Audi Spyder R8 supercar
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Audi Spyder R8 supercar squares the circle
Do supercar chief engineers have nightmares? Research on this weighty topic is scant but surely their unconscious world is occasionally menaced by Audi's R8, a car which in second-generation coupe form has been a mighty thorn in the side of rivals.
This left-brain supercar combines calculation and logic with rocketship performance, a hair-raising soundtrack and seriously focused handling. It appeals to a sector of the market best described as disciplined flamboyants; strangely, most of them come from the computer programming and data-processing trades.
So has this latest drophead version done it again? Is it really possible to combine wind-in-the-hair glamour with pin-sharp handling and a tolerable ride quality?
To square the, erm, circle, Audi has reinforced the Spyder with thicker aluminium sills and windscreen supports and a much-modified rear bulkhead to accommodate the 44kg hood mechanism. Dry, the car weighs 1720kg, which is 125kg more than the coupe, despite its carbon-fibre engine cover and a fuel tank that holds three litres less.
Although the result is 50 per cent stiffer than the old Spyder, and is probably one of the most rigid soft-tops on sale, it's also 40 per cent less stiff than the coupe.
The engine configuration is straight out of one of the greatest periods of Formula 1 (the 90s and 00s ); a 90-degree V10, displacing 5.2 litres, with twin camshafts per bank and direct and indirect fuel-injection. It musters 533bhp and 398lb ft of torque (there's likely to be a 602bhp Plus option soon) and sits behind the bulkhead driving all four wheels via a seven-speed, twin-clutch gearbox and a Haldex multiplate clutch system.
So how much do you pay to have the wind in your hair?
The R8 Spyder has a top speed of 317km/h, and does 0-100km/h in 3.6 seconds. Equivalent figures for the similarly engined coupe are 320km/h, 3.5 seconds. So not much is the answer.
From its edgy wing shapes, geometric air intakes and refuge-from-Group-C endurance racers bonnet line, this is a seriously good-looking car, with just enough detail to make it interesting but not blingy.
And if you find no one is looking at you, deploy the roof and, as long as you are travelling at less than 50km/h, the ensuing 20 seconds of finely choreographed motorised origami will get you a bigger audience than if you'd danced the Macarena with an alligator in a tutu.
Climbing across the sills into the low cockpit requires a certain dexterity, if not athleticism. The cabin is highly centred on the needs of the driver, with a crazy, switch-laden steering wheel and the virtual dashboard displaying a wide variety of configurations of instruments including Google maps in real time as background to the digital instruments. Shame, then, that the fuel gauge is a simple bar graph and, like the rest of the dash, highly susceptible to being obscured by sunlight.
There's not a lot of storage space but in supercar tradition you could just about distribute lingerie and toothbrush around the minute door pockets, centre console, glovebox and rear cubby hole, and there's also a 112-litre, suitcase- sized trunk under the bonnet.
The driving position is good and there's head room to spare, but the intrusion of the hood mechanism means those who are tall are stuck for leg room, which makes long journeys slightly less comfortable than in the coupe.
Starting is done via a big red button on the steering wheel -- and it's noisy. There's no escape from the splintering, growling exhausts spalling off the neighbours' houses like a squadron of torpedo boats warming up. Audi had fitted the test car with $62,000 worth of optional extras including the Sport Pack Plus, which gives an option for even noisier exhausts thanks to the driver select programs altering the ride, steering response, engine and transmission.
Eventually the idling calms, but driving away is a stern test of self control, not helped by that Stentorian exhaust note, which draws as much attention as the looks. Even if you are rigidly driving below the speed limit, you'll still attract accusatory glares. In a supercar, you are always guilty.
Inefficient at part throttle it may be, but the naturally aspirated V10 provides an analogue progression to the performance that defies a turbocharged engine to match. Fast? You betcha, and you can maintain the revs on the wave of torque and sound as you fire up the road quicker than any drophead has a right to.
The acceleration is extraordinary, although the way the transmission reacts to flooring the throttle is abrupt and a bit frightening. You quickly learn to avoid the kickdown points in the throttle travel and change gear manually when overtaking. And if the aural experience isn't searing enough, the tiny, electrically operated rear screen is like a Judas gate into a whole new world of gurgles, roars, pops, shrieks and screams.
If you'd never driven the coupe, you ask for little more from this chassis which, considering the phenomenal performance, rides stiffly but not uncomfortably. The mid-mounted engine and all-round wishbone suspension remind you why proper supercars are configured like this.
With super-responsive and accurate steering, the R8 Spyder plants itself through a series of turns with the front wheels biting securely into the road. Only the sharpest potholes will resound through the chassis, and on most roads the Spyder rides better than some hot hatchbacks. The variable-ratio steering (an option or standard with the Sport Pack Plus) also feels well weighted and pin-sharp, but lacks feedback.
Chance your arm and push the tail wide on a bend and it feels controllable and progressive, though the Spyder comes off the slide with a sense of unwinding, which speaks of slight body flex not present in the coupe. The ceramic brakes are quite brilliant too, responsive, powerful and progressive, with none of the clanking, low-speed abruptness of early ceramics.
There's real theatre, phenomenal engineering and massive handling competence here, and if you can forget the exorbitant options, R8 Spyder presents a fantastical and genuinely different way to travel at a virtually unmatched price.
Far from being a nightmare, the R8 Spyder is something of a dream -- so go on, live a little.