Enjoy the Lamborghini V10 while you still can.
There's no other sports or supercar quite like the Audi R8 – it's a paradoxical mix of high-tech infotainment and old school V10 engine; of Lamborghini genes and sensible-shoes usability; of searing performance at – in this rarefied segment – a relatively affordable price point. Now Audi has re-booted its mid-engined halo for 2019.
A relatively light tweak it might be, but with Audi rumored to axe the R8 after this second generation or re-imagine it as an all-electric or plug-in hybrid, this is our last chance to enjoy ten cylinders screaming to an incendiary 8,250 rpm.
As before, Coupe or Spyder models are available, both with all-wheel drive, an S-tronic dual-clutch gearbox and that scintillating V10 in two states of tune. When we ask if the cheaper rear-wheel-drive RWS might return, Audi Sport engineers look around nervously and don't say no. Fingers crossed for that. For now, we're driving the top-spec coupe: the V10 Performance. With the car still awaiting homologation, we've come to the Ascari racetrack in Spain for our drive.
The changes to the R8 are relatively subtle, but even parked a distance away in the Ascari pit lane it looks different, especially the front: lower and wider, kind of like it's wearing a mouthguard, but the new jaw is effective in creating a more purposeful look. Look closer and there's a flatter front grille, three little slits at the leading edge of the hood that recall the Ur Quattro, and a new, wider front splitter.
Changes at the rear are less obvious, with the design team having to draw our attention to the more upswept rear diffuser.
There are two new colors (Kemora Grey, Ascari Blue), new 19-inch alloys (20s for the V10 Performance) and some gloss-black detailing on the standard model, replaced by matte titanium on the Performance.
The interior is unchanged, but plus points include a great driving position, solid build with flashes of flair, and Audi's virtual cockpit for a slick, modern feel. Important to remember that the Spyder, like before, has a tighter cockpit due to the roof mechanism – if you're taller than six-feet, you'll struggle for legroom.
Both versions of the naturally aspirated 5.2-liter V10 get extra power. The standard model now produces 533 hp at 8,250 rpm, an increase of 30 hp, and 406 lb-ft at a high 6,500 rpm, up 7 lb-ft. All of it is purely down to software calibration changes, and helps even the heavier Spyder to score 200 mph.
The Performance we're driving now produces 612 hp and 428 lb-ft, which is 10 hp / 15 lb-ft stronger than before, and now a little beyond the Lamborghini Huracan too, if not the range-topping Huracan Performante.
These gains come from a valvetrain revised with titanium components as well as fresh ECU mapping. It means the V10 Performance coupe can accelerate from zero to 62 mph in 3.1 seconds and reach 206 mph – one-tenth and 1 mph up on previously.
Audi engineers have played around with the chassis, though the basic spring rates and damper specs remain unchanged – there are apparently greater steps between the driving modes, but as we're driving on track in the Dynamic 'dry' setting, we'll have to wait for another test drive to spot those nuances.
All our test cars are fitted with a new optional anti-roll bar made from carbon fiber and aluminum. It's laid out next to the standard item in the pit garages and the difference is striking – you could work out with the old one, where the new, 4.5-lb lighter roll bar wouldn't so much as raise your heartbeat.
The choice of standard or Dynamic steering continues, both updated with calibration changes and available for us to sample. It's also worth noting that all test cars are fitted with Michelin Cup 2 tires, optional track-focused rubber that you'll find on a 911 GT3 and Ferrari 488 Pista. No-one at Audi seems to know which markets will be offered these tires.
Ascari is a fast track, its fear factor multiplied by walls for run-off, blind, heartbeat entries to some corners, and other turns that seem to roll on forever in third and fourth gear, goading you to accelerate earlier than you really should.
Flatten the accelerator in first and the all-wheel drive claws at the pit exit's dry surface, the V10 rips round past 8,000 rpm while the digital rev counter strobes red in the corner of your eye, and the first to second gear shift thwacks in, full of mechanical menace.
The bare figures tell you performance has moved on with the likes of the McLaren 720S, but this remains visceral acceleration that requires some acclimatisation, even if the small power hike is not particularly obvious.
Standard carbon-ceramic brakes fitted to the Performance (optional for lesser V10s) wipe off speed into the first tight, downhill left-hander – no ABS intervention, big stopping power, maybe a little bagginess at the top of the pedal – and as you aim for the apex, you get a first glimpse of the R8's sweet balance off-throttle. It turns keenly and with modest, well-supported roll, partly a benefit of the mid-engined layout. But the downhill braking zone exaggerates the weight of the V10 in the back, which starts to swing round – it's a balance that makes the R8 feel even more nimble and reactive, but it's definitely a pendulum effect that must be anticipated and nursed.
The stability control's unintrusive Sport setting and all-wheel drive helps, and under full power as the corner opens and quickens, the nose hooks up and pulls the car out. It switches the balance to a neutral, slightly understeery feeling, and you have to moderate the combination of front-end push and fast-escalating speed. The previous rear-wheel-drive R8 had a more fluid, less manic feeling, but it's certainly sure-footed. Remember the standard tires will feel less precise on track.
At higher speeds and gears you get more time to appreciate the V10 –the crispness of its response, the linearity of the delivery, but more than anything it's the bandwidth in the final 1,000 rpm of the rev range and a scream like a distressed chicken that makes the R8 so enjoyable.
The trade is that it feels less enthusiastic at lower revs than a turbo rival and you quickly bog down if you're a gear too high, but super-quick gear shifts keep you in the power band, even if they do lose the mechanical edge of brutal low-speed acceleration at heartbeat speed.
After a few laps, it's time to switch into a car with the Dynamic steering, complete with chassis engineer in the passenger seat. He's candid that he prefers the standard system, but the Dynamic set-up works well, particularly through quick direction changes. There is, however, a less natural sense of support through the long, fast corners, where the slower, heavier feel of the regular steering is preferable. There's no huge mistake to be made here, but we'd stick with the standard set-up.
Despite a very mild makeover, the Audi R8 remains a compelling choice, one that's unfairly overlooked. A McLaren 570S is a lighter, more nimble and more tactile feeling car, but the R8 is cheaper than its British rival and by far the more useable everyday proposition –better refinement, better technology, easier to actually climb into, and offering the security of all-wheel drive and a mainstream dealer network too. And it's still a relatively safe and invigorating way to explore a racetrack.
More than anything though, the R8 gets our hearts racing because it combines all this level-headedness with a hand built naturally-aspirated Lamborghini V10 that sears and yelps and makes the 570S seem gruff and characterless in comparison. Don't miss the chance to appreciate it while you still can.
Prices and on-sale dates are TBC, but expect the $165,000 entry model to increase to around $170,000 and the top-spec $194,000 V10 coupe to hit $200,000.