After eight years in production, Audi's first supercar deservedly retires. Its successor, the '16 R8, is faster, more efficient, and smarter, but you just can't overstate the significance of the car that started it all. For almost a decade, the R8 has played a pivotal role in the supercar segment, if not in the automotive market as a whole. It was the debut of the R8 that made brands like BMW or Lexus believe they can join this supercar pantheon coup d'etat. For Audi, it was the last definitive step in transformation from the undersized Volkswagen relative to a world-class leader in the premium segment. Since 2009, the R8 has proved its pedigree by winning trophies at the most prestigious and toughest races all over North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia, while its road-going equivalent has claimed the position of a technological pioneer, featuring the first all-LED headlights in a production car. In 2014, the limited R8 LMX raised the bar once again by gaining the title of the first road car in the world with laser headlights.
In 1999, Volkswagen Group took ownership of Lamborghini; it was Audi that was expected to contribute the most to Sant'Agata. Few wondered, though, what the investors would want in return. The Gallardo architecture proved to be too tempting to not build an Audi version. That's how the first exotic mid-engine road car from Ingolstadt was brought to life. It was a big thing: With that move, Audi democratized the segment hitherto reserved only for a small group of eccentrics willing to pay silly money for unreliable, unfriendly cars. The Germans managed to tick all the boxes for the supercar drama and sense of occasion, adding previously unheard of levels of quality and comfort in everyday use, as if the R8 was just another model in the lineup, no different to an average A6 or TT. From then on, Ferrari and company could no longer claim that supercars need to be tight inside and expensive to run, but instead they had to take a crash course in making luxurious and refined cabins. On the other hand, competitors like Porsche and Mercedes faced the tough challenge of making their 911s or SLRs look desirable again, as their volume supercars suddenly failed to excite with their ordinary silhouettes. The move of putting R8 into production may have seemed risky back in 2007, but it proved immensely successful from the very beginning: All of the cars scheduled for the first year of production disappeared within the first week after the premiere. Eight years, a face-lift, two body styles, and three engine versions later, the production ended with nearly 30,000 R8s from the German Neckarsulm Quattro GmbH plant.
R8 is a special car, and that's why we have decided to bid farewell to it in a more than ordinary way. We took it to driving heaven—yes, really. Peaking at 7,970 feet above sea level, few roads are nearer the clouds than the ones here, and even fewer are as compelling. You could argue that those abandoned trails in the Swiss Alps joining the mountain passes of Susten, Grimsel, and Furka were made to pass the high peaks separating Italy from Switzerland, but, if you ask us, the only reason they are there is to pave way for a fine automotive feat. Being in the region, most enthusiast drivers (and car magazines) choose to follow the Swiss highway all the way down to the legendary Gotthard Pass and San Bernardino Pass. We take an early exit for a mountain trail ranked even higher in our personal list of the best roads in the world. It is 30 miles of pure motoring perfection you tackle with a broad smile on your face not only because of what you currently see, but also because you know what comes at the end, just like an excited kid heading for a toy store.
The little-known drive from Susten to Grimsel Passes is a marvel in itself. The smooth and relatively empty asphalt ribbon offers treats of all kinds: Starting next to a cold glacial lake, it leads through some never failing to excite sequences of hairpin turns mixed with long, high-speed curves and occasional tunnels magnifying the aural experience. While descending in the valley, the scenery turns from gray to green and small villages start to appear, where people don't hear about the Swiss Frank's exchange rate or Patek Philippe watches, but merely cowbells. Theoretically, it should be the place to let the driver and the car's carbon ceramic brakes finally have some rest, but the long straights with nothing to obstruct visibility torture him with strict speed limits, testing his resistance to temptations... That's one test easily failed.
