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Tested: Audi's R8 V10 Spyder

2011-08-01 22:02

PERFECTION: A Cape Town beachfront and Audi’s R8 V10 Spyder on a flawless day. You won’t really mind the paltry 100-litres of luggage space at times like this.

Vehicle Specs
Manufacturer Audi
Model R8 V10 Spyder
Engine 5.2-litre V10
Power 386kW @ 8000rpm
Torque 530Nm @ 6 500rpm
Transmission six-speed R-tronic
Zero To Hundred 4.1 sec
Fuel Tank 90-litres
Fuel Consumption 14.8l/100km
Weight 1 725kg
Boot Size 100-litres
Tyres F: 235/35ZR19, R: 295/30ZR19
Rear Suspension Double-wishbone
Service Intervals Double-wishbone
Rivals R2 169 140

Lance Branquinho

How do you ruin a world-class supercar? Interesting question, isn’t it?

Well, it’s quite simple really: you replace its fixed aluminium roof with a retractable piece of canvas. What you end up with is the drop-top supercar, which has for decades been a toy of choice for the notorious, famous and filthy rich.

It has, with some justification, always been seen as a rather cynical triumph of marketing over engineering – the narcissism of customers being prioritised to the detriment of driving purity and design principles.


A conundrum, then: allocating all those engineering and design resources to a project eventually set for ruin by virtue of it catering for the open-air motoring fantasies of customers who prefer eliciting sidewalk café catcalls to edging a wheel across a circuit’s clipping points.

Fundamentally, the issue at hand is simple: torsional rigidity. It’s an engineering term that has fluently found its way into the mainstream motoring enthusiasts’ vocabulary without anybody actually understanding what it means.

Supercars, by the sheer design complexity (and exotic nature of the materials) involved in their construction have (extremely) robust levels of torsional rigidity. Essentially, even when suspension components transfer high levels of lateral force across the car’s structure (thanks to acute mechanical grip provided by high-performance tyres, a wide track and low centre of gravity) there is negligible flex; guaranteeing accurate steering feedback and the most rewarding driving experience available.

With convertibles, removing the roof leaves a gap at the top of the structure - with inevitable consequences.

Is it really that bad though? In an entry level A5 2.0T, not really. In Audi’s 386kW R8 V10, well, that’s what I spent some wheeltime finding out.

SPYDER SUPERCAR: The Spyder’s profile shows that the R8’s inherent design works seamlessly sans roof. Odd brown bronze metallic is the Spyder’s signature hue…


Convertibles may inhibit the structural integrity of a supercar but the canvas roof option (when retracted) more often than not improves the visual theatrics which form such an integral part of the supercar ownership experience and appeal.

Let’s not be coy; most supercar customers can barely drive with the same level of skill as a Clubman racer, these cars are mostly purchased for their sheer presence (indulgence), not the driving experience.

In the case of Audi’s R8, already a (tremendously) striking piece of rolling sculpture in hardtop form, the soft-top  accentuates the design’s classic mid-engined proportions perfectly. Adding a set of louvres running lengthwise to the aft deck elevates the R8 Spyder’s rear three-quarter view to automotive architecture of the most desirable kind.

The Spyder looks simply sensational with its canvas roof retracted.

As most supercar pundits will tell you, Audi’s R8 shares a design family tree with the world’s most recognisable mid-engined supercar brand, Lamborghini; a brand with an enviable number of supercar classics in its portfolio. Unsurprisingly, then, with the R8 drawing inspiration from the current baby Lamborghini (Gallardo), its squat dimensions appear even more dramatic when reconfigured in al fresco format.

Even the most pedantic and biased Audi critic will find it nearly impossible to hinge any point of disapproval regarding either the R8 Spyder’s proportions or its detailing. It blends German line-work precision (and neatness) with dramatic Italian proportions and comes off as being a better looking, more contemporary incarnation of the Gallardo – all the style without the outlandish excess or mad orange and yellow colour options.

Inside, R8 Spyder is a mirror experience of its hardtop sibling. Being an Audi, its cabin design has a pleasing flow of shapes and those ergonomic ratios are perfect, with switches falling intuitively to hand. There are two points of criticism though...

First, considering its sophistication, the use of a girdle-operated parking brake is slightly anarchic and an unsightly presence in the cabin, ruining what would otherwise be a smart, flush centre console. Second, to equip the cabin with contrasting composite surfaces (in standard trim it looks too conventionally Audi luxury sedan, too little supercar cabin) is not cheap – the carbon inlay package is a hardly insignificant R22 000 option.

