First Drive: 2017 Audi R8

The 2017 Audi R8 offers two power levels from its 5.2L V10, 540 hp and 610 hp in the Plus. I’m really not quite sure what you would do with those extra 70 hp away from a track. Granted, the Plus also adds a carbon-fibre wing and other goodies, but holy smokes, the standard 540-hp V10, serving up 398 lb-ft of torque as well, is quite ballistic enough for anyone sharing the road with Corollas, F-150s and semi-trailers.

Audi shipped us out here and unleashed us in the R8 specifically so we could experience the full potency of its Plus-sized engine, its laser-sharp reflexes and its stunningly bright laser headlights. All at once. At night. On a track.

I guess you’ll just have to take it to the track. Conveniently, we happened to stumble upon just such a track after touring the Portuguese countryside for a lovely and gut-wrenching drive. At times it felt like we had to suck in our guts or squeeze like the Knight Bus to make sure we could get by some of the heavy lorries coming the other way on Portugal’s B-roads.

But we made it and refreshed ourselves with coffee, shaved ice and, of course, Portuguese egg tarts, before hitting the track. Oh wait, it’s dark out. Well, maybe we can still sneak a few laps in… But really, Audi shipped us out here and unleashed us in the R8 specifically so we could experience the full potency of its Plus-sized engine, its laser-sharp reflexes and its stunningly bright laser headlights. All at once. At night. On a track. Which I’d never driven before. A little crazy? Perhaps… Um, yeah, definitely crazy.

But like they tell you in the self-help books, never argue with crazy. (Do they say that? I never read self-help books, so I’m just making that up.)

So, after some quality time in the standard model on regular roads, and then a hot lap being brutalized by one of Audi’s factory drivers, Rahel Frey, in the previous-gen LMS car around the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve, in Portimão, our turn had come. We settled into the heavily bolstered sport seats, covered in stitched, quilted leather, no less, and got our driving position just right. The bright red start button nestled in the steering wheel beckoned, and we fired up the mid-engine V10, but kept it in a fairly conservative Dynamic mode (there was a further Track mode we will get to later), but all safety nets on.

Away we went, the sun having dipped below the horizon some time ago, and only a hint of dusk blanketing the distant hills. Following a safety car, with its light bar and flashing hazards, it was impossible to get lost, and the undulating track snaked up and down the dry dusty hills with blind crests challenging the car and driver to hold on, and deep dips compressing the car and giving greater turning traction than expected. After two exploratory laps, just as Robby and Bobby require, they waved me through to go charging around on my own. Um, no. I waved down my safety car driver and dragged him out with me to continue the stream of track notes as the laser headlights pierced the gloom, picking up the reflection off the cones marking braking, turn-in and apex for every corner, but the early mild turns lull you up to greater speed than is advisable, and without an expert warning, I’d have gone sailing right through the tricky double apex that sneaks up on you unsuspecting near the end of the circuit. It’s all a blur of cones, reflection strips and piercing bright headlight, my bravery giving out before the braking zone after a straight and leading into a hairpin.

And those were my ‘daytime’ laps. We went out again for another couple laps, a session aimed to ensure we experienced the full beam of the headlights, though perhaps damping our dynamic exploration. Still, with a rough memory of the track, a more aggressive track setting was called for. Press that button with the little checkered flag and we have track mode, with the leash extended and more slip angle permitted. (Press it again and you can call up wet and snow modes for differing algorithms.)

Away we went, this time in the pitch black night, only some globe lamps lining pit lane and glowing cones blocking off the front straight and routing us back into the pits making for an almost extraterrestrial landscape, without a navigator and with only minimal ESP intervention. Turns out the R8 itself was all the companionship I needed.

With only two laps to push myself to learn the car’s habits, I summoned up what courage I had and held the throttle almost right to braking point cone on the long back straight. After a second of coasting, I nail the brakes, but stay under control, managing to dip the nose slightly and lock my vision onto the apex and not-yet-visible exit.

The brakes, all six pistons at the front and four at the rear clamping down on massive carbon-ceramic rotors, eradicate all that speed I’d worked so bravely to build, the Pirelli P Zero R01s on staggered 20-inch wheels here (19s are standard) sticking heroically, the seven-speed dual-clutch S Tronic firing off explosive little downshifts and spiking the engine revs like there was a professional on the clutch, brakes and throttle.

In fact, I probably braked too much, its abilities exceeding even my lofty expectations. With more time and more laps, I could likely have carried a bit more speed and used trail braking to further increase the bite of the front tires in many of the fast corners, but not this night.

In Track mode, the adaptive steering is locked into its quickest, stiffest setting, so as I reached the next cone and began to turn in, the weight and resistance was a superb counterbalance to carefully dial in the right amount of angle, my eyes continuing to scan ahead and look for the exit cone and my mind unconsciously coupling with the tires as my own yaw and pitch sensors (in other words, my ass) fed off the chassis communication and my hands felt like they had tendrils snaking right down the steering rack to the tires. After getting within at least a kilometre of the apex and beginning to unwind, I got a little exuberant with throttle, the back end starting to come out, but so quickly and clearly evident that a brief steering and throttle correction settled it down, and a bit more patience before we could go back on full throttle.

