This is Audi’s R8 GT Spyder, and you can think of it in one of two ways: it’s a drop-top version of the R8 GT, itself a lighter and more powerful version of the already sublime R8 V10 supercar; or it’s a Lamborghini Gallardo Performante, sanitised (slightly) by the men and women from Ingolstadt.
Read on for our first drive review of the new Audi R8 GT Spyder.
Audi R8 GT Spyder: the details
I’m driving one of only 10 pre-production GT Spyders, all of which bear the same anonymous 000 of 333 chassis number, and all of which will eventually be scrapped. Why was it necessary to build a second batch of mules when the R8 GT coupe was homologated last year? Because the fixed-head and drop-head are more different than it appears, says senior project engineer Andreas Graf. ‘We had to do a lot of extra work on the new body panels, the revised suspension set-up and the modified aerodynamics. Taking out 85kg not only affects the structure and the balance but also wind and road noise. The new splitter, lighter undertray and the substantially bigger rear diffusor also affect downforce and aerodynamic stability. So we took these cars to the Nordschleife to make sure they’re up to scratch, and as sporty and involving as the coupe.’
The weight saving over a V10 Spyder comes from bespoke seats with non-adjustable backrests, reduced sound-deadening material, thinner carpets, various carbonfibre add-ons, plus lighter brakes and wheels and a trimmed prop-shaft and gearbox housing. Not exactly being the anorexic type, I instantly offset the weight loss and struggled to feel much difference.
Any other changes?
Inside, the GT is a mix of tiger and pussycat. Tiger, because the Alcantara-trimmed chairs punish you for every chocolate eclair, and there are other aggressive touches: the squared-off wheel, the redesigned black-on-white instrument faces, the shiny gear-selector knob machined from solid aluminium and the matte carbonfibre instrument cluster. Pussycat, because the baddest R8 boasts an A4-style sat-nav, iPod connectivity, a car phone with microphone attached to the seat belt and seven active speakers, or an even more powerful extra-cost B&O sound system. While Le Mans winners may opt for the virtually unpadded race buckets, affluent couch potatoes may prefer powered and heated leather seats. There’s virtually no limit to how much carbonfibre you can apply to this Audi – although it’s undoubtedly a waste to hide it under specially commissioned paint. The only item the GT cannot be had with is a manual gearbox, because demand is minimal.
This is a Spyder. How about putting the roof back?
It takes 19 seconds to drop the roof, and the sensations come flooding in: the smell of soaked pastures, cool tunnels feeling frostier than stiff crosswinds, the warmth from the engine supplementing the air-con’s heat. With the side windows up and the rear wind deflector in place, I feel pretty cocooned. Except when I put my foot down to make the most of a bend or an open roundabout, and rainwater from the GT’s nooks and crannies sprays into the cockpit. Right now, the best configuration is roof up, rear glass pane down, so you can admire the V10 big band without getting your ears wet.
The 5.2-litre V10’s orchestra pit is a magnesium cradle behind my ears. The massive engine holds Italian and German passports: conceived at Lamborghini in Sant’Agata, the 40-valver went to Audi’s finishing school in Ingolstadt where it learned to muster 552bhp, 35bhp more than the regular R8 V10 Spyder but 10bhp less than Lambo’s closely related Performante engine. Maximum torque of 398lb ft is identical in both R8 GT and Performante. But thanks to a more closely staggered six-speed R-tronic manumatic, the Audi’s 3.8sec 0-62mph sprint shaves a tenth off the hardcore Lambo roadster’s time. The Performante’s 203mph top speed eclipses the Audi’s 198mph.
The V10 sounds rawer, meaner and more intense than ever before. Idle unleashes a metallic drumming interspersed by the occasional kicking of the oil pump, the impromptu whirr of the water pump and the sucking burps of the dry sump lubrication. Under part load, the noise becomes denser, then full throttle frees a mix of aural fireworks masterminded by two flaps in the exhaust system: roaring at 4000rpm, yelling at 6500rpm.
And how does the R8 GT Spyder drive?
Gone are the days when powerful mid-engined sports cars were instant widow-makers. Uncontrollable power oversteer, tricky counterswings and lift-off drama are history, thanks to engineering evolution and electronic aids like ABS brakes and stability programmes. The R8 GT Spyder throws in Quattro four-wheel drive for good measure, which explains why it is almost as docile and co-operative as a trained dolphin riding its own tail fin. Yes, it’s creamily composed in the wet.
The GT pack features a 10mm lower ride height which helps to cut drag at high speed, more camber on all four wheels for a sharper turn-in action, and optional 305/30 footwear in the rear. Under normal driving conditions, the viscous coupling which acts as a front axle differential will accept only 15% of the maximum torque. Even when the rear wheels go up in smoke, the torque split never exceeds 30:70 front:rear. As a result, you always know which end of the car will be on fire when you give it stick.
A corner begins with nip-and-tuck understeer, then the line tightens as the R8 GT follows steering and throttle orders with seismographic precision, before it transitions into a nudge of oversteer upon exit. The suspension soaks up any unevenness and remains sufficiently planted to match the chosen radius, quarter inch by quarter inch. Upshifts are speedy but composed, slower than a Ferrari 599 GTO’s but without the resultant whiplash injury. The dampers and steering, throttle and gearbox, work in relaxed harmony so long as you avoid the ‘Sport’ button. The R8 GT Spyder does not sound like the supercar your father knew. But in 2011, when compliance equals control and raw power mated to a rock-hard chassis is often a misjudgment, Audi’s pragmatic GT formula is much more user-friendly than the Lamborghini Performante’s daggers drawn approach.
Thankfully, the R8 GT is not yet burdened with the RS5’s Drive Select system, which lets you choose from multiple coarsely calibrated steering/damping/drivetrain combinations. All you do here is hit the ESP button briefly, and the system permits a little tail waggle and some feel-good full throttle acceleration squeal. Keep the knob depressed for 5secs, read the warning message, and thank the weatherman for the rain since it lowers the limit of adhesion to a less extreme level.
With most electronics off-duty, you now get wheelspin in first and second gear. It’s a spine-tingling melody, this duet of scrambling P Zeros and the V10 roaring towards its 8700rpm redline. At 8500rpm, a little earlier than expected, the rev limiter raises its digital digit, then second gear is all over us like a rash, already begging for third and for a brief breather. True, the car would perform with similar punch and vigour had we left the gear selector in auto. But the stubby shift paddles are so much more involving and the engine plays exactly the right tune for every ratio.
I drove the GT deep into the night, and when the rain finally ended, the superbright LED headlamps swept the routes nationales et departmentales clean for one last wild ride. Performance? Thrilling, with 398lb ft and the ability to storm from nought to 125mph in only 11.5sec. Roadholding? Tenacious, with grip and traction to match, sensational in the dry and out of this world in the wet. Ride? Better than expected, and better than I remembered from the coupe, probably due to a little more weight and a slightly more benign set-up. Handling? Failsafe but never boring, benign but not to the point of being passive, predictable, controllable and – if so desired – beautifully malleable. Overall desirability? High. True, this is a very expensive piece of kit. But when you consider the unique specification and the 333 limited run, this rather special Spyder should hold its value better than the lesser versions.
The R8 GT Spyder is an emotional roadster, a great grand tourer and a thrilling supercar.