Supercars, generally speaking, have made great strides in terms of usability in the past few decades. Dart back 30 years, and Ferrari and Lamborghini owners were stuck suffering with temperamental machines that broke down often, were all but unusable in bad weather, and had the ergonomics of a CIA black site. These days, however, supercars and super sports cars are practically as usable as Camrys; you'd be just as comfortable toodling down to the store and picking up a 12-pack of paper towels in an 812 Superfast as you would in a Toyota.
One of the key moments on that journey: the arrival of the Audi R8 in 2006. While it was based on the same bones as the Lamborghini Gallardo, it delivered a more approachable experience than that Italian steer; it was easier to drive, and arguably easier on the eyes, too. Much like the first Acura NSX, it helped redefine what a high-priced two-door speed machine should be like — not just on the track, but on the street, too.
Here in 2023, the R8 is staring down the tail end of its second generation, and staring into a future that looks very different than when it first debuted. Back then, high-revving internal combustion screamers were all the rage in the sports car world; today, it's about making more power from smaller blocks, via turbochargers, hybrid systems and all kinds of other techno-trickery. Still, in spite of its age, Audi's icon still has plenty of pleasures to bestow upon its driver. Especially, as it turns out, if you opt for a rear-wheel-drive model.
A decent chunk of the added usability found in the supercar and super sports car categories in recent years has come from the widespread adoption of all-wheel-drive: not only does it add a semblance of wet/cold-weather capability, but it also makes extracting every ounce of potential performance easier. However, here at the end of its life, the R8 is arguably better in RWD form. (The idea of an Audi, the brand that basically exists in America due to Quattro, being better without AWD is admittedly a bit ironic.)
First off, simply put, it makes the R8 a bargain. The two-wheel-drive version comes in at a whopping $51,100 cheaper than the all-wheel-grip variant. (My test car was technically a 2022 model, which actually almost $10,000 cheaper still.) Sure, you lose a little power in the process — the RWD version is down 40 horsepower and seven lb-ft of torque versus the AWD R8 — but it still manages to spit out 562 hp and 406 lb-ft. Weigh that against the Porsche 911, where arguably the closest analog, the 911 GT3, makes just 502 hp and 346 lb-ft, but starts at around $18,000 more.
Secondly, it makes the R8 a good bit more playful in the real world. On a track — be it a road course or a drag strip — the all-wheel-drive variant is surely quicker, thanks to its added grip and power. But on the streets, the RWD R8's lower limits make it a more entertaining toy.
With less grip, the rear wheels can be easily convinced to spin and the tail becomes more happy to rotate. Find an empty parking lot and turn off all the safeties, and you can pirouette to your heart's content, or lay a patch of rubber worthy of a Camaro, or simply fire down a back road and feel the rear of the car gently try to swing wide when you push it. They're all up for easy grabs here.
The first R8 didn't just make a splash because Tony Stark helped kick off the Marvel Cinematic Universe from behind the wheel; it made waves because it looked incredible. Even two decades on since the design first debuted at the Paris Motor Show, it looks as fresh and exotic as ever. Audi design has moved on since then, and while it's certainly up for debate whether its cars have grown more or less attractive over the last decade and a half, it's hard to see the current R8 as anything other than less glamorous and sexy than its sleek, curvy and taut predecessor.
Still, it does manage to draw in plenty of eyeballs, which is a close second in the sports car world. The giant rear window and long, straight roofline leading straight back from above the driver's head to the tail lamps create the illusion of length, suggesting at the mighty power lying beneath. The broad haunches of the rear imply similar, giving it a broad-shouldered sense of purpose and power. Even the front, while afflicted with the extra trapezoidal features designers often use now to disguise the tall hoodlines needed for pedestrian crash test standards, certainly looks imposing; you might not drool over it in the parking lot, but you'll get the hell out of its way when you see it in your mirror.
When the second-gen R8 launched in 2015, its driver-focused layout seemed like a dream. While most new sports cars were polluting their cabins with big, distracting screens in the middle of the dash, the Audi's center stack only featured physical controls; the only display was the instrument panel.
That said, it turns out there's a reason everybody and their mother went over to screens in the center of the car: trying to smash all the functions of a modern car's infotainment system into one screen is asking too much. Opting to use Apple CarPlay — which I do basically every time I climb into a car — forces it to take over the instrument panel, reducing the speedometer and tach to silver dollar-sized discs at the bottom corners of the screen. And if you do happen to have a passenger, their ability to adjust the radio or set a destination is basically nil; even if they're left-handed and able to manipulate the control knob for the system, it's almost impossible for them to clearly see the screen.
Space — often a concern with mid-engined cars — is also at a premium in the R8. While its layout is certainly more long-limb friendly than its Lambo Huracan relation, it's still a bit short on legroom, especially compared to newer mid-engined cars like the McLaren Artura and Ferrari 296 GTB/GTS. If your inseam is over 32 inches, plan on taking regular stretch breaks.
The next-generation R8, no doubt, will remedy many of these ergonomic problems and other issues with the current car. It will, however, also be a very different animal. While the Huracan will allegedly receive a gas-powered successor, any future R8 (or other super sports car from the brand) will be an electric vehicle, as Audi pushes hard to go all-EV as quickly as possible; the brand has said that all new cars developed after 2026 will be electric-only.
Such a future car will, of course, be insanely quick, ludicrously powerful and probably laden with the sort of advanced technology that will enable it to assist drivers in setting blazing lap times ad let them play Fortnite on their phones while it drives them home. Depending on how soon it comes, it may also help define the super sports car EV category itself; while pickup trucks and SUVs and sedans are all being conquered by electric mobility, so far, the ranks of electric supercars and their ilk are very slim.
Still, when it arrives, it'll mean the era of the R8 as we know it — an accessible, daily driver of a super sports car that also packs a high-revving, naturally aspirated V8 that sounds nigh-on heavenly and has more character in its crankshaft than any electric motor has — will have passed. So grab this current model and hold it tight while you can.
Base Price / Price as Tested: $150,195 / $187,095
Powertrain: 5.2-liter V10; seven-speed automatic; rear-wheel-drive
Torque: 406 lb-ft
EPA Fuel Economy: 14 mpg city, 23 mpg highway
Or to put it another way...can you improve on perfection?