When the road starts to ascend again, the hundred-year-old pine trees make way for open spaces, the sweet landshaft transforming into a lunar landscape. Despite the undisturbed environment, this rugged area beneath the snow-capped summits doesn't look like David Attenborough's documentary shooting plan. With a monumental river dam and some gloomy old hotels built beside Lake Grimsel and at the top of the Furka Pass, the area would be a perfect location for a James Bond movie... Indeed, all of these places have been immortalized in Goldfinger. Some locals old enough would remember how an Aston Martin DB5 with Sean Connery at the helm chased beautiful villain Tilly Masterson, who was jiggling in a drop-top Mustang.
Back in 2015, we have our own plot twist thanks to the incessantly changing weather, typical of the Alps. We fought our way through the thick fog and rain at the beginning of the day, but our worries disappeared as we climbed higher. The clouds rushing just above our heads finally gave in and, at the top of the Grimsel Pass, we witnessed the best view a spirited driver can imagine: a grand valley with us on one side and the legendary Furka Pass on the other, joined by a meandering road as if some unimaginable force had thrown it on the slopes like overcooked spaghetti. Time for some action.
Is there a place more fitting to the R8? The Audi flagship debuted with a V-8 under its glass cover, but the V-10 followed soon, and this is the motor to choose. It enriches this thoroughly competent construction with some bonus power and Lamborghini powertrain drama, which it has always deserved. Here you see the V10 Plus version, distinguished by the carbon-fiber adorning the car's body, interior, and engine bay, coupled with some engine fiddling taking the numbers up to 542 hp and 398 lb-ft of torque. Excluding the limited GT and LMX editions, this is the ultimate series production R8. This means that all of the well-known virtues have been retained: The steering system is brilliantly balanced, doing what it's asked for both at your local shopping mall parking lot and here, 7,000 feet above it. The R8 convinces me that life with a supercar doesn't have to include painful compromises and unexpected trouble. I've used different R8s on a daily basis on several occasions. I had a few doubts before setting off on my longest trip yet, but here on this 3,000-mile journey to and fro the Alps, the Audi proved to be a versatile grand tourer. Dismissing the distance of the German Autobahns in the well-insulated cabin, spoiling our butts with surprisingly comfy seats, and spoiling our ears with peaceful silence interrupted only by the audiophile-pleasing Bang and Olufsen audio system. Our fuel economy at one time turned out to be a seemingly impossible 23.5 mpg, only to let the speedo needle indicate nearly 200 mph a moment later. And some people call SUVs multitalented?
Given the engine's location, visibility is reasonably good all round and the ride is very German in a good way, meaning predictable and well-planted. This may not be the most spectacular praise for a car of the Audi R8 kind, but in the real world, it's better news than some drifting shenanigans. Despite all the bravado, R8 builds emotional support for the driver, encouraging him to push the boundaries further and explore the car's great potential. Unlike some of its famous rivals, the R8 never bullies its owners with frightening road manners.
But even with the comforting Audi badge and the Quattro all-wheel drive, this is still one exhilarating 542hp $162,900 supercar. The driver sits absurdly low, while the monstrous engine conducts controlled explosions just behind his back, warming it gently through the aluminum firewall. If he dared to stab the right pedal early in a corner, asking the engine for all it's got, the on-demand all-wheel drive would give way to the oversteery nature of this viscous coupling system. If he kept the fast pedal stabbed in the floor, the monumental Alpine summits surrounding the car would shudder to the tune of the biblical shriek coming from the two massive tailpipes. Top tip to the readers: If your car is loud enough to start an avalanche in the Alps, make sure it's also fast enough to run away from it.
Gear down, 10 cylinders building the power up to the unthinkable 8,000 rpm, a convincing kick in the back while the gear changes, and the whole show restarts, now at an even faster pace. The next few encores assured me how superior the S-tronic dual clutch gearbox is to the hard-to-love E-tronic transmission sourced from Lamborghini, which was the only automatic alternative until the MY 2012 face-lift. But even with the blindingly quick DSG on board, the traditional manual transmission is still my gearbox of choice for this car. It may be a little slower and more tiring, but that's little price to pay for all the additional engagement from behind the wheel (especially since you keep 9,000 bucks in your pocket with that decision). Apart from the R8, only a few other new cars in the world can unleash adrenaline in such a sublime, pure way.
