Driving at night, in the darkness beyond the beam of headlights, everything is left to the imagination. You've seen this scene before of course: on any country road after the sun goes down.
Now transpose that night driving feeling onto a deserted and unfamiliar race track. Southern Portugal. Put yourself in the driver's seat of Audi's new 602 hp R8 after a 36-hour Trans Atlantic day. It's a cloudless night with only a sliver of a moon.
Darkness distorts your sense of speed, taking away all usual references. Don't crash, stay awake, don't crash…
The second-generation Audi R8 has, as before, a V-10 engine shared with the Lamborghini Huracan, its corporate cousin. Also in common is a new aluminum chassis that uses carbon-fibre as a structural component: for the transmission tunnel, the firewall behind the passengers, and the B-pillars.
All told, the new R8 is 100 lbs lighter than before, and has about 15 or 50 horsepower more depending on whether you opt for the V10 model (533 hp) or the V10 Plus (602 hp).
We've got the latter model on track, in the dark, accelerating through 0-100 km/h in 3.2 seconds and on past 190 km/h like it's running for its life. The sound isn't as maniacal as the Lamborghini's; it's like they put a trumpet mute in the exhaust pipes. It's almost serene.
The track dips downhill towards a sharp 180-degree left. There are two trackside markers you need to find in the dark: the braking cone, and the turn-in cone. You've got to put all faith in the car, to hope it suffers fools kindly, as the cones only reveal themselves at the last second in the darkness.
The brakes are reassuringly strong (carbon-ceramic discs are optional) with good feel through the pedal. The R8 bumps and wiggles over the rutted track, but stays straight as it scrubs off 120 km/h in seconds.
The steering wheel is covered in buttons, like pimples on an unlucky teenager's face. One starts the engine, one makes the exhaust louder, and on another: a chequered flag for Performance Mode. It's that button we push now: stiffening the suspension, telling the seven-speed automatic (no more manual!) to hold gears right to the 8,500 rpm redline, and sharpening the throttle. The traction control will now let you slide the car around a little, but is still there to reign things in if you're clumsy. It's nicely judged so as not to feel intrusive.
All-wheel drive cars tend to understeer, and the R8 is no exception. (Although you'd have to be driving on a track to really notice.) "Planted" is its dominant handling characteristic. But it'll do harmless oversteer too, the AWD system sending just enough power to overwhelm the rear tires powering out of a corner and making you feel like you know what you're doing.
By the end of lap one, all fear of the dark is gone. By the end of lap two, you understand why the R8 is so special: it manages to feel at once exotic and approachable, a trick no other car in its class can pull off so well.
And, did we mention that underneath the bodywork it's basically the same as a Lamborghini Huracan?
The Audi R8 V10 arrives in spring 2016, likely as a 2017 model. An all-electric R8 e-tron will follow later. Pricing and Canadian fuel economy have yet to be announced.
You'll like this car if … You want an exotic car to drive every day and/or are afraid of the dark.
- Base price: $190,000 V10, $210,000 V10 Plus (estimate)
- Engine: 5.2-litre V-10
- Transmissions: Seven-speed auto
- Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 17.5 city, 9.3 highway (V10 Plus)
- Drive: All-wheel drive
- Alternatives: Porsche 911 Turbo S, BMW i8, Mercedes-AMG GT S, Aston Martin V12 Vantage S, Yacht timeshare
- Looks: An evolution of the original design, the R8 now looks more like a supercar — lower and wider. The signature “side blade” has been split in two.
- Interior: So cool. All futuristic with floating dials and a clean design. Surprisingly easy to get into and out of. The big Virtual Cockpit digital display (as seen on the Audi TT and Huracan) looks brilliant. But plastic paddle shifters?
- Performance: It’s only the variable ratio steering that feels a bit iffy. The dry sump V-10 engine is a rare jewel. Audi knows this, which is why they’ve put it on display under glass. Surely this is the last time Audi’s flagship sports car will be able to use a naturally aspirated engine? The “Plus” does 0-100 in 3.2 seconds.
- Technology: [ Audi touts new fuel economy features including automatic start/stop, cylinder shut off, and a coasting mode. All told they reduce fuel consumption up to 10 percent. But, obviously, it’s still not good.
- Cargo: The front trunk is smaller than the similar cubby you’d find in Porsche 911. There’s a little shelf behind the two seats, but you’ll need to pack very light.
More like supercar than before, still just as usable.
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.
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