5.2-litre V10 produces 562bhp and 604lb
We had left the main group of Audi R8s and were heading west. Fast. Somewhere on the border of Nevada and California, late of Las Vegas, heading for Death Valley. It was one of those roads you get in this part of the world: bullet-straight to the horizon, then a crest, then...
In our case, a state trooper coming the other way. So we’re in California, after all. I felt – how can I put this? – something of a tightening somewhere a chap would not want to be feeling such a thing, a primeval instinct to put distance between danger and your chances of fulfilling your biological obligation to the next generation.
Nor was I comforted by the fact that he was not at the side of the road with a speed gun. Only the night before in the lobby of some fabulously tasteless hotel, I’d been warned the law in this part of the world came with dashcams that could detect the speed of cars coming towards them.
The state trooper blasted past, almost as fast as a single expletive shot from my lips. Instantly my passenger leaned forward to look in the exterior mirror on his side, while I watched the one in the car.
And it was very impressive, as good a handbrake turn as I’ve seen executed at speed on a public road. Yes, that road was straight and wide, but so too was his Crown Victoria and he still spun it entirely within its own length, selecting neutral, flicking the steering, yanking on the bar, reselecting drive and jumping back on the gas with the aplomb of a seasoned pro. The only way I’d have been more impressed is if he’d got the lights and sirens going at the same time. But no: he waited until he was straight for that. “I think you’d better stop,” said a doleful voice from across the aisle. No shit, Sherlock.
He parked behind us, got out and slowly donned his big hat and obligatory Aviators before walking languidly over to us.
Window down. Contrite face. Don’t get out of car. Resist urge to say: “What seems to be the matter, officer?” Try not to think of the pocket- sprung mattress and Egyptian cotton you’ll soon be swapping for a concrete block and bloke with a spider tattoo across his face as a roomie.
Trooper reaches car. Frankel cowers. Trooper walks around car. Trooper then spends some time looking at its 4.2-litre V8 engine through the clear glass screen at the back. Frankel begins to wonder. Somewhere in the inky depths to which he has now sunk, a glint of light appears. Trooper starts to talk.
“Been a while since I’ve had someone moving that fast ’round here.”
“I probably was going a little quickly.”
He didn’t actually say “you’re darn tootin’”, but I could see he thought it. Instead, he asked where we’d come from and where we were going before abruptly changing tack.
“So what is this, anyhow?”
“It’s the new Audi R8,” I replied.
“That an Audi?” I don’t think he’d have believed it less if I’d told him I’d been obeying the speed limit.
“It’s an Audi. All-new. Mid-engined. Quite fas...”
“I can see that,” he interjected. “Well, I just want to say that’s the most goddam beautiful thing I’ve seen since I don’t know when.”
The glint of light became a shining shaft.
“Would you like to take a seat? I can run you up the road if you like.” I could see the inner turmoil with which he was now battling. He paused.
“Best not, but thank ya. Now be on your way. And do yourself a favour, boys: keep those speeds for when you’re back in Nevada. We don’t have many accidents out here, but when we do, they’re real accidents.”
How good was that original R8? Good enough to charm the ticket book of the California Highway Patrol straight back into his pocket. His handcuffs too, probably. That was 2007 and when, at the end of that year, Autocar asked its staff and contributors to name the best car they had driven all year, the R8 didn’t just win the vote: no one voted for anything else.
I’m now 16 years older and possibly a little bit wiser. The R8 has grown up too but hopefully only one of us is now nearing the end of their days. And as the rather more familiar mountain roads of South Wales flow under the fast-moving wheels of another R8, I find myself reflecting on what has been an interesting journey, not just through space, but time too.
Because while valedictory pieces such as these are meant to be fond farewells to a soon to be much missed car, the truth is that it won’t be all the R8s I’ll miss. Not even most. Just some.
There have been so many, haven’t there? So many different power outputs, specifications and special editions, and the good news for you is I have neither time nor space, nor frankly inclination, to detail them all. And yet the one I’m in right now? I’ll miss that very much.
The light went out on the first generation with the V10 engine: a load more power it didn’t need at the expense of an exquisite delicacy that had never visited any Audi before. A backward step.
Then, in 2015, the second-generation car, and the two things I loved about the first – the V8 engine and the fabulous manual gearbox that went with it – got pensioned off. The result was a car that seemed not to know what it was: too compromised to make it as a grand tourer, not nearly enough fun to cut it among the supercar set.
I remember gatecrashing an Autocar group test when the McLaren 570S first came out and it was startling how far off the pace the R8 had become of those it chose to rival. I think the others in the test were a Porsche 911 Turbo and an Aston Martin Vantage. The Audi got stuffed.
And had it been left at that, I’d never be writing these words now. But in 2017, Audi did a very un-Audi thing: it actually removed four-wheel drive from one of its cars.
It was meant to be yet another R8 special, but by making the first-ever rear-drive R8, Audi gave it something not even those first-generation cars could boast and the motoring press and, as it turned out, the public went wild for this lighter, better balanced, more predictable, communicative and, in all ways that mattered, better R8.
So the following year, once all 999 R8 RWS cars originally planned had been sold, the rear-drive R8 became part of the mainstream family.
Which is what I’m in now. Because Audi has known for a while the R8 is in for the chop and so not bothered to update it, a lot of the superficial stuff is feeling its age: the clunky nav, terrible DAB reception, old-looking dials and so on. But the stuff that actually matters is wondrous.
That V10, for instance – that’s right, the engine I thought spoiled the original R8. In this more mature car, it feels perfect, so smooth and characterful, possessed of a sound, throttle response and rev range that’s increasingly rare in these turbocharged times. And the fact that this is the low-powered version with ‘only’ 562bhp? I couldn’t care less.
It also works brilliantly well with the rear-drive chassis, blessed with enough mid-range torque to tax the car to the very limit, without ever threatening to overwhelm it. In an era when fast cars become ever heavier and more powerful, swifter to accelerate but more cumbersome, the R8 is the car that reminds you just how delightful it is to have a powertrain and chassis system that are actually in harmony.
And because so much enjoyment is there to be had flowing this car from point to point, carrying speed into corners, placing it on a pinhead and balancing the car on the throttle, you never feel inclined to resort to the instant gratification of just putting your foot to the floor, because it’s all the car’s really good for. Fast food is fine as far as it goes, but this is haute cuisine and you don’t need long behind its wheel to see how much more satisfying it is.
So the R8 has come almost full circle and at the time of its passing is once more the sophisticated, rewarding driving machine I remember of old. I won’t miss them all, but I’ll miss this one almost as much as the original. And, believe me, that really is saying something.
Audi R8 V10 Performance RWD Edition: Price and specifications
Price £154,976 Engine V10, 5204cc, petrol Power 562bhp at 8000rpm Torque 604lb ft at 6400rpm Gearbox 7-spd dual-clutch auto, RWD Kerb weight 1590kg 0-62mph 3.7sec Top speed 204mph Economy 22.1mpg CO2, tax band 291g/km, 37%