THREE-QUARTER VIEW: The aft deck’s louvres are a classic styling touch and look fantastic…


Differentiating the R8 Spyder’s interior from its hardtop sibling are two rather neat details. The seats are upholstered in a high-tech fabric reflecting (instead of absorbing) infrar-ed solar radiation.

Gimmicky? Not quite. If you leave the Spyder posing with its roof retracted you won’t embarrassingly burn your (or a pretty passenger’s) thighs when you get back in to drive off, as the advanced hybrid-leather trim is able to cool the seat surface by as much as 68 degrees. Clever.

Then again, should you really be driving the R8 Spyder in shorts? Probably not...

The R8 Spyder’s other notable cabin upgrade is the presence of a microphone in the seat-belt to operate your mobile phone’s Bluetooth capability. A nice feature in theory but who is going to take a call from anybody when there's a 5.2-litre V10  to be taken advantage of? Having a conversation via the seat-belt microphone feature should, I suspect, prove rather problematic for potential R8 Spyder owners.

"Yes, I  would indeed prefer the mushroom-coloured tiles for the Zimbali home’s new… just hang on, I need to downshift for this second gear corner… (appropriate wailing V10 crescendo, dual-throttle blip follows)… hello? Are you still there?"

Not really going to work, now is it?


I really have no hope of the seat-belt microphone justifying its purpose considering the speed of which an  R8 Spyder is capable and the irresistible urge that overcomes one to extend this V10 Audi at each and every opportunity.

Those who pointlessly bide their time seeking weaknesses in the engineering heritage of Audi’s R8 will immediately have you know that its 5.2-litre V10 is in fact a weakened Lamborghini Gallardo engine, down by either 26- or 33kW, depending on whether you use the Gallardo Spyder or its Performante limited edition derivative as basis for comparison. Even more interesting, and providing additional hollow-point ammunition for R8 V10 detractors, is this particular engine’s internal architecture, featuring an under-square balance of dimensions, with those 10 pistons resting in 84.5mm bores while stroking 92.8mm.

Conventional mechanical engineering wisdom dictates that a long-stroke engine could never be as responsive to throttle inputs (or spin with same required urgency) as an over-square engine in a high-performance application such as a supercar, which is what the Audi’s R8 V10 desires to be. Audi, though, has this peculiar way proving the traditional methodology wrong.

In practice the R8 V10 Spyder feels supercar-quick with all the vertigo-inducing urgency it should have. Statistically it’s slower than a Gallardo soft-top but we're talking negligible numbers here – 0-100km/h in 3.2sec versus 4.1.

"But that's nearly a second slower, it's a lot!" Agreed, that's a natural first reaction, but if you want to compare apples to apples, Audi also markets the 412kW Spyder GT, which runs the 0-100 sprint in only 3.7 seconds. You pays your money and you makes your choice - as they always say at supercar dealers' on a Saturday morning when a punter is vacillating and considering the superiority of a more expensive car.

At low speed, despite the long-stroke engine block and Audi’s trick camshaft phasing, there is a slight lull before the tachometer needle passes 4000rpm and sets the R8 about its way with shattering pace. In a world of low-revving, forced-induction performance engines, sampling the R8’s traditional crankspeed-hungry, non-turbo engine is a rare treat, one to be savoured.

BEST SHIFT YOURSELF: The R-tronic transmission is a torrid mechanical device, ill-suited to most occasions. There’s a new seven-speed dual-clutch S-tronic in the works for 2012…


Where the R8 does disappoint, and it’s curiously enough an entirely avoidable state of affairs if you're considering ownership, is its R-Tronic automated manual transmission – with which our test car was equipped.

In every possible way it’s plainly terrible.

It's slower to shift (with the ratio-swopping grace of a cement mixer) than a conventional planetary-geared auto transmission at commuting speeds, less tactile than a manual and, all things considered, thoroughly beaten by a modern dual-clutch transmission. The R-Tronic is an option box best left unticked when ordering your R8 V10 Spyder.

Thanks to R-Tronic, the R8 Spyder occasionally rolls on inclines at parking speeds. There is no rapport between driver and machine as to when it may actually take up a gear or not. Although Sport mode improves things (it comes into its own when operated with real zeal on the edge of the dynamic driving envelope) and I understand its engineering rationale, it remains the R8’s (only) mechanical engineering mistake.

