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First drive: 2017 Audi R8

Stronger, lighter, faster: The 2017 Audi R8 V10 Plus is pure supercar satisfaction

Meet the 2017 Audi R8. It’s everything you already loved, just better.

When its time for a new version of something that we love, we’re understandably conflicted: We want more, but we don’t want the changes to ruin what we love about it. We have good reason for this feeling because for every Empire Strikes Back we get, there’s at least 10 Highlander 2s.

The announcement for the inevitable refresh of Audi’s R8 supercar caused many to worry that the mere transition to a next-gen version would disturb its delicate balance of modern style, superb performance, and everyday usability.

Fortunately, Audi wasn’t prepared to slap its fans in the face with a radical redesign, evolving the car for the next generation, but remaining distinctly R8. Meet the 2017 Audi R8: everything you loved about the car before, just better.

A new hope?

The second generation Audi R8 sports car keeps things simple: lighter, faster, and more powerful. Audi drops the V8 option and the six-speed manual transmission and now offers just a 5.2-liter mid-mounted V10 engine. This generates 540 horsepower and 398 pound-feet of torque in the standard iteration or 610 horsepower and 413 pound-feet of torque in the lighter, carbon-fibery V10 plus version. Both engines are married to a seven-speed S Tronic dual-clutch transmission which routes power to Audi’s quattro all-wheel drive system.

It’s a kind of magic

Audi took a conservative approach to the R8’s exterior design, updating the sports car with a sharper, more angular look that refreshes a design which actually still holds up in comparison to modern contemporaries. The front face now has a more hexagonal grill that follows the design DNA seen across the automaker’s current vehicle lineup. Its distinct pair of air vents are updated with vertical blades replacing the slats they sported previously.

2017 Audi R8

The same thing goes for the rear air ducts, which sit above trapezoidal exhaust tips. Its entire silhouette and proportions remain very clearly that of the R8. Beyond the superficial, the new multimaterial space frame is significantly lighter than it was on the previous car, while also becoming 40 percent more rigid. Thanks to a mix of aluminum and carbon fiber reinforced plastics, the new frame plays a big part in the R8’s significant weight loss. The sporty V10 Plus version weighs just 3,205 pounds, which is striking when you consider the lightest version of the outgoing car was the 3,583 pound V8 manual.

All too easy…

The route from the airport in Faro, Portugal that would take me and the R8 to its track appointment at the Algarve International Circuit in Portimão was an indirect one, split between long highway stretches and old cobbled roads through sleepy villages. One of the things the R8 did amazingly when it debuted was balance its supercar impracticality with day-to-day ease of use, stealing some of the spotlight away from the poster child of daily-driver sports cars, the Porsche 911. The new R8 continues this, driving as smooth and comfortable as needed before rocketing down the highway like a sidewinder missile.

The R8 superbly balances its supercar impracticality with day-to-day ease of use.

In docile mode, the R8 cruises gently yet firmly on its four-wheel double wishbone suspension. Magnetic ride shock absorbers roll with the punches, but can tense up like the legs of a panther when its time to pounce. Riding through decades-old adobe villages in a low-slung sports car is usually a nerve-wracking exercise, but the Audi cruises through them as easily as a mid-size sedan. It has no wheel rub inside the well on bumps, no breath-holding over speed bumps, and a tight turn radius when its time to negotiate a tricky u-turn back out.

Things are just as comfortable on the inside, depending on the chosen package. The standard V10 offers fully adjustable sport seats that are easy to configure for either cruising or spirited backroad thrashing. Manually adjusted bucket race seats come in the V10 Plus for anyone looking to further blur the line between street car and race car.

Both versions come with a Nappa-leather adorned cabin with a very driver focused arrangement. While the center console has volume and MMI controls on hand for quick access, you’ll find no in-dash infotainment screen. The R8’s sole interface is the Audi Virtual Cockpit, which is the one-stop-shop for entertainment, car info, and navigation functions.

The 12.3-inch display is powered by the Nvidia Tegra 30 chip which allows it to render the all the high resolution graphics, particularly the digital rev counter needle, which is computed 60 times per second to deliver the most accurate info with immediacy. Impressively, the navigation functions are Google Earth-based, delivering elevation data along with the most current satellite overview maps available. This is incredibly helpful in determining the camber and drops of the twisty roads R8 drivers will surely seek out.

The Quickening

Arriving at Portimão, the Algarve Circuit is the culmination of everything I’d experienced on the drive over, crammed into one track: high-speed stretches, wild elevation changes, and tight hairpins. It’s as if all the highways, mountain backroads and tight village streets were mixed in a blender.

With the V10 Plus primed and ready to go, The R8 and I rocketed forward with the help of a very easy to engage launch control. Audi claims the V10 Plus goes from 0 to 62 mph in just 3.2 seconds, flying up to 205 miles per hour for those with enough tarmac and sufficient intestinal fortitude.

The suspension, now at full stiffness, displays a characteristic nimbleness that was present in the previous R8. If you’ve ever watched a cat hunker down and tighten its shoulders before pouncing, then you know how the R8 feels before every maneuver. It’s as if the supercar has plotted each overtake, corner entry, and press of the throttle ahead of time. Indeed, the seven-speed transmission shows stunning reactionary calculations when left to select the gears on its own, something I’m not always trustworthy of. Having an obscenely wide rev band helps, too.

Predator or no, the car isn’t a beast to wrangle while cutting through a wide bend or narrow hairpin. Electromechanical steering and the upgraded quattro all-wheel drive system make the R8 a companion that guides you throughout the course. An electro-hydraulic multi-plate clutch diverts the torque where its needed most, pulling the car into corners and sending 100 percent of it fully forward or all the way back.

Conclusion

Pricing hasn’t been announced yet for the 2017 Audi R8 when it launches in the U.S., but expect it to cause a stir in the “affordable supercar” segment. Inevitably, people will compare it to a close Italian relation, the Lamborghini Huracán. Setting price tags aside, the R8 easily upstages the Lambo in interior quality and daily usage. The Huracán is equally complimentary on the track, but it’s an exhausting ordeal to drive. The Audi, on the other hand, makes lap after lap tolerable. Audi knows a thing or two about endurance, after all. This back and forth between the two will be subject of many bar arguments and forum discussions for some time. Can there be only one? It’s too early to tell, but what I can say for certain is that the force is strong with this one.

Highs

  • Supremely balanced agility
  • Powerful, responsive engine with wide rev band
  • Easy to drive daily in comfort
  • Responsive, useful Virtual Cockpit display
  • Makes average Joes feel like race drivers on the track

Lows

  • Large blind spots inherent to mid-engine design
  • Cargo space will accommodate little more than a backpack
  • Larger, broad-shouldered drivers: skip the bucket race seats