Quick Drive: 2011 Audi R8 5.2 quattro Spyder 6MT

By Chris Haak

There are few cars that I am willing to wait in line for a chance to drive when I’m at press events.  The limited criteria for which I’d be willing include things like a) 500-plus horsepower, b) exotic car looks, and c) something I haven’t driven before.  Yesterday, I waited almost three hours to drive this car (admittedly, I was on a waiting list, and was able to do other things in the interim).  But boy, was the wait worthwhile.

Last year, I had the opportunity to drive an Audi R8 4.2 FSI 6MT.  Though that car, with its 420-horsepower V8 doesn’t exactly meet the 500-horsepower requirement, I enjoyed that drive more than I enjoyed a drive in a Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG coupe the same day.  That “base” R8 was probably the most thrilling car that I drove in the past year, save perhaps a spin in a Corvette ZR1 four months after the R8 drive.  The Corvette provided its thrills thanks to other-worldly acceleration; the V8-powered R8 provided its thrills via a legitimate exotic car experience and incredible balance.

The recipe for automotive bliss is simple:  take an Audi R8, add 25 percent more cylinders, 25 percent more horsepower, and remove the roof, paint it Teak Brown, and hand the keys to me.  Perhaps surprisingly, in a world where the Ford Fiesta can be equipped with pushbutton start, the R8 has [gasp] a switchblade key that must be inserted into the steering column and twisted clockwise in order to start the car.

But before you get to that point, there’s the matter of getting into the R8 Spyder.  There’s really nothing to it.  There is a conventional lift-up door handle at the edge of the sculpted side vent on the door, and it’s easy to get into the car with the top open or closed.  The R8 sits very close to the ground, so generally you will find yoruself heading toward the ground as you slide into the car.  The door panels are a mix of interesting shapes (the triangular door pulls, in particular, are leather-covered, three-dimensional examples of modern art that seem to almost be floating in midair near the forward edge of the doors).  Then once the door is closed, you can see that the door pulls simply continue the curvature of the instrument panel’s cowl.

There’s a charcoal leather wrap with contrasting stitching on the door panels and upper dash, and all materials are top-notch.  The interior’s actual design is somewhat conventional; make that refreshingly conventional, with the primary controls falling easily to hand and easy to decipher.  The small, flat-bottom steering wheel makes the car easier to get into and out of, and is an absolute delight to hold.

The R8’s V8 is a fantastic source of aural treats; the ten-cylinder version makes some very different, but very cool sounds of its own.  The V10 sounds nothing like the much larger one that had been installed in the Dodge Viper.  The Viper’s engine sounds like two five cylinder engines (one in each ear) while the R8’s 5.2 liter unit sounds like a single very angry engine.  It might be an overused metaphor, but I had the sensation that there was a nest of angry hornets behind my seat.  A poke of the go-pedal, coupled with the engine’s light flywheel and big power, rapidly spins the tach toward its 8500 RPM redline.

Thinking of my past experience in an R8 with a manual transmission, which was erring on the side of caution from my initial pull out and stalling the car, I gave this one a bit more gas as I left the parking space and managed to keep the engine running, yet didn’t slip the clutch.  Baby steps, folks.

On my brief drive, about ten miles on winding roads with light traffic, with a brief four-lane limited-access segment and even a traffic circle, I quickly remembered just how hard it is to quickly shift a manual transmission with a gated shifter.  Despite my own lack of practice and just the constraints of the design (which requires very positive shifts, yet leaves no ambiguity about what gear you’re in), knowing that you’re shifting gears the same way it’s done in Lamborghinis (at least the ones that still have three pedals) and hearing the chink-clink sound as the metal handle hits the metal gate, you momentarily listen to that subtle sound rather than the scream of the engine behind you.

The route I took the car on began with a climb over a small mountain (or large hill; I’m not sure where the delineation is between the two) with one curve marked 15 MPH and another marked 20 MPH.  I kept the car in second gear for most of this early portion of the route, and there was more than enough power to quickly add another 30 or 40 MPH to my speed in the more straight sections, and plenty of braking power to scrub that speed away as I closed in on curves.  I had to watch the tach as I acclimated myself to the car; thinking I was near the redline and probably making maximum power, more than once I was surprised when a quick glance at the tach showed 6500 or 7000 RPMs, meaning I had another 1500 or 2000 RPMs to go before hitting the redline.  The “angriest” part of the tach was still to come in front of me.

