A few weeks prior to the official unveiling of the second-generation R8 (which will hit the showrooms later this year) at the 2015 Geneva auto show, we were invited to the Ascari racetrack in Spain for a passenger ride. We will not be able to get behind the wheel ourselves until the summer, but no one in their right mind would pass up the chance to ride shotgun with Audi test driver and DTM racer Frank Stippler, who knows the new car inside out.
Compared with the already relatively light, all-aluminum first-gen R8, this version has shed between 110 and 220 pounds, depending on model and spec. New vehicle architecture, called MSS (Modular Sport System), is an evolution of the previous R8 platform, which it shares with the Lamborghini Huracan. As work on the car had already begun before Porsche became part of the VW Group, almost no parts are shared between the R8 and any existing Porsche model.
This is a mainly aluminum spaceframe, using carbon fiber for the rear bulkhead and some other structural parts. Audi says this halfway house between an all-carbon-fiber tub (as used by McLaren) and an all-aluminum one (used by Ferrari on the 458) is the best cost to strength and weight compromise for a relatively low-volume car. Another weight-saving measure is the use of carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) suspension springs first seen in the previous R8 E-tron.
This lightly camouflaged R8 prototype looks low, aggressive and contemporary. It retains the broad proportions of its predecessor, with similar overall length, but is slightly lower and wider than before, while its more angular lines and details make the connection to Audi's current lineup. The rakish front end features standard-issue LED headlights. Laser lights that double the high beam range are an option; these have been homologated for the United States.
Despite many new features, the second-generation R8 retains strong styling links to its predecessor. One of these signature design cues is the big vertical blade behind the doors. Here it has been reimagined into two more subtle half-blades: one below the beltline, one above. The latter is now an air intake for cabin and engine compartment venting, and the visually unbroken strake that now runs from the doors to the top of the side scoops gives the new car its longer, lower and more homogenous-looking flanks.
Standard wheel size is 19 inches, with 225/35 ZR19 rubber up front and 295/30 ZR19 at the rear. Optional 20s are shod with 245/30 ZR20 and 305/25 ZR20. Semi-slick track tires are another option, along with carbon-ceramic brakes.
Initially, the new R8 will be powered by two versions of the 5.2L V-10—the V-10 and V-10 Plus—rated at 540 hp and 610 hp, with 398 lb-ft and 413 lb-ft of torque, respectively. Both have cylinder deactivation and stop/start for better fuel economy and lower emissions. A V-8, or perhaps a twin-turbo V-6 entry-level version, will follow.
The official zero-to-62-mph numbers for the V-10 and V-10 Plus are 3.5 and 3.2 seconds, with standstill to 124 mph taking 11.4 and 9.9 seconds. Top speed is an ungoverned 200 mph for the 540hp model and an incredible 205 mph for the 610hp monster. These maximum velocity figures are significantly better than the outgoing model and a testament to the new R8's aerodynamic superiority.
Only one transmission will be available, the lightning-quick, seven-speed, dual-clutch gearbox with Launch Control as standard. The original R8's six-speed manual—with its wonderful click-clack, rifle-bolt action—has been consigned to history. Take-up rate had dropped to just five percent in the last year of production, its fate finally sealed by the smooth and rapid S-tronic paddle-shift transmission.
Rocketing out of the pit lane, the new R8 feels and sounds great from the passenger seat as the naturally aspirated V-10 (in Plus form) does its classic, high-revving stuff. Throttle response feels linear, the power building smoothly and strongly as Stippler coaxes the engine to its lofty 8,850-rpm redline in the intermediate gears. This is one rapid and charismatic machine. The increased power and lower weight are telling, and Stippler doesn't hang around. As we slide through a few bends on the absolute limit, the new chassis proves a match for those 610 horses.
A slightly lower center of gravity helps dynamics. Turn-in seems even crisper than before. Whenever Stippler balances the car in varying degrees of oversteer on the way out of each bend, it's clear the enhanced and rear-biased Quattro system is a driver's delight. Audi has fitted a water-cooled front differential, plus a mechanical limited-slip differential in the rear to help apportion power. The assisted steering is electromechanical; variable magnetic ride suspension is an option.
Audi's Drive Select button offers several modes. Dynamic "allows the driver to notice some action," to quote one of the engineers. Performance mode can be adjusted according to the road surface. The focus with this setting is not to hoon around, but rather help the driver achieve good lap times. That said, enthusiasts will be happy to learn that the stability control system can be switched off completely. The counterpoint is Comfort mode—with lower levels of noise, vibration and harshness—rendering the R8 an ideal long-distance cruiser.
While the exterior is evolutionary, the interior takes a major leap forward. Quality was always top notch and that is unchanged. But the aesthetics of the cabin architecture and infotainment system are now state of the art. The flat-bottomed steering wheel (brought over from the new TT) is fitted with four additional buttons to start and stop the engine, select driving modes, and choose the exhaust sound level. The TFT Virtual Cockpit directly in front of the driver is another TT feature. And that's a good thing. With the central console-mounted screen gone, the strong driver orientation of the new R8 is emphasized.
Even color and trim choices are innovative. The standard leather dashboard covering features a high-tech texture, highlighted by hand stitching. Alternative leather and Alcantara upholstery is available, with a wide range of standard and Quattro finishes there for the asking. The new interior is now the class benchmark, making the cabins of the Porsche 911, Mercedes-AMG GT and even the BMW i8 look dated.
There will be a successor to the R8 LMS racing derivative before the end of the year. Audi's research and development chief, Ulrich Hackenberg, has also confirmed a rear-wheel-drive R8 E-tron with a range of 280 miles, as well as a new Spyder. Toward the end of its production life, the original R8 was still highly competitive, especially with the S-tronic transmission. But the new car moves the bar higher in every way.
This'll Make Tesla Look Like Edison
Just before this went to press, Audi released more information on what it is referring to as R8 E-tron 2.0. First the good news, it will go into production in late 2015 for deliveries in early 2016. The bad news is that as of this point, it won't be coming to the USA. Perhaps the most surprising news, the E-tron will be rear-wheel drive only, powered by a single electric motor. Rated at 456 hp and 679 lb-ft of torque, drive is delivered through a single speed transmission. The T-shaped battery sits behind the seats and in the center tunnel, normally reserved for the drive shaft. Expect the E-tron to have an event lower center of gravity than the gas powered R8s.
Performance is supercar adjacent with 0-60 mph taking a claimed 3.9 seconds and a top speed of 155 mph. The range is claimed to be 280 miles, but that would be driven like a normal car and not the most exotic looking zero-emissions vehicle to date. Purists will scoff at an electric exotic, environmentalists will complain it isn't optimized for saving the planet. Somewhere in the middle will be some very happy owners enjoying a car with loads of torque, seamless power delivery and the ability to drive an exotic without tail-pipe emissions. This is the future, there is no way around it and cars like this, will make sure we still enjoy it.