Test Drive: Audi R8 – all power but little panache

At €263,000, we’d hoped for more than a mish-mash of A4 and TT bits and pieces

I know that I write these words as a man slipping far too easily into his 40s, with two kids and a mortgage and mild backache, but 610hp is an awful lot of horsepower. I mean, no F1 world champion ever had more than that nestled behind the small of his back until the early 1980s, while two decades ago you’d have had to spend more than a literal million dollars to experience that kind of grunt on the road.

Now you can have it, on your driveway, for €263,000. I guess, in some ways, you could almost say that makes the Audi R8 V10 Plus a bargain (hint: no you couldn't) because here is a car with more power than Jackie Stewart ever needed, from the company that also makes 105hp diesel A3 hatchbacks. Why, that's well within the means of even the humblest Lotto winner.

Of course, such vulgar considerations as money or cash are far from my mind as I thumb the red starter button (because of course there’s a red starter button) and the naturally aspirated 5.2-litre V10 settles to a steady, almost quiet idle just aft of my right ear. We have a few moments before the off, so I take in the styling of the cabin, which doesn’t take long as there isn’t much. In fact, for 263k, I think it not unreasonable to expect rather more than this mish-mash of A4 and TT bits and pieces. It’s all very nice, and of course it’s beautifully made, but it bears the faint whiff of disappointment. Even the all-digital instruments are a bit of a let-down. Like bad CGI in a Hollywood blockbuster, they just look airless and insubstantial. Lexus does the whole electro-dial thing rather better.

These thoughts are suddenly gone because our Germanic instructor in the bright yellow R8 ahead of us has pulled away and I'm supposed to be following him and he's actually going rather briskly. Ah well, we're at Mondello Park, the tight and tricky racetrack nestling in the wilds of Kildare, just beyond Naas, so I may as well give it a bit of welly, eh?


Such innocent thoughts. Such devastating response.

We’ve become used to big, powerful engines coming with turbos (Audi itself makes a couple of crackers) so we’re now used to putting our right feet down and there being a slight pause before the puffers gather themselves and true power arrives on tap. Not the R8. Audi’s clinging to old-fashioned natural, atmospheric pressure aspiration for the V10 engine’s breathing means there is no delay.

Gushes of power

There is simply power, great gushes of the stuff that arrive with a howl that would be breathtaking if your breath wasn’t already 50 yards behind you. The R8 doesn’t lunge, doesn’t sprint, doesn’t dash. It just annihilates the distance between you and whatever distant object that was on the horizon. Six-hundred-and-

ten hp in a car that weighs barely more than a well-specced Qashqai has simply explosive results. If I wasn’t so securely strapped in, I’d be picking myself up off the floor.

Inconveniently, there’s a corner approaching, but it’s okay as the R8 seems to have some sort of robot-driving intelligent software to get you around. Well, that’s what I’m assuming, as I turned the wheel and operated the pedals, and we got around the corner and I’m still alive to write about it.

If I wasn’t relying on the quattro four-wheel drive and the clever software, I’d probably tell you that most of the time the R8 tends towards gentle understeer if you pile into a corner too fast (which is basically what you’re going to do all the time) but you can balance that out with a dose of power, most of which is sent to the rear wheels. It doesn’t luridly oversteer at that point, but there is a definite sense of adjustability and limits which, when breached, will need a very quick dose of correction and bravery to recover.

But I didn't really think much if any of that at the time, to be honest. I was by this stage a drooling, incompetent wreck (well, more so than usual) utterly addicted to the sheer thrust of the V10 and the gorgeous medley of sounds it was making. Basically it's a metallic, multi-layered howl, rather as if you pushed an AC/DC tribute band down a sinkhole. Pulling the upshift paddle of the S-Tronic gearbox reduces the volume, momentarily, but simply gives the guy doing Angus Young a chance to reposition his fingers for another go at 10-cylinder Thunderstruck. And yes, I was shaking at the knees.

The car does feel a little bit like a life-support system for an astonishing engine, though. There’s none of the everyday usability of the Porsche 911 Turbo S (which is more affordable, has back seats and actually gets to 100km/h slightly quicker) nor the sheer high-tech fest of the BMW i8, which isn’t as quick but which has cooler doors and costs €130,000 less.

Too contained

Strange to think that a car with 610hp could be somehow underwhelming, but there it is. In wrapping that amazing engine and that deft chassis in a relatively plain Audi container, it’s become too contained – all thoroughbred, but not quite enough pantomime horse.

How significant is any of this? Actually, quite a bit. Audi, even in Ireland, reckons that the track-to-road transfer of technology that creates cars such as the R8 does drive the brand forward. As Audi Ireland's Richard Molloy told us, "Audi Sport is so important to us. It's all about power, performance and driving dynamics."

Audi Ireland’s performance, in sales terms, has been ahead of the market every year since 2007, until this year when the 21 per cent increase so far has actually been behind the curve. A hangover from “dieselgate”? Or just, as Audi avers, a natural drop-off from peak performance? Whichever it is, a little bit of V1 mid-engined pixie dust sprinkled across the rest of the range couldn’t hurt.

Big screwdrivers

Actually, I had rather more fun in the other car we drove at Mondello that day, the Audi RS7 Performance. Now, you might think that a car which had a 560hp turbo V8 engine already had plenty of performance, but Audi’s engineers have had the extra-big screwdrivers out, and managed to liberate 605hp from the 4.0-litre engine. Now, it’s not quite as quick as the R8, not least because it’s 5hp down and 500kg up, but it can still sprint from standstill to 100km/h in an eye-watering 3.9 seconds, and does that left-your-stomach-in-a-plummeting-elevator thing every time.

It’s nowhere near as accomplished nor as poised as the R8, nor, somehow, quite as menacing as the mechanically identical RS6 estate alongside it on the track that day, but this big, hefty, V8 blunderbuss was the hot Audi I came away wanting the most.

After all, even for a 40-something, 605hp is a lot of horsepower. A lot . . . The lowdown: Audi R8 V10 Plus

Price: €263,000 as tested Range starts at €231,500

Power: 610hp

Torque: 560Nm

0-100km/h: 3.2sec

Top speed: 330km/h

Claimed economy: 12.3l per 100km (23.0mpg)

CO2 emissions: 287g/km

The lowdown

Audi R8 V10 Plus