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Audi R8: a retrospective of a German supercar

WORDS: ALEX GOY | PHOTOS: ALEX GOY, AUDI

Audi has made no secret that the R8 as we know it is done. It turns out that a 5.2-litre screamin’ V10 has no place in a future powered by electricity. None of this comes as a surprise, but it’s still cause to take a moment to reflect. 

Launched in 2006, the original R8 was quite the thing. It had been previewed as 2003’s Le Mans Quattro concept – it featured the same grille, side-pods, mid-engine layout and more – which garnered a decent slug of positive ‘please make this, Audi’ feedback. The production car came with a fearsome 4.2-litre V8 (first found in the much-praised B7 RS 4), an open-gated six-speed manual and a distinctive look. The Le Mans Quattro’s side-pods were fine for a concept, but when it came to the production car they were a cause of great distress for some, er, vocal commentators. Thankfully, they’ve aged well. 

Audi releasing a supercar felt, initially at least, rather strange

Audi releasing a supercar felt, initially at least, rather strange

Audi releasing a supercar felt, initially at least, rather strange. The German brand had made its name with all-wheel-drive rally monsters, its RS line was finding its feet by 2006, and its endurance racers were busy winning… everything they could win. The R8, despite sharing a name with one of Audi’s racing machines, wasn’t derived from anything you’d find campaigning in Le Mans or the WRC. It was its own beast, although not entirely of Audi parentage. 

Since the late 1990s Audi has been in charge of a VW Group company with plenty of supercar experience: Lamborghini. Naturally, when it came time to develop its own, Audi knew where to go. At the time, the Gallardo was doing the business for Sant’Agata, and it came with a perfect platform… and engine. Audi got to work on creating something a little different based on what was available. Using Audi Space Frame tech and an aluminium monocoque, along with carbon fibre in the right places, the four-ringed manufacturer came up with something pretty special. 

Initially, the R8 could only be equipped with a V8. Lamborghini might get a bit miffed if both its platform AND engine were used straight out of the box. With 414bhp on tap and a soundtrack reminiscent of far more Italian fare than something from Germany, you could hardly accuse the R8 of being underpowered and dull. Its Quattro set-up ensured it had plenty of grip, meaning even the most enthusiastic of amateurs could enjoy themselves without worrying they’d end up in a hedge. 

Despite the R8’s lack of V10 at launch, Lamborghini could be forgiven if it was a little peeved. See, the Audi looked different, seemed more approachable and was a ‘lil easier on the wallet than the bull. Also, unlike the Gallardo, the R8 was a new product. The first of something. Not only was it the first in a grand line-up, it was really, really good – not just to drive, but as an all-rounder. Deft handling, an incredible noise, a crisp manual ‘box and Audi practicality meant it quickly had the phrase ‘everyday supercar’ thrown at it. Driving it today, the V8 holds up incredibly well. It does all the simple stuff well – you can see out of it, it’s not hard to get into, it’s comfortable over long distances and 414bhp is plenty to get you around. That first R8 will easily end up as a ‘proper’ classic in years to come. 

As time went on, a V10 (inevitably) found its way into the middle, while a roofless Spyder made an appearance – as did a hardcore run-out rear-wheel-drive GT. The first-generation R8 became something of a darling – an unexpected hero that could happily poke the supercar big boys in the eye and scamper away. Drive one today and people will be all over it when you stop – those in the know will ask whether it’s got the gated manual, too. Without trying, the Audi became one of the most exciting, sought-after supercars going. That may have been helped by the fact it found its way into popular culture; Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man loved himself an R8 – or four – over his run. Not only were you driving a new supercar, you were basically a superhero behind the wheel. 

A second generation came along in 2015, but it lost two great assets: a V8 and a manual. Each new iteration would come only with an automatic ‘box and a 5.2-litre V10 in various states of tune. It wasn’t exactly the end of the world, as they make for an incredible combination, but petrol-heads the world over could, on a clear day, be heard muttering about ‘purity’ and ‘saving the manuals’. Based on the same platform as the Lamborghini Huracán, the R8’s pointier new look left a rather fine impression. It drove brilliantly, had more than enough power and came with plenty of toys as standard… for less money than the Lambo. 

Of course, it had a sharper drive, its power delivery was creamy smooth thanks to the engine and the auto ‘box was (whisper it) better than swapping cogs yourself. Hell, even RDJ jumped into one in a Marvel flick (Avengers: Age of Ultron, if you’re keen on Audi spotting). A facelift in 2018 gave it a meaner look as well as plenty of derivations to choose from (hard-top, soft-top, quattro, rear drive, lots of power, even more power). Then, 2022’s limited run of 333 R8 GTs came with rear-wheel drive, dive planes, a more focused ride, 600bhp-plus, a 3.4-second 0-62mph run and a 199mph top speed.

For some, the GT will be the ultimate – and it’s not hard to see why. With the rear allowed to do all the moving, it feels more direct, more controllable than its four-paw siblings, the front wheels allowed to do the work of turning the front wheels, rather than dragging half a car. The GT’s stiffer suspension might prove a little much for the every day for some, but there are less angry R8s for them. Lashings of carbon fibre give it a more ‘supercar’ look, too, which means people stop, stare, ask for rides and generally fawn over it. 

The R8 as we know it now may be going, but looking back on what it did for Audi you can’t help but be impressed. The company that made sensible saloons for sensible people and a bubbly sports car, rolled up its sleeves and made a world-beater seemingly without trying. Whether an early version or a later one, the R8 is an attention-grabber, and a truly fine drive. Let’s hope that whatever comes in its place has half the charm. For now, it’s time to browse the classifieds. After all, you can use it every day.