x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Road Test: 2014 Audi R8

It's still just a hunch but I suspect that Audi is suffering from Italo-envy. This might sound ridiculous, but the evidence is starting to stack up.

The revised Audi R8 has the looks, the body and can go insanely fast, but lacks the passion of its Italian counterparts.
The revised Audi R8 has the looks, the body and can go insanely fast, but lacks the passion of its Italian counterparts.

It's still just a hunch but I suspect that Audi is suffering from Italo-envy. This might sound ridiculous, but the evidence is starting to stack up.

I am only talking about the R8 here - the rest of Audi's range is about as German as Bremen, bailouts and badische schupfnudeln. They are so far away from being Italian that there might as well be a whole nation in between - which is indeed the case, with Switzerland.

I began to consider this when an Audi official told the assembled journalists to expect an "emotional" time in the car. Emotional? Audi? That's like juxtaposing "Merkel" and "profligacy", whereas "exhilarating", "clinical" or "masterful" would be far more appropriate adjectives.

Emotion connotes cars from the Emiglia-Romana region, which dance to the sonic boom of the Ferraris, Maseratis and Paganis that hail from the area. Those are emotional vehicles, the way that an R8 is not.

But Audi's emotion man was a senior PR wonk, and these guys are trained always to be "on-brand" and never "off-message". There is no way this could have been a slip. It was all the more curious that he was saying this in Rimini, in eastern Italy, after we had driven the newly updated R8 around the local roads.

When a manufacturer plans a launch, it gives great thought to the location. So you must wonder if choosing a seemingly deserted Italian resort town in the middle of winter was a patently German attempt at Italianising a car.

But at the end of the day, why should all this matter?

The thing is, no matter how brilliant the R8 has been since it was launched, there has always been something missing. The looks are there, and so are the body and engine variants, with V8 and V10 powerplants and coupé and spyder options all on the list. It can go insanely fast and is among the best anywhere when it comes to challenging a road. It's plush and instills envy in others, and is still one of the most in-demand cars in the world.

But while it possesses bags of joie de vivre, it lacks fundamental passion. Coursing through its cylinders is technical perfection, not hot-blooded ardour. It does everything perfectly, but does so with relentless, machined brilliance. While it will set the road alight, it can never do so to the soul.

Some car buyers are Germanic in their outlook, and others are more Latin. While the former will crave an SLS, a Brabus, Alpina or R8, the rest can only countenance the fruits of Emiglia-Romana. Buying a car like the R8 is all about the feeling it instills, and it seems that Audi is looking to blend equal parts of both. Crossing over like this is quite a curious move.

This, we suspect, is why Audi is setting out to inject some Italian into its supercar. And if you consider that it has been more than six years since the R8 was first revealed, it could do with a freshener even though it is nowhere near creaking with age.

The latest edition doesn't have a great deal to mark it out from previous versions, although the tweaks it has received are decent enough. In the pursuit of weight loss, Audi's engineers have managed to shed between 75 and 105kg from its frame by using carbon fibre extensively and trimming the aluminium space frame. On top of the 4.2L V8 and 5.2L V10, producing 430 and 525hp respectively, along comes the V10 Plus that churns out an additional 25hp and a fraction more torque through some creative engine management software.

While the most eye-catching refreshment concerns the headlights, with waves of LED replacing the old running lights, and tail lights with sequentially radiating flashers, the most significant improvement is that a double-clutch S-Tronic transmission takes over from the unloved R-Tronic before it. With the ability to skip gears when needed, this one feature really does make a great deal of difference to exploring the powerband.

Other than that, there are no surprises, and this is essentially the same car that has always flattered weaker drivers by turning them into superstars. It is just as easy to drive in town as it is on the road, and it's a joy in tricky, windy and wet conditions. If there is one complaint - and this is often one levelled at Audi across its range - it is that the R8 V10 that I drove is too safe and cosseting, with the traction control system too ready to kick in at the expense of making the car sing. But, in spite of this, the R8 offers the same simple joy it always has, German or otherwise.

This Italian matter, though, is more complex, not least because Audi already owns Lamborghini. If Ingolstadt is looking to massage the R8's branding and inject the missing passion, it just won't work. Even though much of it is taken from Lamborghini, from the Gallardo's platform to the LP560-4-based 5.2L, Audi's four rings are at the very core of this car, and that's how it should remain.

It is horses for courses at the end of the day, and the R8's best course will always be the Nürburgring, not the Marco Simoncelli circuit.

Expect the new Audi R8 to appear here early next year. No price has yet been set.

The Specs

Base price: not available
Engine 5.2L V10
Gearbox Seven-speed DSG
Power 525hp @ 8,000rpm
Torque 530Nm @ 6,500rpm
Fuel economy, combined 12.4L/100km