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.