Editors at AUTOMOBILE loved the original Audi R8, and it was both our AUTOMOBILE of the Year and Design of the Year back in 2008. “Superbly good-looking car, massive and solid-looking,” we said, then continued, “just walking up to the R8 gets your heart beating faster.” But even then we noted that despite the car’s innovation, style, engineering, dynamics, heritage, and public approbation, it wasn’t truly beautiful. This reiteration of the car that so pleased us seven years ago is even less beautiful and thus a disappointment. Is it a better car? Almost certainly. Constant development and accumulated experience assure this. But the once-unobtrusive texture of plastic chicken wire backing the multiple grilles has been brought forward right into your face, and the side treatment is harshly abrupt compared with the gentle curves previously embraced by Audi’s designers. Surfacing subtleties have almost completely disappeared in the 2017 Audi R8.
Change is always hard for car builders, and we all remember when Henry Ford lost auto industry leadership in the mid-1920s because he kept the Model T too long. Yet his obstinacy is nothing compared to the conservatism of the VW Group, which has basically kept the Volkswagen brand alive over the past 78 years with only two basic shapes: Erwin Komenda’s VW Type 1 and Giorgetto Giugiaro’s VW Golf. (Then there are the absurd new Beetles, which look like Type 1s but are actually Golfs under the skin.) Of course, there have been a lot of very different cars offered under the VW badge, including the striking Lupo, Passat, Phaeton, Up!, and Polo. But this tendency to persist with what has worked before is manifest in all the VW Group brands, even those acquired fairly recently such as Bentley and Porsche.
So it’s no surprise that the new 2017 Audi R8 resembles the first one so strongly. But as I see it, this original design has been in public view for a full dozen years (2003-2015), and it perhaps should have been renewed with visual references to the amazing string of racing cars from Audi’s winning efforts at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (13 since 2000) rather than just being slightly restyled in the manner of the VW Golf I through VII. After all, the 2003 concept car that preceded the Audi R8’s introduction was labeled “Le Mans Quattro.”
Personally I regret the disappearance of two mechanical elements I loved on the previous R8: the chrome gate for the now-abandoned manual gearbox and the V-8 engine. It has been nice to have the powerful 5.2-liter V-10 as an option, but the high-revving 4.2-liter V-8 is more than adequate for a road car, and it is more satisfying to me in the aural signature it provides. At least the new 2017 Audi R8’s interior remains a great place to be, although I have some reservations about the video screen that replaces real instruments with pictures of the car, the road and, of course, those missing gauges.
1. This little Quattro badge is so subtle you almost don’t see it. But it’s important, because this powerful supercar needs all-wheel drive.
2. The fender profile is defined by a sharp surface break that starts at the top of the headlamp assembly.
3. It’s seconded by a rib in the hood that emerges from the surface without an obvious starting point, flowing subsequently into the window sill of the door.
4. Apart from the pair of ribs, the hood is a wide, flattish expanse punctuated only by the interlocked rings of the logo, which is a reminder of the glory days of Auto Union.
5. The roof is rounder than the hood, almost as though it’s inflated from within. Its centerline profile is long and quite elegant.
6. This inlet behind the tiny quarter light is a bit of a leftover, but flushing the engine compartment behind the seats must be vitally important.
7. This peak in the profile of the rear fender rises out of the rear-quarter panel, then links to the other rear fender across the back of the car in a kind of quasi spoiler.
8. This kinked surface is a vestige of the famous side blade of the original R8 concept, now broken into two shiny pieces, one here and one behind the rear-quarter window. It still doesn’t seem to have any reason for being.
9. These upward-facing triangles reflect light from above. Although the upper one allows air to be funneled toward the side intakes, the lower one seems to be simple decoration.
10. This skimpy band of tire rubber is hardly suitable for a road car. It makes the wheels vulnerable to FOD (foreign object damage).
11. The diagonal vanes, which are recapitulated in the headlamp housing, add visual interest to some very big front-quarter intakes.
12. The widest point of the new grille shape generates a crease that leads into the front-quarter intakes, pushing the grille itself forward.
13. The V-10 engine creates a lot of heat that must be dispersed, so there are outlets everywhere—around the backlight, in corner grilles, and even just above the diffuser.
14. You can just see the inner surface of the slight rib in the roof starting at the A-pillar and fading into the almost-not-there rear deck behind the fastback glass.
15. Having the fuel filler at once visible and almost disappearing into the upper section of the “blade” is a nice touch, and a relief from the usual black treatment.
16. As before, a little black triangle lets the window glass descend into the door.
17. This transition from positive fender crease to undercut side panel is awkward and crude compared with the previous car.
18. This short little panel ahead of the door could almost be the same part from the previous R8 except for its slightly more convex shape now.
19. The rear door cut has a bit of radius to match the kinked blade.
20. Nice skewed rectangles, but I prefer the earlier solution of four ovoid pipes, which are a clearer, more direct expression of performance.
21. The aero diffuser is quite convincing as a performance element, but it looks coarse compared with the svelte transverse element of the original R8.
22. Routing the A/C flow through the door with this duct is an excellent idea, and it nicely integrates the forms of the door and the instrument panel.
23. Images in front of the driver convey massive amounts of information, yet all that’s really needed is road speed and fuel level. With so much available power, a tachometer is beside the point.
24. The multi-function shift knob is likewise unnecessary once you’ve selected the drive mode desired.
25. The colored stitching on the cockpit coaming, steering wheel, and carpet border is truly elegant and worthy of Audi’s reputation for exceptional interior design.