by Dan Trent
Is Audi scared of rear-wheel drive? The panicked interventions from the R8 RWS's stability control to any mid-corner throttle suggest it might well be, given 'oversteer' hasn't really been in the brand lexicon since, well, ever. But I am in a mid-engined Audi supercar directing its 532hp through the rear wheels and a mechanical limited-slip differential. And the ESC is having a bit of a panic.
Perhaps not such a surprise given even Audi's performance products tend to tread a cautious dynamic line. All apart from the original R8 which, all-wheel drive or not, revealed a surprising enthusiasm for being steered from the rear. That character trait was significantly toned down for the current version, which is faster and packs more tech but feels decisively more like an Audi. Which is to say less likely to freak customers out with unfamiliar concepts like opposite lock and powerslides.
The good bits like the high-revving, naturally aspirated V10, smart interior and sleek looks were thankfully maintained. And while the current R8 shares its platform and engine with the Lamborghini Huracan the opportunity has been taken to make it a more mature and sophisticated car to tempt 911 Turbo buyers, all the while maintaining a tactful separation from its Italian cousin.
That Lamborghini created a rear-wheel driveversion of the Huracan in the LP580-2 was little surprise. That Audi has now followed suit and done the same with the R8 is, however, something a little more unusual. The official line is that the customer racing versions of the R8 are rear-driven and this gives road drivers a flavor of the N24-winning LMS GT3 and new R8 LMS GT4.
Squeezed on one side by the ever-dominant Porsche 911 and on the other by 'entry-level' supercars like the McLaren 540C you can understand why Audi might have been tempted to create a more hardcore and driver-focused R8 too.
You might think it would have made the RWS into a track-focused, 911 GT3chaser with a premium to match. Oddly that's not the way it's gone, despite the limited-edition status (320 of the 999-car run will be coming to the US) and ambition to appeal to enthusiast customers. Instead, the RWS is more the value option in the R8 range, starting at $138,700 compared with the $168,900 of the regular R8 V10 and offered without the option of juicing it up with ceramic brakes, carbon side blades, or many of the other upgrades available on the rest of the range.
Indeed, the color-matched side blades if anything tone down the appearance, the only real visual signifier for the RWS being the $575 option of Misano Red stripes, absent from our test car with $3,900 worth of Exclusive Nogaro Blue paint in their place. Even with that it's as if the car is being played-down somewhat, perhaps reflecting Audi's caution at the whole enterprise.
Given it shares the same 532-hp V10 and costs $26,200 less than the regular R8 you're not losing much on-paper performance either. Sure, two-wheel drive means it takes another two tenths to go from 0-60 mph (3.7 seconds for the RWS, 3.5 for the standard V10) but both top out at 199 mph and the RWS is 110lb lighter. Surprisingly given the aluminum spaceframe it's still not that light at 3,627 lb, this at least 200 lb more than a 911 GTS PDK and over 300 lb more than a McLaren 540C. It's also 39 hp down on the rear-driven Huracan.
You don't really notice any of that on the road though, the stiff structure, light steering and crisp passive damping meaning the RWS feels a lot lighter on its feet than the numbers suggest. That engine deservedly takes center stage too. It's got the razor-sharp throttle response only naturally-aspirated motors can deliver, the 911 GT3 really its only competitor on this score. It'll rev out to over 8,000 rpm and relishes that kind of treatment but it's also got mid-range thanks to its cylinder count and sheer cubic capacity – there's basically never a point it sounds, feels or goes like anything else you can get this side of, well, a Huracan.
It's goddamn noisy too, especially on start up where it's on the unsociable side of extrovert. Sure, it's a supercar. And looks like one. But where a 911 Turbo can slip around near-unnoticed when needed heads will turn every time you fire the R8 up. Fine in the Lamborghini. Not always what you want in an Audi.
For all the fabulous character in the motor the R8 seems to go to a lot of trouble to isolate you from it too. Sure, you never tire of the response, performance or sound. But the dual-clutch S Tronic transmission is just a little too slick for its own good in any mode, gearshifts so smooth they basically change the tone without any sense of mechanical drama. But mechanical drama is what you want in a car like this. In the Huracan you've got big, blade-like shifter paddles with a decisive movement and click. Ramped up into Corsa mode it punches you in the kidneys with every upshift, you hear the fuel being injected into the plenums behind your head and you feel part of the machine. The R8 has exactly the same hardware but somehow reduces you to a passenger on a joy ride.
It's all in the tiny little details. Other than the throttle pedal your only interaction with the powertrain is through paddle shifters flimsier than those you'd find on your average games console steering wheel. And about as realistic. And if you try and use the selector instead you'll be frustrated by the fact it goes the 'wrong' way, with forward for upshifts and back for down. Clues like this suggest design by committee, not enthusiasts.
See also the steering. I've driven the Dynamic Steering option on the R8 V10 Plus and that's all over the place. But this passive set-up is possibly even worse, fixed as it is to the lazier end of the spectrum and leaving you twirling your arms through tighter corners. It also means you have no sense of how much you have to lean against in the corners, a key attribute for any rear-driven car if you're to enjoy balancing it on the throttle.
Like all Audis the R8 defaults to understeer on turn-in with very little incentive to see what might lurk beyond. Partly because the steering is so slow, light and vague you don't really get much feedback. But also because if you do try and dial it out on the throttle the damned stability control cuts the power before the R8 gets the chance to put the rear into Rear Wheel Series.
So after a few days I was ready to call it case closed. Another fast Audi – fabulous engine, lovely interior, will impress your co-workers/neighbors/date (delete as appropriate) but ultimately still no 911 in terms of driver reward.
Then I pressed the ESC button to select the mid-way Sport setting.
Approaching a traffic circle at a bit of a lick there was the usual front-end push. So I lifted out of the throttle and … woah … there we are! With the car rotating around its middle I got back on the throttle and the pick-up from the V10 and power it put to the rear tires stabilized the car in an instant. A bit more gas. A bit more angle. Hold the front page – even a bit of opposite lock! A passenger or onlooker probably wouldn't even have noticed. Suffice to say, it wouldn't have made much of an impression on YouTube. But here, in an Audi, was oversteer and the driving manners of a V10-powered Lotus.
Then there was the on-slip onto a freeway. Taken at an enthusiastic pace in third gear in the dry, and demanding a decisive and prolonged application of corrective lock. It should have been a code brown emergency situation. That it felt totally natural and safe to hold the slide for what felt like a couple of hundred yards reveals that, yes, under all the Audi polish, there is perhaps a proper sports car waiting to get out.
For all Audi's obsession with tech the fact this car has a naturally-aspirated engine, passive dampers and a mechanical locking differential with no sight of four-wheel steering, torque vectoring or other gizmos reveals the natural balance and talent within the R8 package. And perhaps explains why it's such a success for privateer competitors across the globe, Audi Sport having sold 200-plus R8 LMS customer GT3 cars alone.
My complaints about the steering and some of the other detailing remain valid. And chickening out of making it into a true 911 GT3 chaser seems a missed opportunity. Yet despite this, it seems the best R8 in the range is perhaps the simplest and cheapest one. A true supercar with one of the best engines in the game … for an Audi price tag? If that sounds like your kind of deal best make sure you're among the lucky 320.