x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Audi R8 Spyder: a sunny disposition

Even the south of France pales in comparison with the new Audi R8 Spyder, as Neil Vorano finds.

Motoring editor Neil Vorano test drives the Audi R8 Spyder in the south of France.
Motoring editor Neil Vorano test drives the Audi R8 Spyder in the south of France.

Unlike my esteemed and chrome-domed colleague, David Booth, who would rather hide in the dark recesses of a car cabin than have the rays of the sun shine down on his face, I love convertibles. There's really nothing like experiencing everything a car has to offer while feeling the wind blow past and being able to see everything around you. It makes driving just a much more complete experience for the senses.

So you would imagine, dear reader, that I would probably be enjoying myself behind the wheel of Audi's new R8 Spyder, motoring around the twisty coast roads in the south of France. And, you would be absolutely right. Any convertible would do the job in these glorious parts of the world, really, but I happen to be sitting in one of the most beautiful cars available today. The Spyder loses the side blades of the hardtop R8, and I think it's better for it. The huge air intakes behind each door blend perfectly with the overall design of the car, and it's a much more cohesive package. Anywhere I went, even in this part of the world numb to the rich and famous coming and going, I got waves, stares, and even children wanting pictures in the car. My favourite was the motorcyclist giving me a thumbs-up as he did a wheelie by me on the motorway. With his girlfriend on the back.

With extensive use of carbon fibre, aluminum and magnesium alloys, Audi managed to keep the weight of the Spyder, even with its chassis reinforcements and soft-top mechanism, to 1,720kg, just around 100kg heavier than the hardtop R8 V10. The press had choices of the R8 in a pearl white, bright red and a metallic brown, and surprisingly, the brown was my favourite - subtle yet sophisticated. The wild body makes its own statement.

The interior matches the body in style, too. Leather all around and with Audi's typical attention to detail, it also was devoid of the clutter and confusion often associated with high-end cars loaded with features. This one was loaded, but the controls were simple to use - the climate controls, for example, were three knurled aluminum knobs, as opposed to being controlled by the MMI (multi-media interface) electronic control centre. Nice.

My only complaint with the interior is that the steering wheel is just a little too skinny for such a sporting car. OK, that might be nitpicking. Also, the two-seater doesn't offer a lot of space for, well, stuff: a small centre console and tiny storage bins mean you'll have to use the boot, which itself isn't all that large. At 100L, it will hold a couple overnight bags at best; forget about the golf clubs.

But, no matter in a car like this. As pleasing the Spyder is to look at, it's just as satisfying to drive. Of course, it has Audi's quattro all-wheel drive, which is biased at a 43:57 front-to-rear ratio, helping the car stick to the road in the twisties. There is a choice of suspensions: surprisingly, the stock setup uses adjustable magnetic dampers that adapt to the road and your driving conditions, while an optional suspension is a conventional, non-adjustable setup biased more for sport. While the magnetic ride does offer a soft ride in everyday use, it firms up solidly when needed in spirited driving, either automatically sensing when to do it or with the driver manually choosing the sport setting. I prefered the conventional sport suspension, which was noticeably firmer and offered just a tad more confidence in quick cornering. But though you could feel much more of the road, bumps and such were never jarring; just more noticeable.

Regardless of which suspension is used, though, the R8 Spyder hugs the road just about as well as any car out there today. Just point the steering wheel, and the car goes with almost no body roll or other unnerving actions. And the road feel through the wheel and body is exemplary. My R8 was also kitted with the optional ceramic brakes, which I realised the first time I touched the pedal to slow in town and nearly had the seat belt gouge deep into my shoulder from the force. The performance of this setup is just incredible, but it takes some getting used to if you're getting into the R8 from a car with normal brakes. All it takes is a light touch, and at higher speeds the stopping force more than matches the power of the engine.

Ah, the engine. The powerplant that sits behind the passengers is just glorious. With direct fuel injection and a race car-derived dry sump oil system, the 5.2L V10 puts out 525hp at 8,000 rpm and 530Nm of torque at 6,500 rpm. While having impressive performance numbers, the rpm needed to reach the V10's potential seem high. Normally, in a lesser engine, this would be an impediment, as it would mean you'd have to thrash the engine to get any kind of decent performance. But it actually works to this car's advantage: there's plenty of power driving at lower speeds, but it doesn't act like a bucking, high-strung horse champing at the bit; it's very composed.

But when you really want to giddy-up, the V10, with pistons smaller and lighter than a comparable V8, fires to life in an instant, and you open the gate for a true thoroughbred. Need proof? How about a Zero-to-100kph time of 4.1 seconds. And, the sound. Oh, the sound. Again, it's composed at lower speeds but grows to a threatening scream under throttle. At one point, as I sat alone in a car park, I just kept revving the engine: with each jab of the throttle, there was a split second where the engine made a sucking sound as it gulped air into its cylinders, then it exploded with that deep, melodious tone that rose to a furious crescendo. Yes, I felt like a bit of a moron revving a supercar, but I was doing it for my job. Really.

We had an opportunity to test both gearboxes the R8s are offered with: a six-speed manual and a seven-speed, single-clutch, sequential manual with paddle shifters, and the difference is enormous. I would unequivocally endorse the manual gearbox over the sequential shift in this case. The beautiful, classic gated aluminum shifter is worth it alone, but the six-speed also worked flawlessly; the clutch was perfectly weighted and it was an absolute joy to row through the gears, especially with such power.

The sequential box, on the other hand, was too rough in its shifts, either in automatic mode or manual. Under heavy throttle especially, changing gears snapped your head back and forth. So why didn't Audi use one of its newer and magnificent dual-clutch gearboxes, which are smoother and quicker shifting than the single-clutch unit? The reason is packaging: the company's dual-clutch boxes are designed for front-engine cars, and there simply wasn't room in the configuration of this mid-engined roadster. But, when pressed, Audi engineers insist they are working on a solution for the near future. Let's hope so, because it's a glaring fault in an otherwise beautiful package.

Taking everything into account, the R8 Spyder is really one of the most enjoyable and satisfying cars of which I've ever been behind the wheel. Definitely one that's high on my Top 5 list - I'll take mine in the metallic brown with the sport suspension, manual gearbox and SPF 45, thank you. And, "boooo" to you who say a convertible isn't suited to the heat of the UAE. For the hot summer months, that's what the air conditioning is for. As for the rest of the year, I can't think of better top-down weather than what we find here.

The Audi R8 Spyder is on sale in Europe starting at ?156,400 (Dh774,140). It will arrive in the UAE near the end of the year, but no price has yet been set. nvorano@thenational.ae