By: Jesse Adams
Johannesburg - You know the drill. Another supercar review filled to the brim with colourful descriptors and dramatic hyperbole. Plumes of tyre smoke, skin-stretching G-forces, screaming exhausts and lottery jackpot decimal points. Predictable stuff.
But here’s the thing. In the real world, where Robert Downey Jr wears jeans and T-shirts and not an electromagnetic suit of iron, it’s not all that often that the cars we see sliding sideways at breakneck speeds in magazines and on TV ever actually break traction. Most 12-year-old boys might believe that every supercar drive involves fire, backflips and other Clarkson-esque fantasies, but I promise, traffic doesn’t miraculously part for exotic machinery. It takes me 35 minutes to get from home to work at 8am whether I’m in a Kia Picanto or a McLaren P1.
And often, a Kia would offer the more pleasurable journey. Supercars are almost always flawed. They smell of petrol and epoxy. Pedal arrangements are offset at stupid angles to the driver’s seat because a fat front tyre encroaches on cabin space. They whirr and buzz excessively because cooling systems designed to work in the open air of a flowing Spanish racetrack are instead working overtime stuck behind sputtering taxis at walking pace on Jan Smuts Avenue.
But there are exceptions. It’s a rare phenomenon but every so often a carmaker builds a supercar without all the compromise. Audi’s first R8 in 2007 was one, and the all-new one on test here is too. Here’s a car that looks like it can go 330km/h, and indeed it can, but it’s also just fine on the crawling commute as well.
Dial all of its many drive settings down to real world mode, and it’s as refined and pliant as a hatchback a tenth of the price. Our car was fitted with optional 20 inch rims and rubber-band tyre profiles, but in its softest Comfort setting it floated over flawed roads without fuss. Almost too soft actually, as its nose sometimes bounced and bobbed on its springs as if its dampers were completely disconnected.
Easy to get into
The R8 is very low, and it’s almost impossible to not scrape your shoe on the leather door panel when boarding, but for the record it’s much easier to get into and out of than, say, an Alfa 4C with its very wide sills. If you’re a fan of contorted driving positions and epoxy whiff you’ll be disappointed once inside. It smells exactly like an average A3, and you won’t have to stretch your big toe to find the brake pedal. Rear visibility is remarkable in comparison to other mid-engined cars, and even if the mirrors can’t afford a full view, a crystal clear image of what’s behind pops up in the digital instrument cluster when reversing. All very un-supercar attributes.
We had the more powerful of two R8 models available - a Plus with 449kW/560Nm to the normal version’s 397/540 - but even so it was happy to dawdle comfortably around town with very little whirr and buzz, at low revs, with aircon in full swing and its 13-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system easily outdoing the 10-cylinder hum at the back. Its seven-speed dual-clutch transmission can also relax to the point where it could be an old-school slushbox, so creamy smooth and subtle are its changes.
At this point you think I’m a complete loon. I’ve road tested one of the hottest cars of 2016, and I drove it like grandma Ethel to her weekly cribbage meeting. Well, no. Of course not. The R8 Plus also has an Iron Man mode, and I explored it properly. A small chequered flag button on the steering wheel, together with another for exhaust flaps, expose the R8’s otherwise hidden fangs.
Is it fast? Hell yeah it is. We couldn’t quite crack Audi’s 3.2-second zero to 100km/h sea-level claim, but a best sprint time of 3.6 seconds and the quarter-mile in 11.5 makes it the fastest naturally-aspirated car ever through our doors. And may I remind you we test at Gauteng altitude. Ahead of it in our charts are three turbocharged McLarens (one of which is the P1), and two 911 Turbos, but only just. At sea level, this log might be shuffled slightly.
With settings tuned for max attack, the B&O stereo has nothing on the exhaust. This is essentially the same V10 as in the previous R8, but an extensive overhaul has had a wondrous effect on the noise it makes. In neutral it doesn’t so much rev as it does snap, and when pulling hard across one of its very long gears (it’ll do 110km/h in second) its song starts as a deep roar and ends in a high-pitched shriek 8500rpm later.
The once supple suspension is now jarred by every imperfection, and the previously buttery gearbox in now kicking your coccyx with every upchange. In manual mode it’s hard to not accidentally short shift because your brain is telling you 7000rpm is already way too much. But it’s not. There’s still plenty more power coming after that, and there’s great reward if you can resist tugging the right paddle until redline.
Traction is enormous. Its quattro all-wheel-drive can just about put ripples in tarmac on launch, and it clings to corners like a glued gecko. It’s a new quattro system, with an electronic multi-plate clutch at the front (instead of an old-fashioned viscous coupling) which can apportion all drive to either axle. It’ll be a rare occasion the R8 sends 100 percent to the front, but with all force going to the rear wheels it’s now possible to get some tail wag out of corners - but you’ll have to provoke it with forceful steering and throttle inputs. Sideways isn’t the fastest way around around a track, and this car is designed to be fast.
The new R8 Plus can be a cuddly puppy dog, or a bloodthirsty predator hellbent on hunting the horizon. Probably the most diverse supercar we’ve driven. The original was similar, but somehow this one features even more duality, with comfort and performance capabilities at more extreme ends. But it’s also more expensive. When the V10 was first launched in 2009 it was well under two million bucks. This one is over three. And our test car was actually closer to R3.5-million with options - one of which was a matte silver paint job at R118 000. Worth it? Yes.
Audi R8 Plus
Engine: 5.2-litre, V10 petrol
Gearbox: Seven-speed automatic
Power: 449kW @ 8250rpm
Torque: 560Nm @ 6500rpm
0-100km/h (claimed): 3.2 seconds
Top speed (claimed): 330km/h
Price as tested: R3 503 680
Warranty: One-year / unlimited distance
Service/Maintenance plan: Five-year / 100 000km
Follow Jesse Adams on Twitter @PoorBoyLtd