by Roger Biermann
Remember the 1990s? It was a time when supercars scared the crap out of you, and if you wanted to go to the shops to buy bread and milk, you took the Camry. That was until the Honda/Acura NSX came along, tearing up the status quo and giving the world a supercar that was comfortable enough to be used in day-to-day situations. Simply, it made the supercar approachable. But then the NSX disappeared, and the chase was on to see who could fulfill the role of the everyday supercar. Sure, there was the Porsche 911 - more sports car than a supercar, but functional nonetheless - and even Ferrari started making its new cars approachable after the turn of the millennium. But it took Audi's acquisition of Lamborghini for the world to see a new supercar that could be used on a daily basis, and in 2006, the Audi R8 was born.
Fast forward nearly 15 years and the R8 is now in its second generation, sharing underpinnings with the Lamborghini Huracan. Freshly facelifted for 2020, the drop-top Spyder version looks sexier than ever. But while times change and so too does style, Audi's kept the basic recipe the same as it always was - solid ergonomics the way only German engineers could ensure, all-weather capability thanks to quattro all-wheel drive, and the Hail Mary of the R8 in a world of downsizing - a screaming naturally-aspirated V10 engine behind the driver's head with 562 horsepower on tap.
After a one-year hiatus for 2019, the fresh-faced R8 Spyder is back and looking better than ever. But truthfully, there was nothing wrong with the old model, so aside from a sharp new suit available in two new hues of Kemora Gray and on performance models, Ascari Blue Metallic, there's not much that differs. The standard model has gained 30 horsepower over the old one - now at 562 hp - and the V10 Plus has been rechristened the V10 performance, now available on the Spyder version.
The R8 Spyder's sharp new suit takes a leaf from the Huracan Evo's playbook, with blade-like body bits introduced into the front bumper, which also receives a new honeycomb grille design, a new front lip spoiler, and an R8 badge on the grille. It all looks rather aggressive, as do the LED headlight clusters with signature Audi LED daytime running lights. The side profile plays host to the side-blade air intakes, and a refined rear decklid to house the power-operated soft-top roof. Filling the sizable arches, you'll find 19-inch five-spoke alloys on the base model and 20-inch alloys on the performance. Around back, a new rear diffuser houses two massive oval exhausts, with a carbon fiber lip spoiler and titanium trim in the diffuser of performance models. The performance also bags an assortment of carbon fiber exterior trim, optional on the base model.
Low, flat, and wide - the defining traits of every good mid-engined supercar; and the R8 Spyder is no different. It measures the same 76.8 inches wide and 174.3 inches long as the Coupe, and likewise, rides on the same 104.4-inch wheelbase. But with the soft-top roof mechanism, it's a little taller than the Coupe, but the difference in inches is a negligible figure best rounded off to a matching 49 inches. All-wheel-drive, a soft-top roof, and a big V10 take a toll on the Spyder's curb weight, tipping the scales at 3,957 lbs, 221 lbs heavier than the base coupe.
If I could put onto paper the sound of the 5.2-liter V10 engine resting midship in the R8 Spyder, not a single figure would matter, but since I'm neither that good a writer nor has technology advanced to that point, the numbers will suffice. In base form, the FSI V10 develops 562 hp and 406 lb-ft at a heady 6,500 rpm, while in performance guise those figures rise to 602 hp and 413 lb-ft respectively - matching the outputs of the pre-facelift Lamborghini Huracan. Power gets sent to all four corners via a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox and Audi's signature quattro permanent all-wheel-drive, sending the open-top bruiser from 0-60 mph in 3.5 seconds in base guise and 3.3 seconds with the performance suffix. But nothing can prepare you for the spine-tingling nature of the V10 in full song - long live the V10!
