Cap D'Antibes, France - In the French Riviera, exotic cars are just about everywhere. Most people don't look twice when a Ferrari or Lamborghini rolls by. Over here, Porsches are about as common as Honda Civics. As you can imagine, it takes something special to turn heads on this side of the Atlantic. But wherever we went, our R8 Spyder did just that - and it wasn't even finished in a particularly eye-grabbing colour.
Then again, this too isn't a surprise. From the moment the R8 was launched in 2006, it's been turning heads -on the street, and in films. The R8 was the star car of 2008's Iron Man, and the Spyder continues the momentum in the new Iron Man 2 as Tony Stark's perferred ride. Low, wide and boldly styled, the coupe became an instant supercar icon. Thankfully, Audi hasn't ruined the R8's style in the drop-top transition despite a few changes.
Gone are the trademark "side blade" intakes of the coupe; instead, they've been replaced by smaller, simpler intakes. While some people love their look, in the Spyder, they de-clutter the side profile, shifting attention to the car's shapely haunches. Also new is a carbon fibre "hood" which integrates a pair of silver air intakes right behind the cabin. While they add visual muscle, the downside is they completely hide the view of the amazing V10 engine.
Like most other drop-top exotica, the R8 Spyder features a cloth roof, but it's no ordinary canvas job. Underneath the fabric is a lightweight aluminum and magnesium frame, which uses an electrohydraulic mechanism to silently lower and raise it in19 seconds. This can be done at up to 50 km/h. When it's up, the roof's design doesn't spoil the R8's profile, and the weight gains are surprisingly small. The roof and operating mechanisms weigh just 42 kg.
An interior to match
One of the R8's strongest assets has been its comfortable interior. With the Spyder, there is a choice of two seat designs, the standard comfort seat with power adjustment, or a snug, race-style seat with firmer bolsters. Between the two, I prefer the first option, which is more comfortable over longer trips.
With an estimated starting price of $190,000, the R8 Spyder is lavishly equipped with full leather trim, LED headlamps, navigation and the awesome Bang & Olufsen stereo system. But there are still a few options worth considering, such as the integrated microphone system which features microphones embedded in the seatbelt to ensure clear conversations, even when driving at speed with the roof down. One option that should, however, be standard is the power seatback recline; it's somewhat of an insult. At this price, it should be standard.
Cargo space isn't exactly the R8 Spyder's strength - its nose-mounted trunk is just 100 litres in capacity, which is just enough to store a weekend's worth of luggage. Optional custom-made suitcases are available.
The sound of music
There's no question that the R8 is a fantastic driving machine, but has excising the top compromised the drive? Given that the Spyder tips the scales at 96 kg more than the standard coupe, the answer in short is no. With 518 horsepower from the 5.2-litre V10, the rich-sounding engine takes off at high revs, launching the vehicle to 100 km/h in 4.1 seconds. And thanks to a stiff aluminum space frame structure, with a separate magnesium engine cradle, the R8 Spyder is free of torsional flex and scuttle shake.
If you're in the market for the Spyder, I strongly recommend the six-speed manual over the optional R Tronic automated manual transmission. Unlike the fantastic S Tronic dual-clutch gearbox found in many Audi products, the R Tronic only has a single clutch. In manual mode, it's slow to react. And while the automatic mode shifts smoothly, you lose out on the fun factor.
I really think it's high time that Audi's engineers have lunch with their Porsche counterparts to talk about technology transfer of the Porsche PDK double-clutch unit found on the 911 Turbo. The R8 could really benefit from it.
Once out of the French Riviera's small, slow roads, we were able to really open the Spyder up. You never tire of hearing the V10 wind its way up to its 8,700-rpm redline before changing gears. The feeling and the sound are exhilarating. Hearing this German symphony transitioning into a full-fledged Italian opera at high revs is something you've got to hear to believe, and is well worth the price of admission.
The R8 Spyder comes standard with the Audi magnetic ride system, which automatically adjusts the stiffness of the suspension to adapt to the road conditions and to the driver. In standard mode, it's surprisingly effective at smoothing out France's weather-worn pavement. And while there's little body roll to begin with in this mode, activating the sport mode flattens the ride further. Purists looking for a more authentic sports car setup can opt for a stiffer suspension setup with standard shock absorbers at no extra cost.
With a mid-mounted engine, a low centre of gravity, and a slightly rear-biased weight distribution (43 per cent front, 57 per cent rear) the R8 Spyder hugs the road. Audi's famous quattro all-wheel drive is also an asset here, sending 85 per cent of the torque to the rear wheels for an agile yet stable feel. Combined with a limited-slip rear differential, the R8 Spyder is a supercar that's truly easy to drive, cornering as if on rails.
Personally, I have nothing against hybrids and other green cars, but for a true car enthusiast, a car that sounds like this and drives like this has little competition. It's a shame that summer weather will be coming to an end by the time it arrives in Canada.
2011 Audi R8 Spyder 5.2 FSI
Price: 187 000$
Type of vehicle: AWD mid-engine roadster
Engine: 5.2-litre, 40-valve, DOHC, V10
Power/Torque: 518 hp/391 lb.-ft.
Transmission: Six-speed manual (opt. six-speed automated manual)
0-100 km/h: 4.1 seconds
Fuel consumption (city/hwy): TBA L/100 km
Competition: Aston Martin DBS Volante, Bentley Continental GTC Speed, Ferrari California, Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4 Spyder, Porsche 911 Turbo Convertible
No loss in performance
Blend of sport and comfort
Poorly adapted R Tronic gearbox
Manual seat adjustment
Can't see the engine!