As a V-8 coupe, the $115,000 2011 Audi R8 has to rely on its stunning looks to compete with the likes of the much faster $105,000 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, not to mention the $80,000 Nissan GT-R--but it's still a blazing-fast sportscar that only gets better with a V-10 transplant.
The R8 4.2 (that's Audi's badgework for the V-8) isn't particularly torquey, but its rev-friendly 4.2-liter, 420-horsepower V-8 puts supercar performance on Audi's map, whether the six-speed manual or the R-tronic automated manual shifter are installed. With either gearbox, the V-8 whooshes to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds, tops out at 187 mph and does it with a backing track of lush mechanical whirs.
It's enough to outpace the Aston Vantage and Jaguar XKR, while keeping up with the Porsche 911--but the R8 V-10 engine is the only way to erase all doubt about the R8's supercar credentials. The 5.2-liter, 525-hp ten-cylinder is derived from the engine in the Lamborghini Gallardo. No surprise, then, that the R8 rips the pavement off to the tune of a 0-60 mph run in about 3.7 seconds (4.0 in the Spyder), and toys with a near-200-mph top end. The V-10 has that Italian essence at full roll--it's a throaty chill-worthy roar, making the R8 just as expressive to the ears as any 'Vette or XK.
The automated R-tronic transmission suits the R8 better than the manual gearbox, though the standard shifter changes gears quickly, though with a long throw. The R-tronic removes the clutch pedal from the equation and bangs off shifts at the click of a paddle, more quickly but maybe with a touch more harshness than a good driver can manage. On the track, the R-tronic is simply brilliant: it nails shifts and blips the throttle expertly, which leaves more mental bandwidth to devote to the next tight corner.
Audi directs power through its all-wheel-drive system and sets aside a special "launch control" mode that ensures repeatable 0-60 mph runs. The all-wheel drive is biased to send more power to the rear, though it can push up to 35 percent to the fronts, and the car's slim 3400-pound curb weight also favors the rear end. On all cars, the independent suspension gets magnetically-controlled shocks with Normal and Sport setting, which soften up the ride off the performance venues. It's one of the most successful installations we know: the R8 feels hefty and stable at triple-digit speeds, fairly light and nimble down low, and with more than reasonable ride comfort.
The R8's brakes are strapping and powerful, but for racing, the available carbon-ceramic brake package is the way to spend more upfront in exchange for spending less in rotors, pumps and pads down the road. It's also touchy in daily driving, so order it only if you have real motorsports activity in mind.