery of my R8 (“Plus” designates the 610-horsepower option). Stuttgart’s superhero outduels the Audi in virtually every spec (according to comparisons by our friends at Car and Driver and Motor Trend).
Zero-60 mph: Porsche, 2.5 seconds; Audi, 2.6.
Braking, 70-0 mph: Porsche 139 feet; Audi, 153.
Skid-pad cornering Gs: Porsche, 1.06, Audi, 1.00. And so on ...
Flogging the R8 around M1 Concourse’s 1.5-mile track in Pontiac, I found the stats backed up the user experience. Like the all-wheel-drive 3,527-pound 911 Turbo, the AWD 3,627-pound Audi was a blast to drive with neutral handling, maniacal acceleration and earth-clawing, ceramic-rotor braking. Compared to a first-gen R8 I drove at Autobahn Raceway outside Chicago a couple of years back, the 2017’s chassis is noticeably more rigid, its aluminum skeleton strengthened by a carbon-fiber bulkhead and undertray.
Yet the Porsche’s more sophisticated AWD — dual-clutch torque vectoring assisted by rear-wheel steering — made for much better rotation through corners than the Audi and its more common Haldex system. Both cars were shod with Pirelli P-Zero summer tires, but the Turbo was more predictable on turn-in with less slip under high g-loads. Like the Acura NSX, the Audi’s inherent understeer impedes momentum through the tight stuff.
Under stress, the R8’s brakes showed a tendency to fade (surprising for ceramics) and emitted a noticeable odor when I returned to the paddock. Porsche’s ceramic and steel rotors never blinked under more extreme flogging. Despite their transmission similarities, the R8 displayed eccentricities compared to the rock-solid Porsche — like a violent, surging downshift when floored at cruise speed.
Audi makes up for these small track margins with big street pluses. Like design.
Porsche’s familiar coupe lines won’t send Dream Cruisers running for their smartphone cameras like the slinky R8. Its fascia is no Lambo (Audi’s halo car conforms to brand design themes), but intimidating nevertheless. Eschewing the first gen’s awkward “sideburn” intake for a more conventional scoop, the Audi’s long, V-10-engorged rear deck is reminiscent of the dramatic Bugatti Veyron.
In an age of whispery turbos, the howling, high-revving 10-pot is an aural masterpiece. Zero-60 stoplight launches are epic. My petrolhead pals were laughing as they put the throttle to the mat, the lightning-quick tranny and AWD grip propelling the car forward like Cedar Point’s Top Thrill Dragster roller coaster.
On Woodward after hours, the R8 simply sucked the doors off all challengers like Maserati’s alpha dog GT MC. I could have set up a stand at the Dream Cruise and charged for rides.
Before waking up the throaty V-10, the Audi’s interior, all-digital “Virtual Cockpit” wows. The 12.3-inch display integrates infotainment functions in the instrument panel. The 911’s classic gauge controls look soooo 15 minutes ago by comparison. And by eliminating the traditional dash screen and putting all controls including the START-STOP button on the steering wheel (shades of the racing R8 prototype), the Virtual Cockpit opens up the console for useful storage and cupholder space — a rarity in sports cars.
The experience makes the R8 feel like I am driving a video game. Instant power. Ear-rattling audio. Digital special effects.
With the R8, Audi has married raw Lamborghini performance with 21st-century drivability. Now if they could just come up with a more descriptive alphanumeric badge.
How about “2.6 0-60”?
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
2017 Audi R8 V10 Plus
Mid-engine, all-wheel drive,
two-passenger sports car
Seven-speed, dual-clutch “S-tronic” automatic
$164,150 base ($199,925 V10 Plus as tested)
540 horsepower, 398 pound-feet torque
(V10); 610 horsepower, 413 pound-feet
torque (V10 Plus)
0-60 mph, 2.6 seconds (Motor Trend);
top speed: 205 mph
EPA 15 mpg city/22 mpg highway/17 mpg combined
Virtual cockpit display; video game-like acceleration
Odd, sudden tranny downshifts; cop magnet
Grading scale: Excellent ★★★★ Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★