LET’S BE clear, as politicians say when they’re not being clear at all: the Audi R8 Spyder V10 Plus is a sensationally good car, but also one with a potentially ruinous problem. It delivers moments of enormous joy yet, like toothache on your wedding day, there’s a flaw that takes the shine off things.
Let’s start with the good stuff. You might be familiar with the general modus operandi of the R8, which is to take over where the original Honda NSX left off, proving that a mid-engined sports car doesn’t have to be brattish and recalcitrant.
Honda laid the groundwork by showing that an exotically engineered car didn’t have to cough and fart and widdle oil onto your garage floor, and the first generation R8 of 2006 built upon this user-friendliness, being no harder to drive softly than an A3 hatchback yet no softer when driven hard than an equivalent Porsche.
A few years ago Audi introduced a second-generation model that continued the good work and now there’s the one you see in the picture today, which is, for now, the ultimate incarnation of the R8, marrying the scalped Spyder body to the Plus version of the V10 engine, delivering 601bhp — 69bhp more than the standard car.
It’s also, thanks to lighter wheels, carbon ceramic brakes and reduced-fat seats, about 25kg trimmer than the non-Plus edition.
The good news is that these more hardcore elements don’t damage the R8’s friendly and unthreatening nature, should you just need to get somewhere that isn’t at the other side of the Nürburgring. Lesser Audis are often blighted by needlessly stiff suspension and pointlessly heavy steering so that regional sales managers can kid themselves they have a “sporty” car. The R8, being the genuine article, has no reason to try so hard. As a result, at urban speeds the suspension pads gently over ruts and divots while the steering is uncommonly light.
“In the dying days of pure internal combustion, this V10 is one of its finest hours”
However, if you find yourself on a favourite B-road, the R8 is an extremely accomplished athlete, spearing through corners, its four-wheel-drive system clawing at the tarmac and giving you the confidence to keep the hammer down. Like all good sports cars, it floats and flows across challenging roads with an easy rhythm.
If you’re going to be picky, the electrically assisted steering sometimes lobs in a fake weighting that isn’t needed and the brakes can be a bit bitey but these are minor flaws in an otherwise polished chassis — all the better to use that V10 engine.
And what an engine it is. One day we’ll all be driving under hybrid or electric power, and for most cars, most of the time, that’ll be fine. But this is the sort of incredible mechanical engineering we’ll miss, with its texture and depth and a fire in its belly that just wants to turn petrol into furious power.
In the dying days of pure internal combustion, this V10 is one of its finest hours, combining all the soaring revs and soulful sensations of a multicylinder thoroughbred from the 1960s tempered with the flexibility that only comes with 21st-century engine management software.
It helps that, where most supercars now use turbochargers, the Audi is allowed to aspirate naturally, and there’s something very special about that, in the swelling power delivery and the responsiveness and most especially in the sound. It can seem a little flat at idle but give it a few revs and it takes on the hollow gargle of an old quattro rally car.
Give it a lot of revs — more than 8,000 of them if you can — and it makes a wonderful minor-chord wail, resembling an early 2000s Formula One car. At all points in between, it emits a soft, warm, bourbon howl, akin to the sound of the late Joe Cocker rehearsing.
Truly, the whole R8 Spyder V10 Plus is tremendous. Except for one key detail that potentially spoils the entire show; if you’re tall, or something close to it, you will not fit in this car. I mean, you’ll be able to get in, but I swear you will never be comfortable.
I did some research by asking a load of people to get in and get comfy. A colleague who’s 5ft 8in said he was fine. A chap of 5ft 9in reckoned he could have done with more space. And that’s important because you simply cannot enjoy a car, even one as exciting as this, if you’re not comfortable.
The problem is that, in taking off the R8’s head, Audi had to install a well between the seats and the engine into which the retracted roof could fold. The engine couldn’t move backwards, so the seats had to go forwards, with a sturdy bulkhead fitted behind them.
If you’re even a little bit leggy, this leaves you with two options; you can move the seat base forward a bit to allow a slight recline of the backrest and then drive along with your knees splayed and the right one thudding against the door. Or you can motor the seat base as far back as it’ll go and sit bolt upright, as if you’re awaiting a sermon from a particularly austere branch of Methodism, with your head making a bulge in the cloth roof above.
You can, of course, overcome the headroom problem by pulling the switch to retract the soft top but that’s not a practical option on a winter’s day, even though, weather permitting, I would lower it at every available opportunity to hear that V10.
To be blunt, if you’re more than 6ft, all the wonders this car has to offer are marred by the cramped and awful driving position. You’ll drive along, fiddling with the seat controls, convinced there must be some as yet undiscovered combination that will bring you relief, but there isn’t.
Somehow, Audi has made a brilliant sports car that can only be enjoyed by those of average height or less. If you’re tall, you’re stuck with the coupé.
Richard Porter is script editor for The Grand Tour. Jeremy Clarkson was away.
Head to head: Audi R8 Spyder vs Mercedes-AMG GT C Roadster
|Audi R8 Plus 5.2 FSI quattro S tronic Spyder||Mercedes-AMG 4.0 V8 GT C Roadster|
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