PORTIMÃO, Portugal — Do not go gentle into that good night. A new-age supercar should burn four wheels, as 10 cylinders rave on until close of day. Rage, rage against the prohibition on laser lights.
During two days in Portugal, on road and racetrack, through brightest day and deepest night, we tested the 2017 Audi R8. The mid-engine machine is poetry in motion: pleasing to the ear and exciting to the heart, potent yet effortless.
Audi is best when it melds technology and soul in equal parts. The all-new, second-generation R8, which is coming to the Americas next spring, mostly achieves that elusive mandate. As for technology, everybody will be talking about those laser lights. But the R8’s naturally breathing 5.2-liter V-10 is the car’s essence, a soulful heart that spits verse every time it awakens.
First, let’s talk laser lights. Or laser spots, as Audi calls them. For an extra 3,200 euros, they are an option in Europe, though they’re still not legal in the U.S. The spots are contained within the regular LED housing and only activate at speeds above 37 mph and in situations with minimal ambient light, and they shine twice as far as regular high beams.
Audi wanted to show off its latest bit of vorsprung durch technik, so the company offered us the novel opportunity to drive on an unlit road course on a pitch-black night. The Autódromo Internacional do Algarve, in Portimão, is a sketchy track in the brightest of conditions. It’s full of gut-unsettling hills, most of them blind. The corners are high-speed and tricky, ending in hard downhill braking zones.
In darkness it was downright devilish, nothing gentle about it. No matter how good they might be, no lights — laser or otherwise — can see over blind crests. Instead, we depended on our middling memory of the track, the chassis’ natural agility, and the car’s stout brakes.
We were driving the R8 V10 Plus model, with 610 hp and 413 lb-ft of torque. Rolling out of the lighted pits and into the inkiness, it went something like this: Squint into the black and open up the V-10 to full throttle anyway. Convince your right foot to remain planted as you comet toward the blind brow of hill. Crest, and drop into darkness. Remain planted. Do not panic. Lost in the Algarve’s abyss, the car is picking up tremendous speed. Start to panic. The trick laser-aided headlamps are shining far ahead and finally illuminate orange cones that indicate the braking zone. As the 2017 Audi R8’s carbon-ceramic brakes snap your head forward, you bend around the tight corner and rush toward the next slope, the all-wheel drive push-pulling the car inexorably forward.
So, yes, laser lights are surely helpful in low-visibility situations. But the real takeaway here is the savagery and sound of the 2017 Audi R8’s V-10 raving behind our head, and the brakes’ unsettling deceleration. It’s true-blue, super sports-car stuff.
A mild surprise is that this is only the second-generation R8, the first real reboot of the would-be, could-be supercar by Audi. In America, especially, it was proof that this European marque could tussle with Porsches. All those wins at Le Mans notwithstanding, most of our countrymen simply don’t equate Audi with high-performance street cars.
But competitors and potential customers alike ignore the R8 at their peril, on and off track. The previous R8 LMS race car won 24-hour races at Spa, Nürburgring, and Daytona International Speedway. The new generation track attacker has already followed in its tire treads by taking the flag at this year’s 24 hours at the ’Ring.
Off the circuit, the road-legal R8 has been accessible and easygoing ever since its early days as a V-8-only model, and the new car continues that tradition. The chassis is gentle on passengers over awful pavement, even in Sport mode. We got lost on a one-lane dribble of road with great heaves and potholes, and we still maintained an even 40 mph. The nose sits high enough that you don’t need an automatic lift to negotiate curbs or debris.
Still this feat is less impressive today than in 2007 when Audi released the original R8. Porsche’s latest 911 Turbo is every bit as livable on a daily basis, but even the 911 GT3 RS we drove recently in Germany was comfortable enough to putter around town, which meant the new R8 had to surpass itself in several ways, most crucially in power and design.
Audi no longer seems concerned about keeping horsepower to less than that of its VW Group-built cousin, the Lamborghini Huracán. The Plus model eclipses the Huracán’s 602 horsepower, and this time around Audi will not offer a V-8 variant (nor a gate-shifter manual). The “regular” 2017 Audi R8 has 540 hp and 398 lb-ft of torque, more than enough for any legal road, and it generally comports itself more handily. Pricing hasn’t been released for the States, but the difference between the regular and Plus models is around $20,000 for the present car. Either way, both variants will be priced well south of the Huracán’s $237,000-plus sticker.
Regarding the R8’s updated design, the interior is surpassingly good, with a dash as low as the C7 Corvette Stingray’s, a sexy landscape of leather-coated contours, and a jutted-out instrument panel. The latter floats in front of the driver, a feature almost directly yanked from Audi’s Le Mans prototype cars. The steering wheel is crammed full of buttons, including the ignition, performance, and traction-control modes, and exhaust flaps. It took us only a short time before we could shift from comfort to sport modes without looking down. You could claim that Audi has taken a page from Ferrari here, but this too is a design feature of Audi race cars, with most everything that alters the actual driving modes centered on the wheel so you don’t have to take your hands off.
There is no longer a center navigation screen. Everything from the radio station to navigation now lives right in front of the driver on the instrument panel as part of the “virtual cockpit.” In navigation mode, the Google Maps-sourced visuals spread in front of you in real time, its satellite images mirroring the world outside. This looks fabulous, but it’s also distracting, as you have to look through the wheel at map details. To our mind the best option is a head-up display projected on the windshield as General Motors and BMW offer.
The exterior has gone for evolution rather than revolution, and that’s the greatest fail of the new generation. You can’t help but wonder if two designs were presented to the board, one wild and fun, and the other deliberately underplayed, and that the execs picked the safe choice. There’s nothing wrong with it — driving around to shouts and cellphone snaps proved the 2017 Audi R8 still has great stage presence — but nothing except the LED lighting scheme really hints at newness. There are differences, but they’re subtle. To make a bid for supercar status, subtlety is not the surest play.
You discover the very best of the car when you’re inside the cockpit and out on real roads. The R8 eats up curving freeways at speeds of more than 120 mph with a smooth and stable ride and makes greedy work of winding hill climbs. On one of our final runs, we charged up a narrow two-lane track to a town called Montes de Cima (“Top of the Hills”). We’d driven the same road other times in a Porsche Cayman and a BMW M4. All three were seriously fast, but each was utterly different. The Porsche was best suited to the narrowness of the lanes but was unsettled by bumps in the asphalt. The BMW was a bully, shouldering through with maximum grunt and show-offy tail kicks. The Audi split the difference, mixing mid-engine finesse and all-wheel-drive precision with the V-10’s explosive charge, howling as we churned toward the sky with all four wheels slicing furiously at the asphalt.
It turns out the new R8 doesn’t go all that gently into the day, either.
2017 Audi R8 V10 Plus Specifications
- On Sale: Spring 2016
- Price: $180,000 (est)
- Engine: 5.2L DOHC 40-valve V-10/610 hp @ 8,250 rpm, 413 lb-ft @ 6,500 rpm
- Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
- Layout: 2-door, 2-passenger, mid-engine, AWD coupe
- EPA Mileage: N/A
- Suspension F/R: Double wishbone
- Brakes F/R: Carbon-ceramic vented discs
- Tires F/R: 245/35R-19 / 295/35R-19
- L x W x H: 174.3 x 76.4 x 48.8 in
- Wheelbase: 104.3 in
- Headroom: N/A
- Legroom: N/A
- Shoulder Room F/R: N/A
- Cargo Room: 8.0 cu ft
- Weight: 3,428 lb
- Weight Dist. F/R: N/A
- 3.0 sec (est)
- 1/4-Mile: N/A
- Top Speed: 205 mph