When the curves arrived, the R8 5.2 FSI’s standard quattro all wheel drive let me quickly reapply the power as I exited corners.  Thanks to quattro, traction was fantastic.  Despite wet roads from heavy overnight rains, the R8 had no problem putting power to the ground, even when using all 525 horsepower in second gear.  I tried the same trick in a Corvette Grand Sport Convertible in identical conditions, and even with the Corvette’s traction control still active, the rear of the Corvette wanted to trade places with the front.

Perhaps my highlight in this particular R8 was when it wasn’t the fastest vehicle around me.  I was taking it easy, thinking that a clearing ahead of me would be a good place for a speed trap, and just as I saw that the coast was clear, I looked in my mirror to see the the ride of a sport bike passing the car behind me across the double yellow lines with his sights set on me next.  I dropped the R8 to second gear, it took off.  Of course, I was still passed, but it took him two seconds instead of one second to do it.  He must have still been a bit surprised by the R8’s acceleration in front of him, though, because he was going so fast to pass me that he nearly rear-ended a pickup truck in front of me.  He steadied his bike, but on the return trip three minutes later, I was surprised to see him parked along the shoulder, helmet off his head, smoking a cigarette to calm his nerves.  I gave him a friendly beep and a wave as I passed.

Despite the R8 5.2 FSI’s impressive capabilities, the car did not have a harsh ride.  Credit the R8’s magnetorheological shocks for their ability to react instantly to road conditions.  In “normal” mode, where I spent my entire journey, the suspension is compliant and impacts are muted, yet the shocks are smart enough to firm up rapidly when necessary.  There is a driver-activated sport mode firms things up even more with a switch on the console, but for what I was doing with the car on public roads, it wasn’t even necessary.

My drive was too brief to really get much of a feel for the R8 Spyder’s seat comfort, but I was impressed that the dominant sound was the engine, and not wind noise.  Whoever heard of a convertible that was nearly hushed during open-top operation?  All I know is that studies have shown convertibles to be hazardous to one’s hearing.  Partial credit probably goes to the R8’s sleek shape and aggressively-raked windshield, but the standard mesh windscreen behind the seats surely helped a bit as well.  The R8 Spyder has two separate switches for activating the top; one opens the vertical rear window (which is just a few inches tall) and the other actuates the top itself.  It’s possible to open only the window so that you can still enjoy the aural treats of the V10 even in less-than-ideal outside conditions, but I was fortunate to have everything open during my time behind the wheel.

A few hours prior to my drive, I had the chance to ride shotgun in the same car while a colleague was driving.  It had just started to drizzle when we set off, so we closed the roof and rear window.  The V10’s noise was still the most prominent sound in the cabin (show me a 5.2 liter V10 spinning at 8500 RPMs that’s quiet), but it was possible to hear the stereo clearly.  There’s a very slick cubby between the seats on the rear bulkhead with an iPod connecting cable, and even a little rubberized drawer to hold said iPod/iPhone.

The R8 is the true everyday supercar.  It’s easy to drive, easy to drive fast, easy to get into, and easy to use.  It has extremely sophisticated technology under its skin – witness the aluminum space frame construction, quattro all wheel drive, magnetorheological shocks, and the direct-injected V10 – and that skin has true low-slung, exotic car looks.  And all this can be yours for a base price of $162,700 for a manual transmission R8 Spyder, which is the only layout I’d consider for such a car.  The R-Tronic single-clutch automated manual costs almost $10,000 more and nearly everyone who drives the car with that loves the car but hates the transmission.  There’s a $1,250 destination charge, and my tester had (I believe) just two options:  the $3,500 Enhanced Black Leather Package with Contrast Stitching and the $650 Teak Brown Metallic Paint.  Altogether, the cash register chimes at $168,100.  That’s a hell of a lot of money, but this is a hell of a lot of car.  Considering that it’s about $50,000 more than a Corvette ZR1, it’s a bargain.  It’s a great car, and manages to be a Gallardo without the wackiness that Lamborghini brings to the table.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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