Audi has often been chastised for the R8 being too sterile, too cold, and not as sharp a driver's tool as mid-engined monsters from Italy, and we're not going to dispute that. If you want a razor-sharp race, buy a 488 Pista, but if you understand that in the real world, you don't slide around every corner with the ass hanging out at 40 degrees, then the all-wheel precision and modicum of understeer in the R8 Spyder will appeal to your sensible side. Of course, the grip is immense, and you have to be going way too fast in way too inappropriate a scenario to find that understeer, but the steering is perhaps a little impersonal on the R8, which is the one area where we can truly fault it. However, with the wind in your hair and the V10's song in your ears, the experience is about much more than feel. There's a duality to the R8 Spyder as well, and while it's definitely firmly sprung and ready to race, it's surprisingly supple, capable of dealing with most road surfaces without regular chiropractic appointments. More than this, the visibility is great, the R8 shrinks around the driver, and it feels approachable, making any old rich kid feel like Iron Man. That's the R8's greatest strength - not since the NSX of old has a mid-engined supercar been this friendly.
Nobody ever walked into an Audi dealership and said, "how many miles to the gallon does the R8 Spyder manage? I'm trying to watch my carbon emissions." Well the EPA has figures nonetheless, and with the roof up and a featherlight foot on the throttle, your R8 Spyder will consume 13/20/16 mpg on the city/highway/combined cycles - identically matching the Coupe. A 21.1-gallon tank of premium unleaded could, in theory, carry you 337 miles, but the thrill of a high-revving V10 could soon bury that notion.
Constructing a supercar with the engine rear-mid-mounted ensures a few things - chief among those being the fact that you'll seat no more than two occupants in the R8 Spyder. But those two are sat low in the body in an ideal driving position on quilted leather sports seats with integrated headrests, with enough leg and headroom to accommodate most tall adults. Supportive when cornering, check; comfortable when touring the Californian coastline, double-check. Sure, they aren't race-spec, but they get the job done in style and comfort, and the driver-centric design of the dashboard keeps the pilot cocooned within the occasion. Visibility is exceptional, and thanks to Audi's virtual cockpit, everything the driver needs is directly behind the tactile leather steering wheel.
Nobody ever walked into an Audi dealership and asked, "how big's the trunk in that R8 Spyder?" - because everyone knows if you want a fast, practical Audi, you buy the upcoming RS6 Avant. You don't even get a traditional trunk in the back of the R8 Spyder, but you do get a frunk with an eight cubic foot storage capacity, although the odd shape means you'll get a single carry-on suitcase in there, or at most, a few soft bags for a weekend away for one. Internal storage is similarly scant - a small tray for your phone and wallet in the center stack, and two mid-sized cupholders between the front seats. A tiny glovebox doesn't help much either, so should you be traveling in an R8 Spyder, travel light.
As Audi's halo car, one expects certain levels of tech and features in something like the R8 Spyder. But lest we forget, supercars have seldom played host to the most advanced safety features, which is why you won't find advanced collision avoidance systems and semi-autonomous functionality here. What you will find is cruise control, a reverse camera, an active exhaust, automatic LED headlights, a power-operating soft-top roof, dual-zone climate control, rain-sensing wipers, auto-dimming mirrors, power-adjustable heated seats, adaptive dampers, and the R8 Spyder's crown jewel, the virtual cockpit digital instrument cluster - a neat trick borrowed from the Huracan that has now filtered through every one of Audi's best models.
The perks of the virtual cockpit system include the fact that there aren't any traditional infotainment screens interfering with the delicate lines of the R8 Spyder's dash. Instead, everything is displayed ahead of the driver, from instrumentation to onboard navigation, as well as multimedia and hands-free telephony via Bluetooth. It's all housed on a 12.3-inch display screen which also boasts SiriusXM satellite radio, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot connectivity. Audio is sent to a 12-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system - but the real sound system is the ten-cylinder piece of machinery behind the driver's head.
It's still early days for the facelifted R8 Spyder, but at the time of writing, no recalls have been issued for it. The pre-facelift models weren't without fault, however, with a number of recalls issued from problems including frontal airbags rupturing and leaks from the transmission fluid vent hoses. Let's hope the R8's past the early teething issues. Nevertheless, Audi covers the Spyder with a four-year/50,000-mile basic warranty which also covers the powertrain, and maintenance is covered for the first year or 10,000 miles.
No safety ratings have been issued by the NHTSA or IIHS, but the R8 Spyder's safety systems are constantly at work to ensure accidents don't happen. Big performance brakes, advanced stability control systems, and a sum total of six airbags (dual front, front side, and front knee airbags) keep occupants safe, but a park assist system and a rearview camera are all the driver aids you've got at your disposal.
