Matt Davis, European Correspondent
All the versions of the Audi R8 up until now have become accepted as cherished members of the global fleet of sports cars, and that's wonderful. But last year the R8 5.2 FSI V10 finally took the R8 brand officially into supercar territory. And with the 2011 Audi R8 Spyder 5.2 FSI V10, the recipe is all there at last. This particular version of the R8 is the car the engineers at Quattro GmbH in Neckarsulm (Audi's high-performance division) always wanted to build in the first place.
As we flew effortlessly across the coastal roads of southern France on a day in late winter, the wind was howling in all directions and the feeling was raw, dramatic. Yet it just goosed us into the right frame of mind for exactly this type of supercar. Unlike the Audi R8 V10 coupe, the 2011 Audi R8 Spyder 5.2 FSI V10 lets us hear its excellent voice more often and there's just plain more of it. Every tunnel — hell, a 25-yard-wide underpass — is an opportunity to slide the car out of gear and just whop the throttle pedal to get as close to the maximum 8,700 rpm as permitted.
We never shut the top, not even when the Mediterranean typhoon was blowing the salty spray from the waves right over the car as we gunned our way along the coast. And it's this kind of raw, natural vigor that sets apart the 2011 Audi R8 Spyder 5.2 FSI V10.
The Most R8 of the R8s
More than once, we've been cruising highways in Germany and California and seen a couple of low-lying Audis driving alongside one another in the distance. Oddly enough, one of the cars proved to be an R8 4.2 V8 coupe and the other a new TT in each case. We couldn't tell the two cars apart until we got relatively close, since they share a multitude of design cues.
This design dilemma is now history thanks to the sense of occasion that the topless 2011 Audi R8 5.2 FSI V10 brings to the R8 family. Gotta say that the swell of the Spyder's rear fenders makes for a great profile as well. All of the new panels that go into action when the Spyder retracts its roof in a 20-second display are molded from lightweight carbon-fiber, just like the pieces on the Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder. We measured those two silver-colored buttresses behind the headrests and they're just shy of a yard long. (The rear wing is 46 inches long, in case you're wondering.)
The V10-powered R8 has unique side vents to cool the engine and gearbox, and their design falls somewhere between the R8 coupe's showy side blades and the automated scoops of the Audi E-tron show car. These simple slits, some 3 inches wide and 14 inches long, also help de-kitsch the profile of the R8 design, which is starting to look a little forced to us when we're feeling a bit grumpy.
An aluminum-magnesium framework supports the cloth top — which comes offered in three standard colors — and it helps keep the weight of the whole top and its operating mechanism (a really quiet electrohydraulic system) to just 92.6 pounds. A separate button on the console lets you raise or lower the heated rear glass, so on hot days you can use the glass to deflect exhaust heat.
This is then as close as we'll probably get to an invitation to drive one of the Audi racing sports cars that have crushed the opposition at the 24 Hours of Le Mans for much of the last decade. We occasionally were driving at over 120 mph on these twisting roads, but even at these speeds the wind noise and tussle are contained through superior aerodynamics. And if you need the full talking-to-the-pits feel, you'll love the option that lets you have three small microphones in the seatbelts of both passengers, so you can conduct high-speed, hands-free conference calls.
How It R8s in Dynamics
Thanks to the combination of the R8 platform's customary double-wishbone suspension and the Spyder's standard Delphi-built magnetorheological dampers, we are enamored at the rapid adaptability of this car to road surfaces chunky and smooth alike. This part of France is one of the great places for wringing out any car, and this Audi's all-aluminum body with a magnesium engine cradle helps it maintain structural rigidity even without a roof. The Spyder weighs 212 pounds more than the R8 coupe, but it's amazing what a high-revving 518-horsepower V10 can do in the corners with a chassis that hardly leans a bit. This engine doesn't scream like a Ferrari screams, but, boy, can it yell. We're told this car will do 1.2g on the skid pad and we're not prepared to doubt it following the miles we put in behind the wheel.
