Parking at Sonoma Raceway for a test drive of the 2014 Audi R8, I quickly realize it’s not the typical track-day press junket. Instead of the random assortment of Chryslers, Toyotas and BMWs with manufacturer plates, there’s a sultry red Ferrari 458, and a couple of R8s on the lot. Their California street plates show that this Audi Sportscar Experience caters to affluent prospective or current buyers, not impoverished and grizzled automotive journalists.
For the event, each participant partnered with another attendee and maneuvered around a short slalom course, did a few track exercises and ran a couple of controlled laps. My co-driver was a Silicon Valley executive who owned an RS5 — and concepts like racing line or braking points were all new to him.
Which only made the R8 more impressive.
Even when driven by someone who’s never harnessed a 400+ horsepower, mid-engined supercar, the resounding stability of the R8 means it’d take dedication to wrap the AWD coupe around a pole. My driving buddy would slam on the brakes midcorner, or lift off the throttle of the 525-hp V-10 and cut the wheel before the bend like he’s steering the Titanic away from an iceberg, and it didn’t matter — the car would give ample warning through the chassis that you’re doing something grossly wrong, with plenty of leeway to make corrections (or have the computer do it for you via its stability control).
Plus, Audi’s update to the 2014 model makes it even more livable for the average corporate exec or entrepreneur. Finally ditching the aloof single-clutch R-Tronic, the new S-Tronic dual clutch offers smooth effort in casual driving, yet aggressively grabs the gears with near-instant response when gunning it on a straight. The suspension was supple in the standard mode, and noticeably stiffened up in sport mode, with the R8 adeptly snaking through the slalom cones with little fanfare. The damping difference is more appreciable than the suspension toggling in, say, a Nissan GT-R.
But speaking of Gozdilla, the R8 doesn’t deliver the same neck-snapping acceleration as the Nissan even in V-10 form, which goes from 0-60 in 3.8seconds (you’d need the V10 Plus to bridge the gap). While the Lamborghini-sourced powerplant delivers a sonorous, higher-pitched roar, I prefer the R8’s throatier 425-horsepower V-8, which grunts like a muscle car finely tuned by German hands. Both sound too muted from the cabin, which makes the open-top Spyder a more desirable trim.
Choosing between V-8 or V-10 (starting at $114,900 and $151,200, respectively) becomes more difficult when factoring handling. On a tight technical track like Sonoma, the two extra cylinders couldn’t provide a decisive edge. Dynamically the differences between the two are slight, but the more even weight distribution of the V-8 makes the car seem more stable in transitions and when stomping on the brakes. It’s the better track car, though the V-10’s more exciting to wind up.
For those wondering whether they should sell their “old” R8 (one of the attendees owned three different R8s over the years), the differences aside from the dual-clutch transmission are subtle. Visually, the LED headlights or dynamic turn signals aren’t noticeable unless you turn on the lights, step out of the car and gape at them.The inside is infinitely customizable with headliner materials, dash touches and leather stitching, though it always retains that cold, industrial feel of Germanic refinement.
While the Audi R8 is finely executed, it’s almost too well-rounded; it doesn’t have the raw racecar feel of an SRT Viper with its razor-sharp turn-in, nor the lavish detachment of a Bentley, another Volkswagen group sibling. It’s like the Korean pop idol Lee Hyori — all her contours and facial features are chiseled to perfection, yet the end result feels too manicured and lacking distinction.
Then again, her sensational popularity has endured for more than a decade, and so will this Audi’s.