The background? Well, Audi didn't want to equip its signature supercar with an automatic transmission because that would be like having to sit on your hands during a lap dance. Considering the number of R8 units produced, and the expense of developing a dual-clutch transmission tough enough to cope with the V10’s torque, economies of scale guided the decision to an automated manual and it’s too much of a compromise.

A final word on transmission choice? Just get the six-speed manual (with its classic Ferrari-heritage chromed naked shift gate finish) and learn to apply proper clutch control so you don’t stall it like a fool in when pulling off on an incline in traffic.

Despite the transmission being a driving experience debit, the rest of Audi’s open-top V10 rewards with a driving experience of superb engagement and benevolence.


R8’s classic mid-engined supercar configuration ensures near pre-cognitive steering responses, without any of the throttle lift-sensitive, snap-oversteer foibles that traditionally afflicted mid-engined supercars a decade or few ago. Its stability, despite the engine being midships, is of course thanks to the all-wheel drive traction security of Audi’s signature quattro all-wheel drive system.

An electronic centre differential lock keeps power delivery perfectly distributed without the wheel-scrubbing understeer that’s so often the bane of very powerful all-wheel drive cars.

Geared to shift 90% of available torque to the rear wheels exclusively, when required, the R8 Spyder is capable of enacting as near to full rear wheel drive as you’ll ever reasonably require, with all the razor-sharp turn-in characteristics associated with performance cars that have only a single differential, located in the rear. Our test car was equipped with Audi’s magnetic-ride adaptive dampers (a R25 000 option, in case you are wondering), enabling the R8 Spyder, despite its preciously low-profile rubber, to resolve a ride quality shaming most other supercars.

Featuring hydraulic - instead of electric – assistance, the R8 Spyder’s steering is light yet intuitive, reverberating with tactile feedback in a manner few contemporary performance car helms do. Considering its tiny dimensions (at only 4.4m bumper-to-bumper, it’s smaller than a Jetta, for example) placing this V10 supercar on the road accurately, even at vertigo inducing speeds, is never a nerve-flailing experience.

BEYOND COMPARE: The 5.2-litre V10 spins to 8400rpm, making it’s the purest German performance car engine available - but don’t tell BMW or Porsche fans that…

Critics, especially those who believe Audi’s R8 is a simply a lesser Gallardo clone, will no doubt point to the German car’s rather portly mass.

Sure, at 1725kg, the R8 Spyder V10 is hardly an insubstantial car (Lamborghini’s Gallardo LP570-4 Spyder Performante is 140kg lighter), yet it’s worth remembering one is comparing low-slung supercars with an exceptionally low centre of gravity; the issue of a rolling mass centre-point is not as disruptive as would be the case in a four-door performance car.

Succinctly, the R8 Spyder’s dynamics are scintillating – and if you really wish to go LP570-4 hunting, there’s always Audi’s limited-edition R8 V10 GT models…

You would have to be desperately ambitious (or gloriously mad) before Audi’s R8 Spyder starts to misbehave on a public road. Even on a circuit it’s a devastatingly accomplished car – neat, agile and fast enough to draw nothing but a veil of stunned silence from any occupant fortunate enough to be in the passenger seat.


Much of the R8 Spyder’s appeal lives within its engine.

The curiously undersquare V10 is one of very few naturally aspirated performance engines that remain in production. In an age where forced-induction has lowered peak power delivery to below a rather unremarkable 6000rpm, the R8 Spyder’s 8400rpm limit is an addictive indulgence. The R8 Spyder’s acoustic appeal is further enhanced by a very neat feature, activated by a switch located on the centre console, just behind the one that retracts the roof. Flip it and the tiny rear window drops, which, on a rainy day (or at night), when you're keen to listen the V10 signature soundtrack, provides kilometres of cheap, low-speed entertainment in first and second gear.

At low (posing) speeds the R8 is disarmingly docile (if frustrating, in R-Tronic configuration) to drive. Navigate off major traffic routes and onto a properly surfaced mountain pass and it’s as good a factor 10 “anticipate-brake-turn-accelerate-repeat” supercar as one can buy. Crucially, you never feel it being in any way dynamically deprecated by having a canvas roof.

Porsche's 911 Turbo S is a fine dynamic rival yet lacks the R8’s visual drama; Mercedes' SLS soft-top is still some months from reaching local dealers.  Between the VW Group brand siblings, Audi’s R8 Spyder is clearly the less crass choice, without any of the embarrassing pseudo-criminality that still haunts Lamborghini ownership.


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