Standard Pirelli P Zero tires — 235/35ZR19 91Y front, 305/30ZR19 102Y rear — wrap themselves around the customary R8 V10 wheels and just gobble up every scrappy piece of road, hooking up readily at every opportunity. The standard limited-slip differential is a welcome ally whenever we feel compelled to extinguish the stability control all the way, too. Coupling this essential dynamic tool with the usual R8 torque split of 15 percent front/85 percent rear for the all-wheel-drive system makes this a manageable supercar. The Spyder's weight distribution of 43 percent front/57 percent rear for its 3,792 pounds varies only a little from the balance of the coupe.
And, oh, those $10,000 optional carbon-ceramic brake discs! The 2011 Audi R8 Spyder benefits big time from these four units, not the least because in addition to fade-resistance bite, they peel away about 20 pounds off the unsprung weight of the car, which in turn improves the dynamic responsiveness at the wheels. Few things are greater than secure and reliable late braking into favorite corners; we get to build up a better rhythm lap after lap, even though today Audi didn't give us a track to toy with. Only the Porsche 911 Turbo Convertible with ceramic discs feels better than this Audi thus equipped.
The R Tronic Debate
Also known as e-gear at Lamborghini (and by other names at other supercar builders), the Graziano-Marelli six-speed single-clutch automated transmission still suffers from moments of clumsiness. Tooling calmly around over surface streets on a weekend, it's fine. But under the real pressure of full-throttle upshifts, we sense some vagueness in the shift paddles on the steering wheel as we click into the next gear. You pay an extra $5,000 for the privilege, but the automated unit adds only another 10 pounds to the weight of the car.
We live with it, and we'll be living with it for at least the next couple of years until some version of the R8 V10 — perhaps the upcoming street version of the V10 inspired by the LMS GT3 car — can be engineered to accommodate a dual-clutch design within the tightly packaged engine bay. Since North American buyers choose the automated system 55 percent of the time, a dual-clutch design is clearly in order. For now, the six-speed manual (6-Gang Scheltgetriebe) is far and away a better unit for any R8, especially if you intend to explore what the powertrain and chassis were actually built for.
So, Looks Fast
If the 2011 Audi R8 Spyder 5.2 FSI V10 doesn't launch-control us to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds when we finally get our hands on it at a track — versus the 4.0 seconds flat that Audi is prepared to declare right now — we'll eat a NASCAR fan's favorite old hat. With 391 pound-feet of torque from the direct-injected V10 peaking at 6,500 revs (most of the useful torque lies between 3,500 and 7,000 rpm, though), you get the sense that you're riding one really determined flat-out alloy bolt of light. Such a thing has been a long time coming from Audi.
And this one can open its roof besides. What a kick.
The only trouble is, the retractable top and the cradle that holds it prevent us from seeing the V10 engine in all its glory. After all, isn't that half the fun of buying anything with more than eight cylinders, particularly when it's a midengine rocket car costing anywhere from $160,000 and up? This dry-sump 5.2-liter mill is stunning stuff.
We'd also like to see some Spyder-specific wheels, and apparently we're not alone. Says an Audi rep, "We fully agree and there will be such choices in due time, just not at start of deliveries."
The 2011 Audi R8 Spyder 5.2 FSI V10 is a legitimate street-going heir to all that glorious dominance at Le Mans. We can't wait to get a version that is purely without roof in barchetta style, and has performance numbers like a Porsche 911 Turbo or Lamborghini Gallardo LP570-4 Superleggera. That would be trick.
The U.S. version of the Spyder will start unloading down at the port in early September (European deliveries begin in March), and we highly doubt that any 2011 Audi R8 Spyder 5.2 FSI V10 will leave a U.S. dealer for much less than $200,000 after all the options and personalizations have been added.
From now on, over half of worldwide R8 sales should be Spyder sales. The take rate in North America — the R8's No. 3 market after Germany and the U.K. — is forecast to be as much as 60 percent.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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