The top of the line 2014 Audi R8 is a kick in the pants sometimes more than even enthusiasts might be prepared for.
My test car was the Audi R8 V10 Plus quattro coupe S tronic coupe, a true supercar. Looking more Italian than German, it drew attention everywhere I went. And powered by the optional V10, it was capable of ferocious speeds. The speedometer goes up to 220 miles per hour.
But what does the "R" stand for?
It could the "radical" design, which includes a mid engine and Audi's quattro all-wheel-drive system.
Or it could be "race car," which is certainly what it felt like when driven aggressively.
Or it could be "ridiculous," which is the way I felt some of the time I was driving the R8. Not having easy access to a race track, I tested the car as best I could as a daily driver. On workdays, much of time was spent stuck in slow freeway traffic or driving over poorly maintained downtown streets, where the stiff suspension exaggerated every imperfection.
The weekend was much better, however. With less traffic on the freeways, the R8 could begin to strut its stuff. And I didn't have to drive through construction zones that pass for city streets for my day job.
And pressing the Sport mode button on the console unleashed even more performance. Shifts came much quicker, including downshifts, which were frequently jerky and accompanied by blasts from the exhaust. They were also fun, however.
But to even begin to explore the R8's incredibly high limits, I had to settle for empty country roads and even then I worried a county sheriff might be lurking over the next hill. I guess if you can afford the $188,995 sticker price for the top of the line Plus coupe, you don't have to worry about speeding tickets. But as an automotive journalist, I can't afford too many.
Part of my mixed reaction was related to the fact that I was testing the Plus version of the R8, which is new this year. The 5.2-liter V10 boasts 550 horsepower, with is 120 more than the base 4.2-liter V8 and 25 more than the other 5.2-liter V10. More significant, the suspension in the V8 Plus is intentionally stiffer than the other two models stiffer than even some potential owners might prefer. For them, the V8 and non-Plus V10 version might be a wiser choice.
That said, practically every element of the R8 is designed to dazzle the senses, beginning with the exterior. Short, wide and low, it oozes sex appeal, especially in the deep red on our test car. Black carbon fiber panels hold the massive side air scoops that feed the engine behind the cockpit. A clear panel over the engine allowed pedestrians to ogle it when the R8 was parked. It even lights up at night. The massive fuel injection system is certainly a sight, even if the rest of the engine is hidden beneath it.
The interior is equally striking, with deeply sculpted front bucket seats sunk low to the road and a curved dash that angles towards the driver. Gauges are enclosed in two elliptical pods that are easily read through the steering wheel. Practically everything is wrapped in leather except large carbon reinforced plastic trim pieces, including the door grab handles. All the elements somehow work well together, a testament to the ingenuity of the designers.
At normal speeds on the road, the R8 feels remarkably serene. The cabin is very quiet with the windows up, with the sleek shape all but eliminating wind noise.
The quiet disappears under speed, however. Punch the gas and the exhaust howls as the bolts forward. The shifts in our seven-speed S tronic dual clutch automated manual transmission were quick and brutal. Although a six-speed manual transmission is available, the shifts could not have been any quicker. Nor was shifting with the steering wheel mounted paddles, at least not without more practice.
In a car with such strong performance attributes, the steering stood out as especially noteworthy. It always seemed exactly right, regardless of speed or the angle of a curve. Of course, the quattro all-wheel-drive system helped keep all four wheels glued to road, even during occasionally rainstorms.
Since the R8 isn't intended to be a practical car, it should come as no surprise that there is hardly any storage space. The "trunk" beneath the front hood is small and there's barely enough room behind the seats for a laptop.
And surprisingly, it starts with a genuine key, not a touch button. Remembering to keep it out took a few days.
Several people on the street asked me what the R8 was, even though one has been featured in each of the popular Iron Man films. Perhaps viewers don't realize the R8 is a real car because it looks as futurist as Tony Stark's evolving costumes. At the very least, the curiosity seekers didn't recognize the Audi's trademark grill, which is fully integrated into the sloping hood lines. That's practically the only similarity to other Audi's, however. The wide rear end certainly looks more like a Ferrari than anything else.
OK, so using the R8 as a daily driver probably not the best way to test it. Super cars aren't designed for that. I'm sure it shines on the Nürburgring circuit in Germany and makes a heck of an impression at Monte Carlo Grand Prix parties. The few times I was able to comfortably open it up were awesome. If you can manage that on a regular basis, the 2014 R8 Plus is hard to beat at any price.
Facts and figures (all models)
Model tested: 2014 R8 V10.
Class: Two-seat luxury sports car.
Layout: Mid engine, all-wheel-drive.
Style: Coupe or convertible.
Engines: 4.2-liter V8 (430 hp, 317 ft-lbs); 5.2-liter V10 (525 hp, 391 ft-lbs); 5.2-liter V10 (550 hp, 398 ft-lbs); .
Transmissions: Six-speed manual; S trontic automated manual with Sport mode and steering wheel mounted paddle shiifters.
Fuel Economy: 11/20/14 (4.2/M); 14/23/17 (4.2/S); 12/19/14 (5.2/M); 13/22/16 (5.2/S); 12/19/14 (5/2P/M); 13/22/16 (5.2/S).
Price: Starting at around $120,000 ($188,995 as tested).