The giant killer returns: early ride in the 2015 Audi R8 supercar

First taste of the second-generation R8

Audi R8 slide

THE R8 was Audi’s first supercar, born for the fast lane and more than capable of rubbing shoulders with elite machinery from Aston Martin, Ferrari and Porsche. Since going on sale in 2007, almost 25,000 have been snapped up by drivers who have fallen for its low stance, the signature sideblades behind the doors and – it goes without saying – a driving experience that could take your breath away.

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Some Audis had no business hogging the outside lane, but the R8 really did belong there – especially the V10-powered version that shared its engine with the Lamborghini Gallardo. But the beauty of Audi’s approach was that it was usable in the real world no matter what skill its driver possessed; it was, if you like, a Nespresso machine in a daunting world of barista-operated counter-top contraptions.

Now Audi has to improve on the R8’s formula. A second-generation model will be revealed to the world in early March, at the Geneva motor show. However, Driving has had an early preview of the new supercar, including riding in the passenger seat as the V10 engine lets rip and a professional racing driver – who appears to have learnt a few tricks from the Stig – powerslides it through corners.

The new R8 shares its important bits – the engine, gearbox and suspension – with a Lamborghini, the Huracan. It has more power than the outgoing version, more sophisticated software and improved aerodynamics, which raise the top speed of the most powerful model to 205mph and cut the 0-62mph acceleration time to just 3.2 seconds. That’s faster than a Ferrari 458 Italia.

New Audi R8 supercar

On the outside, it is expected to lose those blades that made the car so distinctive. The cars Driving experienced were camouflaged to ensure Audi has a pleasant surprise for the crowds at the Geneva motor show. However, someone forgot about the dashboard’s fancy new digital instrument display, which shows an image of the undisguised car featuring two smaller dark panels on either side, giving it a less dramatic appearance.

There’s still plenty of theatre about this supercar, though. The V10 engine starts with a hacking roar, as if it’s trying to dislodge the catalytic converter. It revs to 8,850rpm and is naturally aspirated, at a time when Ferrari and Porsche are turning to more economical turbocharged engines. We sampled the V10 Plus version, with 602bhp, up from 562bhp in its predecessor. There will also be a 533bhp V10 model when it goes on sale later this year. A V8 version, as well as a drop-top Spyder, will be available later.

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On-track performance is said to be improved over the old car by a chassis made of carbon fibre and aluminium (lift the bodywork from a Huracan and you’ll find the same setup underneath), which brings a weight saving of 15%. The dual-clutch gearbox is said to shift faster and a more sophisticated quattro four-wheel drive system constantly varies the torque split between the front and rear wheels, giving optimum performance at all times – in theory.

A brief ride in the car on track with a racing driver showed that isn’t always the case: pleasingly for purists at least, the R8 has been engineered so that fun trumps traction. In normal circumstances more power will be sent to the rear wheels. Audi says that enthusiastic drivers will be able to provoke the car into controllable oversteer and powerslide round a circuit.

2015 Audi R8 ride

Some might be disappointed at the use of electronic power steering, which can feel artificial, and the lack of a manual gearbox option, although gears can be shifted with paddles behind the steering wheel. The car has been developed alongside a new GT3 racing version and engineers claim that the road-going version will set a competitive lap time at the Nürburgring – the benchmark arena for supercars.

The major strength of the previous R8 was its ability to shapeshift between red-blooded supercar and tame city runaround. It even rode speed bumps better than some hatchbacks. Audi says that the new car is even more comfortable and practical, with a larger boot (under the bonnet) and space inside the cabin behind the two seats for a set of golf clubs – although at first glance that looks optimistic, unless you play with a set of putters. Laser lights, which can illuminate the road up to 600 yards ahead, will be available as an option and work with intelligent LED headlights, which can operate on main beam without dazzling other drivers.

We have not yet been able to test the driving claims, and given that the R8 is closely related to the Huracan – a car that is not as thrilling as its predecessor, the Gallardo – there are concerns that need further exploration.

Even from the passenger seat it is obvious that the R8’s modernisation has created more complexity for the driver. The old car had just two operating modes – Normal and Sport. The new one has seven, which change the weight of the steering, the responsiveness of the gearbox and the power distribution between the four wheels. If fitted with optional electro-magnetic suspension, it can also adjust the damper settings. Among the settings are three dynamic modes, which are meant to produce the fastest possible performance in the dry, in the wet and, finally, in the snow, for when you’re not going to let wintry weather get in the way of that lap record.

R8 composite

Fuel consumption is boosted by 20% over the old car, with a range of hi-tech features including cylinder deactivation, which switches part of the engine off when all of its power is not needed, and coasting, which cuts the whole motor when you’re slowing down.

The biggest criticism of the old car was the dated-looking interior, and that’s where the most noticeable changes have been made. The car takes the virtual dashboard first seen in the TT, with a large screen behind the wheel that shows the speedometer and rev counter alongside a raft of customisable information, from the sat nav maps to a live feed of the tyre temperatures. This means that there’s no need for another screen in the middle of the minimalist leather-lined cabin, which features heavily styled ventilation controls.

It gets cluttered on the steering wheel, where standard audio and menu buttons are joined by those to toggle the exhaust and driving mode and the big red one that starts the car. Voice control is available, though.

Prices are expected to rise over those of the previous R8, but are still likely to represent a saving of well over £50,000 compared with its sister car, the £180,000 Lamborghini Huracan. The R8’s lead engineer was involved in the development of both cars. When we asked him why you would spend more on the Lambo, there was an uncomfortable silence.

2015 Audi R8 V10 Plus

  • Price: tbc
  • Engine: 5204cc, V10
  • Power: 602bhp
  • Torque: 413 lb ft
  • Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch
  • Performance: 0-62mph in 3.2sec
  • Top speed: 205mph
  • Fuel: 22.8mpg (combined)
  • CO2: 289g/km
  • Release date: Autumn