2020 Audi R8 Spyder first drive: A familiar thrill

By Steven Ewing, Roadshow

The Audi R8 is as exciting as it's ever been. And though there are several updates that set this 2020 model apart from its forebear, the best thing about the R8 isn't what's changed, it's what hasn't.

In fact, I'm not so sure many of the changes -- specifically, the visual ones -- actually improve matters. Up front, the reworked fascia has a few more angles and air intakes than before, though the little fangs that flank the sides are nonfunctional, so they're really just styling for styling's sake. Around back, massive exhaust tips replace the more discreet design of last year's car, while the honeycomb air outlets now span the full width of the rump.

I like the way the LED light housings have been darkened for a slightly more sinister appearance, and it's cool that you can get the car's badges in black, too. But taken as a whole, the 2020 styling tweaks actually make the car look worse than before, though make no mistake, it's still an R8, and therefore a total knockout looker.

Some new colors are available inside and out, and there's a wireless phone charger just ahead of the gear selector on the center console. Audi's Virtual Cockpit tech still manages the infotainment system, and beautifully at that. Plus, with no central multimedia screen, the dashboard is blissfully uncluttered. Three small knobs house the climate control functions, but the princess in me thinks it's a little ridiculous the R8 doesn't come with dual-zone functionality. 

Performance updates are similarly sparse. All R8s use Audi's utterly fantastic, naturally aspirated, 5.2-liter V10 engine, mounted amidships and connected to a seven-speed, dual-clutch transmission and Quattro all-wheel drive. The base car now produces 562 horsepower instead of 532, while torque remains the same at 406 pound-feet. In the hotter V10 Performance model -- formerly called V10 Plus -- that engine produces the same 602 hp and 413 lb-ft as before. Not that I'm complaining.

Every version of the 2020 R8 can reach speeds above 200 mph, and in its quickest V10 Performance Coupe spec, Audi's supercar accelerates to 60 mph in just 3.2 seconds, with the Spyder falling in only a 10th of a second behind that. For what it's worth, Audi reps admit the company's acceleration data is actually somewhat conservative; use launch control in a V10 Performance Coupe and you could reach 60 mph in as little as 2.9 seconds. 

No engine sounds as sweet as a naturally aspirated V10 at full wail, and I cannot applaud Audi enough for keeping this drama alive in the R8. 

Numbers aside, launching the R8 is a serious thrill -- and one best experienced in the Spyder. That big V10 is nestled right behind your ears, and the louder it gets, the harder you'll push the throttle. No other engine sounds as sweet as a naturally aspirated V10 at full wail, and I cannot applaud Audi enough for keeping this drama alive in the R8 -- especially since I find some of the company's other sporty engines a little too buttoned-up for their own good (looking at you, RS5).

The S-Tronic automatic transmission nicely manages the engine's power, but often has a tendency to jump around when left to its own devices. Thankfully, steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters allow you to choose your own adventure, with some of the quickest upshifts available in any car anywhere. But I will say, Audi could seriously stand to fit the R8 with some larger, meatier, this-is-a-freaking-supercar paddles, rather than the same tiny, plastic flappers that you'll find in an A3 sedan . (I'll also never forgive Audi for discontinuing the manual transmission with the gated shifter, even if the S-Tronic is a quicker cog-swapper than I'll ever be.)

The V10 Performance models can be optioned with a carbon-fiber sway bar that saves 4.4 pounds of weight, which I can't imagine you'll actually notice. A more meaningful upgrade is the retuned variable-ratio steering system, which is said to have a more progressive feel not unlike that of the rear-wheel drive R8 RWS. Without driving the 2019 and 2020 models back-to-back, I'm hard pressed to notice a tangible difference in the way the R8 steers. The car is quick to turn in and offers appropriate feedback of what's happening at road level. Maybe the steering is a little too light in the car's default Comfort mode. Or maybe I'm just splitting hairs.

Curiously, while the base R8 models use an adaptive, magnetic-ride suspension, the V10 Performance comes with a fixed setup. On the one hand, the steel springs are soft enough to deliver a compliant ride over broken city streets and across long stretches of highway. Yet they're also firm enough to offer excellent composure when you're really wailing on the R8 on a great canyon road. I can't speak to the fixed suspension's manners when pushed to the extreme, but the R8 is such an incredibly capable car that you'll never, ever come close to finding its limits on public roads -- unless you're driving like an idiot, I guess. Some folks might miss the adjustability of adaptive suspension geometry, but if the car is set up nicely from the get-go, why complicate matters?

All of this brings me to what I love most about the R8: It truly feels like the best definition of the "everyday supercar," as esoteric a segment as that may be. More than an Acura NSX , Ferrari 488, Lamborghini Huracan , McLaren 570S or even a Porsche 911 GT3, the R8 really feels like the sort of car you could run errands in on a Monday after driving the doors off it on a Sunday. It's as comfortable and techy as any other modern Audi, but has no trouble keeping up with the world's finest supercars -- some of which, don't forget, carry significantly higher price tags than the 2020 R8's $169,900 MSRP.

Is the 2020 Audi R8 any different than its predecessor? Not really. And that's perfectly fine with me.



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2020 Audi R8 Spyder first drive: A familiar thrill
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