I’ve spent a lot of time behind the wheel of a V-8 Audi R8 coupe, so getting into the all-new, 2011 Audi R8 V-10 Spyder roadster created a flood of both familiar and totally new impressions. Gone is the iconic “side blade” that could be had in contrasting color or carbon fiber on the coupe; in its place is a new composite-plastic fender. But the cabin is just as gorgeous as ever, and the mix of colors and materials that are available to line the cabin are rich and enticing. Our first test car was done up in the official launch color, Teak Brown, which beautifully complemented sumptuous tan leather seats with coordinating brown stitching. The instrument panel and dash were covered in black leather with tan stitching that matched the seats. The overall effect was mesmerizing not just to me and my codriver but also to dozens of onlookers in Nice, France, where we arrived this morning to be among the very first group of journalists to drive the ragtop R8 along the beaches and on the thrilling mountain roads above the French Riviera.
The R8 Spyder will be launched with the V-10 engine only; the V-8 likely will come later. We drove V-10 cars both with the R Tronic automated manual transmission and the traditional gated-shifter six-speed manual. As has been the case with every R Tronic we’ve driven, it’s less than ideal in city driving due to its tendency to gasp and lurch with every upshift or downshift, but when you flail this powertrain out on the open road, those problems recede and the shifts are smoother and faster and far less obtrusive, especially if you’re conducting the shifting yourself (shove the lever up to upshift, bring it backward to downshift) rather than leaving it in automatic mode (shove the shift lever to the left; reverse is on the right). We’d prefer a version of VW/Audi’s DSG dual-clutch gearbox, but apparently one has not yet been engineered that can handle the V-10’s 391 lb-ft of torque.
To our eyes, the R8 Spyder has made a very successful transformation from coupe to convertible, an aesthetic leap that often ends badly in the world of car design. With the top down, the muscular tonneau cover and its huge silver engine vents blend beautifully into the surrounding bodywork. The actual engine lid is also made of composite plastic, to reduce its weight to a slight 14 lb. The fabric top itself weighs only 93 lb and is very simple to operate at speeds of up to 31 mph; in fact, if you’re putting it down while you’re on the move, all you do is hit the center console control button once and then release your hand, and the roof continues its backward dance on its own, so you can return your hand to the steering wheel. It secures itself into impressive-looking cast-aluminum mounting points that are integrated into the windshield header.
Air management with the roof down is perhaps not quite as good as in the Mercedes-Benz SL, and there’s no sign of the SL’s clever Airscarf system which blows warm air on your neck. But with the top down, the removable wind blocker in place, and the side windows up, the cabin is definitely quiet enough for conversations at freeway speeds. The standard Bang & Olufsen stereo is absolutely superb, even at high speeds. Wow.
Another cool feature is the heated rear window, which can be lowered independently of the roof itself, allowing you to get a bit of fresh air and, more important, to hear the soundtrack of the V-10 more clearly.
And what a soundtrack it is, one that is best experienced on a twisty mountain road with the roof and windows fully retracted. With a redline of a lofty 8700 rpm, the 5.2-liter V-10 starts playing its concerto at about 4100 rpm in 2nd or 3rd gear. The orchestra of 40 valves, opposing connecting rods, and a forged steel crankshaft begins reaching for the stars above 5000 rpm. A steady backbeat of auxiliary drive whine is drowned out by the increasing roar as the revs rise. Let up on the gas, or brake and downshift, and there’s an addictive sounds of trumpets from the exhaust. Then you’re back on the gas and racing to the next corner. With Quattro four-wheel-drive grip, its already-proven overachiever chassis, and Pirelli P Zero tires (235/35R-19 front, 305/30ZR-19 rear), the R8 Spyder is your superstar supercar companion on a challenging road.
Other innovations for the ragtop version? The seatbelts each have three discreet microphones built into them that are linked to the car’s Bluetooth system. We tried a call, top-down, windows-up, to a friend in the States, and all three participants in the conversation—the sucker back home, the driver, and the passenger—were able to hear and be heard clearly. That’s the good telematics news. The bad news is that the R8 Spyder doesn’t get even the 3D navigation system that debuted on the Audi Q5, let alone the all-new, touch-pad version that debuted on the new A8 flagship sedan.
The only other quibble that comes to mind after our first exposure to the R8 Spyder is the realization that its steering, although very, very good, is still not as communicative or quite as precise as what you find in a Porsche or, most definitely, in the new Ferrari 458 Italia. Other than that, it drives great, it looks great, and it sounds great, and performance has suffered little, if at all: Audi promises a top speed of 194 mph and a 0-to-62-mph time of only 4.1 seconds. The R8 Spyder hits U.S. dealerships this fall for an estimated base price of about $172,000.
Base Price: $172,000 (est.)
Engine: DOHC 40-valve V-10
Displacement: 5.2 liters (318 cu in)
Horsepower: 525 hp @ 8000 rpm
Torque: 391 lb-ft @ 6500 rpm
Transmision type: 6-speed manual or 6-speed automated manual
Steering: Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
Suspension, Front: Control arms, coil springs
Suspension, Rear: Control arms, coil springs
Brakes: Vented carbon-ceramic discs, ABS
Tires: Pirelli PZero
Tire size f, r: 235/35YR-19, 305/30YR-19
L x W x H: 174.6 x 76.0 x 48.9 in
Wheelbase: 104.3 in
Track f/r 64.5/62.7 in
Weight 3791 lbs
0-62 mph 3.8 sec*
0-120 mph 12.1 sec*
Top speed 195 mph
Fuel mileage 11/19 mpg (est.)
*data obtained from testing of R8 5.2 FSI Coupe