As far as I was concerned, that was The Corner, where all this R8’s myriad abilities and systems came into focus, its feedback speaking volumes, its hybrid aluminum-carbon-fibre frame landing a perfect balance and chassis so wonderfully sorted, its raw power epic and precise delivery flawless. This is a track day hero in no uncertain terms. There are certainly more challenging vehicles to master, this car’s electronic systems and controls offering a buffer as you build experience, and a transmission in particular that can master the shifting for you, but it is not so refined as to be boring, with a range of permissiveness, auditory bliss and overabundance of power that can get hairy if you want to wrestle the beast on your own, though we mourn the manual transmission that was both clinical, raw and the shifter and gate a work of art.

Away from the track, it’s an even more enticing vehicle for its price. Its price? Now exclusively a V10, it’s not hard to imagine it will be close to the current V10’s price: $182,000. That’s a lot of loonies. What else costs that much? Without getting too picky, the Porsche 911 Turbo starts at $172K, making 520 hp and 487 lb-ft with standard AWD and seven-speed dual-clutch transmission and the ability to hit 100 km/h in 3.2 seconds. The base R8 V10 is up on power at 540 hp, but down on torque at 398 lb-ft, likewise packing AWD and seven-speed dual clutch and hitting 100 in 3.5 seconds.

If you drive it, you will constantly be complaining, “Ugh, this thing has no torque.” Yeah, um no. My drive around the roads in the vicinity of the track showed that 398 lb-ft of torque, when unleashed via aggressive transmission sport mode and dynamic throttle setting, were more than a match for the base car’s 1,487 kg (the V10 Plus is lighter at 1,454 kg).

Slight acceleration disadvantage aside, the R8 and 911 Turbo just don’t look like they are in the same category. The 911 Turbo still looks like a 911, an iconic sports car, yes, but unfortunately a common sight because of its popularity, while the R8 is supercar from spoiler to spoiler, and still rare enough and audacious enough to cause a stir wherever it goes.

Going up the ladder, the R8 V10 Plus, the current generation priced at just over $200K, isn’t far off the $208K 911 Turbo S, rated at 560 hp and 553 lb-ft, officially doing the sprint to 100 km/h in 3.1 seconds. Here the equation flips and the V10 Plus has an even bigger power advantage with 610 hp, and again a massive torque deficit at 413 lb-ft, but dead even to 100 km/h if optioned with “sport tires”.

The R8, while looking as outrageous as a Lamborghini or Ferrari, is surprisingly easy to drive once contorted into the slinky, low door opening. The seats cannot be faulted in any way, and the steering wheel seems to mold into your hands and offers up access to all the car’s dynamic character and infotainment functions.

In driving casually the R8 impresses again, delivering a grand touring ride when adjusting the adaptive magnetic suspension to comfort mode, and the transmission more smoothly and seamlessly slipping between gears, even if it’s only a hair trigger away from exploding into dropping a gear or to accompanied by frantic revving. Even just cruising around, the R8 is a superstar, easily driven (except backing up) and fun to enjoy even if not rushing, the V10 still always in the background burbling away and ready to scream into action.

More on autoTRADER: 2017 Audi R8 In Pictures

The interior is typical Audi, the finest materials, packed with convenient technology, yet artful and intelligent modern design. The Virtual Cockpit that debuted on the Audi TT is incorporated here, and seems better resolved than the Lamborghini Huracan’s split screen and slightly less elegantly arrayed buttons and switchgear on the centre console. The R8 also shares the platform and powertrain with their Italian cousins, hence the identical power ratings.

Audi’s next generation of supercar is still over a year away, likely to sell in trickles to a handful of Canadian with the wherewithal to buy into what will be an even more exclusive ownership club with it available only in V10 trim. That V10 will cost a fair bit more wrapped in the stunning angles of the Huracan, but at heart it’s the same core with dry sump lubrication, gasoline direct and manifold injection, continuous intake and exhaust camshaft adjustment, roller cam followers with hydraulic support, but the air flow management and tuning diverge in order to suit each brand’s character, The Lambo offers a higher propensity for aggression in equivalent modes, and a slightly more raucous exhaust.

Still, the R8 is a unique proposition, a fitting halo sports car for Audi, the lightest and barest of skin wrapped around the most advanced and performance-oriented all-wheel drive system they’ve ever created (capable of shifting 100 percent of available torque to either axle, and brake-based torque vectoring for the front wheels), powered by the biggest, sexiest engine they could stuff into it in the ideal place for perfect weight distribution and dynamics. The exterior is like nothing else, the interior wrapping around the driver like a body suit, and the entire package a driver’s car of the highest order while also a spectacle unto itself to rival other supercars on another level entirely.

Audi shipped us out here and unleashed us in the R8 specifically so we could experience the full potency of its Plus-sized engine, its laser 7/30/2015 10:26:48 AM