The simplicity of a convertible mid-engined supercar is that no one buys one for mundane things like practicality and gas mileage - it's all about the experience. That's where the R8 Spyder cashes in wholesale, with an auditory soundtrack alone good enough to make you sign the cheque. But, there's more to it than that. Not only is it blisteringly quick, gorgeous to look at, and capable of singing with a voice that makes angels smile from up above, but it's comfortable, spacious, and well-appointed. It boasts world-class infotainment with full smartphone connectivity, and at the end of the day, it's got enough storage for basic shopping runs. All-wheel drive means you're never stranded in rainy weather, and the impeccable visibility and adaptive magnetic suspension mean the R8 Spyder is usable on a daily basis with minimal compromise. It might not be as slidey as the finest rear-wheel-drive exotics, or as communicative as them either, but for sheer experience, the R8 is something special. With uncertainty surrounding the V10 at its heart, there's no better time than now to savor what could be the last ever V10 supercar.
Buying an R8 Spyder is no easy accomplishment, especially when the base model starts off at a princely $182,100. Should you opt for the R8 V10 performance Spyder quattro - as it's officially titled - expect to pay no less than $208,100 excluding Audi's $1,250 destination charge, a gas-guzzler tax of $1,200, and any other options you might decide to equip.
More is more, as they say, but in the case of the R8 Spyder, you don't need more than the base model. Sure, the extra numbers look great on paper, but the moment you selected the soft-top over the coupe you immediately confirmed you cared more about style than outright pace. For that reason, it's best to save the extra cash, get the base model R8 Spyder, and equip it in Vegas Yellow, get the LED headlights with freakin' laser beams, and get the 18-way quilted leather seats with matching Vegas Yellow Stitching. Avoid the dynamic steering at all costs, and you're looking at one sweet R8 Spyder for only $190,850 including destination.
On sheer visual theater alone, the BMW i8 Roadster - with its flying buttresses and low, wide, carbon-fiber monocoque - is appealing enough to give the R8 Spyder a run for its money. But in truth, it's a different beast entirely, one that points towards the future when the R8's V10 engine arguably points to the past. The i8 Roadster is substantially less potent than the R8, with only 369 hp generated between its electric motors and 1.5-liter three-cylinder gasoline engine. It's quick, though, breaching 60 mph from a standstill in 4.4 seconds, although it's still nearly a full second shy of the R8 Spyder's effort. The way in which the two drive is remarkably similar, too, both rapid but sterile. However, while the BMW feels competent but utterly numb - with simulated noise at odds with how the thing actually drives - the auditory experience of the R8 Spyder envelops the driver and communicates in a completely different manner. The i8 Roadster starts at $32,600 cheaper than the R8 Spyder, and because it's a hybrid it avoids gas guzzler tax and the like, but as a sports/supercar experience, you simply can't beat a good V10. Long live the V10!
Naturally aspirated V10 vs twin-turbo V6, German vs Japanese, Convertible vs Coupe, established elite vs underdog supercar slayer - it's an odd match-up, but for semi-affordable (it's all relative at this level) supercars, these two see regular comparison. In truth, they couldn't be more different. Despite the Nissan GT-R's four seats, the R8 Spyder is the supercar for the road - with comfortable magnetic dampers, loads of tech, a smidge of understeer when you push too far, and a deployable soft-top roof that makes coastal cruises a sublime yet noisy affair. In contrast, the Nissan GT-R is a track demon, and despite getting on in the years, it'll still lay the smackdown on many a more expensive and exotic piece of machinery. That's what it was built to do, with a twin-turbo V6 developing 565 hp (three more than the base Audi) and 467 lb-ft, and a trick all-wheel-drive system that seems to defy the laws of physics - and indeed, it'll run from 0-60 mph some 0.8 seconds quicker than the R8. Many have called the GT-R a computer game, but it's actually a serious driver's machine, and for as little as $113,540, you can have one of the best track monsters around. But if you live in the real world, where traffic lights and potholes are a reality, the GT-R suspension is crashy and its size is unwieldy. The R8 makes a better everyday companion, and for sheer noise, it can't be beaten.