All that doesn't hide the fact that the R8 needed a successor. The age of the car is best felt inside. The MMI system is a few steps behind the one in the small A3, and even the dashboard graphics serve as a reminder of how much has changed even in the last five years. Twelve long years after its inception, the low body of exotic proportions and details still wows the streets just as a mid-engine supercar should. The view of the LED-illuminated engine bay through the glass lid is no less irresistible than the view of the Alps through the windshield. The timeless Teutonic body proved to be a suitable canvas for the subsequent updates. The V-10 engine gave enlarged air intakes here, the 2012 face-lift added all-new LED lights there, so that the car still looks as fresh and striking as the latest additions to the junior-supercar league. Even in a desolate place like this, our Sepang Blue R8 was a star: A Japanese tourist went to great pains to set his family for a photo only to focus his camera on a passing car at the last moment.
The corners leading to the Furka Pass test the driver's skills as much as his courage. Some of the bends are blind, and some are not, all the worse for him. Instead of Armco barriers, all you get in Switzerland to protect you from falling into the abyss is just some small concrete posts. Not a thing that gives too much of emotional comfort, but if something went wrong, the driver would be more than happy to crash the car against them instead of the rocks several hundred feet below.
The way back to Germany inspires some final thoughts. The road to Furka is, beyond any doubt, one of the best roads in the world, surely better than some of the overrated passes on the other side of the Alps (whispers Stelvio). The R8 feels at home here, forming a perfect symbiosis among the car, the driver, and the winding thread of the asphalt eroded by the harsh climate. No retirement party has ever been as awesome as this one.
The long and joyful life of Audi R8
2000: R8 LMP. Audi's first supercar got its name from one of the most successful cars to ever start in Le Mans. R8 LMP won five of the six editions it competed in.
2003: Le Mans quattro concept. When Lil Jon gets low and Justin Timberlake sings something about crying him a river, Audi gives us the first hint of its special car.
2004: RSQ. R8 makes a film debut next to Will Smith in I, Robot. It is a vision of a supercar in 2035. Will the flagship Audi look like this then? Only 20 years to go...
2006: The First R8. 4.2 V-8 FSI engine generates the modest 414 bhp, but this is enough to revolutionize the supercar segment.
2008: The First R8 V-10. Such a competent chassis deserves more power, so it gets it from a Lambo engine downgraded to 518 bhp. Don't worry, Lambo, you still have the Spyder.
2008: R8 TDI Le Mans Concept. How about even more power... coming from a diesel?! Audi is toying with the V12 Super-TDI, but this version never makes it to production.
2009: R8 LMS. The beginning of a long and extremely successful racing career of the V10 rear-wheel-drive car, brought in the form of GT3, Grand-Am, and LMS Ultra.
2009: e-tron. The motors are electric, but there are four of them, and together they're good for 309 bhp... and 3,319 lb-ft. The body looks fresh, too.
2010: R8 V-10 Spyder. Calm down, Lamborghini. Your car is still more extreme. V-8 Spyder joins a year later.
2010: R8 GT. Don't know how to say it, Lambo, but we've just made the R8 220 pounds lighter and the body kit more aggressive. But we're making only 333 of them. Oh, and another 333 Spyders.
2011: R8 e-tron. Audi wanted to respond to the Mercedes-AMG SLS E-cell with this: an all-electric R8. Never made it to production, though, due to the limited range.
2012: A face-lift. Smoothing out some wrinkles on the outside and making massive progress inside thanks to the new S tronic DSG gearbox.
2014: R8 LMX. Only 99 of these came out, bearing the neat title of the first road car equipped with laser lights in the history.
2015: The new R8. The beginning of a new era: up to 602 bhp packed under a modern body and aided by loads of new technologies. The evolutionary approach confirms that the idea was correct from the beginning.