Aggressive styling, powerful V10 engine, precise handling, exquisite build quality, sumptuous interior, superior fit and finish.
Wonky R tronic automatic, cramped interior, minimal cargo capacity.
The R8 has been a phenomenal success for Audi, simultaneously raising the company's profile and allowing it to compete in the rarefied air of the supercar segment for the first time. Certainly in its latest V10 guise, the coupe's Porsche-like top speed of 194 mph -- not to mention rapierlike handling -- gives Audi sporting credentials it had not previously enjoyed.
But in the end, it won't be the 10 pistons, 525 horsepower or even the scant 4 seconds that it takes to accelerate to 60 mph that will sell the new convertible version of Audi's supercar. Mere numbers, technical specification or performance data, no matter how impressive, fail to capture what is required for the Spyder to reach the pinnacle of exotic car lust.
That missing piece is style, an attribute the coupe version of the R8 possesses to the point of waste. Park an R8 in any exotic sports car parking lot and the Audi will attract every bit as much adulation as a Lamborghini Gallardo or Ferrari 458 Italia. So, like the younger brother who has to follow in the footsteps of his team-captaining older sibling, the R8 Spyder has some mighty big shoes to fill.
Unlike the coupe, which was first introduced in its V8 guise, the Spyder is currently only available with Audi's 5.2-liter V10 (Audi says production at its Neckarsulm plant is limited, so why not build the most profitable model?). That means a spec sheet boasting 525 hp and 391 pound-feet of torque.
The other specification in the power department that bears noticing is the 6,500-rpm peak for all that torque. That's unusually high, especially for such a large engine with such an undersquare design (the 3.3-inch bore is much smaller than the longish 3.7-inch stroke). Yet the Spyder, like the coupe, thrives on revs, the party not shutting down until the rev limiters kick in at 8,700 rpm (when the pistons are traveling at a very F1-like 26.9 meters per second).
Hammer the throttle at 3,500 rpm and the Spyder responds with alacrity, if not quite outright enthusiasm. Downshift a gear or two so the revs are higher than 5,000 rpm and the R8 thunders forward as if all the hounds of hell have been simultaneously unleashed. The convertible warps ahead and the buzzing fury of those 10 pistons directly behind your ears is purely Wagnerian.
Audi claims the Spyder accelerates to 100 km/h (62.1 mph) in just 4.1 seconds (we found the 77-pound-lighter coupe did it in 3.7 seconds). But even that number doesn't do the Spyder justice. Porsche's 911 Turbo, for instance, scoots to the same speed in an even more impressive 3.2 seconds, with much of that advantage attributed to Porsche's high-tech launch control system.
That Porsche analogy also serves to highlight the R8's major weakness -- namely its optional R tronic automatic transmission. Unlike the 911's PDK and the DSG trannies fitted to some other Audis that use dual clutches and seven speeds, the R tronic is an older design with only one clutch and six forward gears. Using but one clutch causes significant hesitation between gears, especially upshifts.
The harshness is almost acceptable when you're just out to enjoy a drive, but creeping along in traffic with the R tronic in its automatic mode is truly annoying. Audi says that the reason the R8 doesn't enjoy the superior sophistication of a dual-clutch transmission is because it doesn't have a DSG box capable of handling the R8's torque, and developing an all-new transmission for about 2,500 units a year is prohibitively expensive. Let's hope it resolves that issue tout de suite.
In other performance regards, the Spyder is exemplary. Despite the loss of the rigidity-enhancing roof, Audi's aluminum spaceframe chassis proves enormously rigid. Even riding on some seriously firm suspension, the Spyder exhibited not one iota of cowl shake. Said suspension uses Audi's new Magnetic Ride dampers. That means a wide range of suspension damping is available, though in the case of the R8, that range extends from the merely firm to the very stiff.
Even during hard cornering, roll is minimal and grip is tenacious. The steering is extremely precise, thanks in part to the 85/15 rear/front torque split of the Quattro all-wheel-drive system. If traction is diminished out back, the system can send as much as 30 percent to the front wheels. Perhaps a racetrack could reveal some handling deficiency, but serious scofflawing along serpentine Mediterranean coastal roads failed to upset the Spyder.
The R8 Spyder is also available with optional carbon-ceramic brakes and six-piston Brembo calipers all around that would seem to have enough power to stop an Indycar (steel discs with eight-piston calipers in front and four pistons in the rear are standard). Their sensitivity does require some acclimatization, but they are very controllable.
Inside, the Spyder is very similar to the coupe, and the longer-legged might find the accommodations a little tight. The seats themselves, however, are very comfortable, quite adjustable and provide ample side bolstering.
Fortified with magnesium bracing, the soft top is not only stable at speed but incredibly quiet as well. Indeed, at 80 mph, it is barely louder inside the Spyder's cabin than the coupe's, and it is quite easy to carry on a conversation at virtually any speed.
Most of the Spyder's interior equipment is, again, similar to the coupe's. That means 465 watts of Bang & Olufsen goodness mated to 12 speakers. It's not quite up to the sonorific splendor that is the A8's B&O system, but it's more than enough for the R8's relatively small cabin.
Too small, however, is the navigation system's LCD screen, whose diminutive size makes it difficult to see complex turns and junctions. Also on the tiny side is the Spyder's 3.5 cubic feet of cargo capacity up front (about enough space for two medium-size laptop bags). Trips for two are best reserved for tropical climes and it would help if both occupants were bikini-friendly.
The Spyder, like all current Audis, truly surpasses the competition when it comes to the fit and finish inside the cabin. The leather seat coverings are of high quality, the instrument gauge design still pleasing and the switchgear easily operated, if a little too numerous. As for the actual build quality, the Spyder has the tightest gap between its stowable roof and the windshield frame of any convertible in recent memory.
As for the Spyder's external beauty, you would have to go back to the launch of the original Lamborghini Countach for a more dramatic and universally positive response to a car. Judging from initial reactions to the Spyder, the nonstop ogling the R8 has received should continue unabated. But though the car is most obviously an R8 (indeed, the Spyder's derriere captures all the adoration for which the coupe version is already famous), there are noticeable differences.
Of course the sloping roof is gone (replaced by a soft top and a tonneau cover), but equally noticeable is that the side blades that so dominate the coupe's side view are absent, replaced instead by great gulping air intakes. Even if they are a little more conventional, they are no less attractive. The tonneau cover, the other significant styling addition, looks equally aggressive, with numerous vents on its twin humps.
Obviously, anyone looking at R8 coupe ownership but enamored of al fresco driving will be a fan. But then, too, should anyone considering a Ferrari, Lamborghini or Porsche. The Audi offers most of the performance of the former two, the livability of the latter and panache equal to all three. And it's far less expensive than either Italian alternative.