Wheels

lance busy

By: Lance Branquinho 2011-08-01 22:02
How do you ruin a world class supercar? Interesting question, isn’t it?

Well, it’s quite simple really: you replace its fixed aluminium roof with a retractable piece of canvas.

What you end up with is the drop-top supercar, which has for decades been a toy of choice for the notorious, famous and filthy rich.

It has, with some justification too, always been seen as a rather cynical triumph of marketing over engineering – the narcissism of customers being prioritised to the detriment of driving purity and design principles.

REAL SUPERCARS HAVE ROOFS?

A conundrum then: allocating all those engineering and design resources to a project eventually set for ruin, by virtue of it catering for the open-air motoring fantasies of customers who prefer eliciting sidewalk café catcalls to edging a wheel across circuit’s clipping points.

Fundamentally, the issue at hand is a simple one: torsional rigidity. It’s an engineering term that has fluently found its way into the mainstream motoring enthusiasts’ vocabulary without anybody actually understanding what it means.

Supercars, by the sheer design complexity (and exotic nature of the materials) involved in their construction have (extremely) robust levels of torsional rigidity. Essentially, even when suspension components transfer high levels of lateral force onto (or across) the car’s structure (thanks to acute mechanical grip provided by high-performance tyres, a wide track and low centre of gravity) there is negligible flex; guaranteeing accurate steering feedback and the most rewarding driving experience available.

With convertibles, removing the roof leaves a gap at the top of the structure - with inevitable consequences. Is it really that bad though? In an entry level A5 2.0T, not really. In Audi’s 386kW R8 V10, well, that’s what I spent some wheeltime finding out.

R8 LOOKS (EVEN) BETTER AS A SPYDER

Convertibles may inhibit the structural integrity of a supercar, but the canvas roof option (when retracted), more often than not improves the visual theatrics which form such an integral part of the supercar ownership experience and appeal. Let’s not be coy, most supercar customers can barely drive with the same level of skill as a clubmans racer, these cars are mostly purchased for their sheer presence (indulgence), not the driving experience.

In the case of Audi’s R8, already a (tremendously) striking piece of rolling sculpture in hardtop form, the soft-top version accentuates the design’s classic mid-engined proportions perfectly. Adding a set of louvers running lengthwise to the aft deck area elevates the R8 Spyder’s rear three-quarter view to automotive architecture of the most desirable kind. The Spyder simply looks sensational with its canvas roof retracted.

As most supercar pundits will tell you, Audi’s R8 shares a design family tree with the world’s most recognisable mid-engined supercar brand, Lamborghini; a nameplate with an enviable number of supercar classics in its portfolio. Unsurprisingly then, with the R8 drawing inspiration from the current baby Lamborghini (Gallardo) its squat dimensions appear even more dramatic when reconfigured in al fresco format. Even the most pedantic and biased Audi critic will find it nearly impossible to hinge any point of disapproval regarding either the R8 Spyder’s proportions or its detailing. It blends German line work precision (and neatness) with dramatic Italian proportions and comes off as being a better looking, more contemporary incarnation of the Gallardo – all the style without the outlandish excess or mad orange and yellow colour options.

Inside R8 Spyder is a mirror experience of its hardtop sibling. Being an Audi its cabin design features a pleasing flow of shapes and those ergonomic ratios are perfect, with switchgear falling intuitively to hand. There are two points of criticism though. Firstly, considering its sophistication the use of a girdle operated parking brake is slightly anarchic and an unsightly presence in the cabin, ruining what would otherwise be a smartly flush-surfaced centre-console. Secondly, to equip the cabin with contrasting composite surfaces (in standard trim it looks too conventionally Audi luxury sedan, and too little like a supercar cabin) is not cheap – the carbon inlay package is a not at all insignificant R22 000 option.

CLEVER FEATURES...

Differentiating the R8 Spyder’s interior from its hardtop sibling are two rather neat details. The seats are upholstered in a high-tech fabric reflecting (instead of absorbing) infrared solar radiation. Gimmicky? Not quite. If you leave the Spyder posing with its roof retracted, you won’t embarrassingly burn your (or a pretty passenger’s) thighs when you get back in to drive off, as the advanced hybrid leather trim is able to cool the seat surface by as much as 68 degrees. Clever. Then again, should you really be driving the R8 Spyder in shorts? Probably not.

R8 Spyder’s other notable cabin upgrade is the presence of a microphone in the seatbelt to operate your mobile phone’s Bluetooth capability. A nice feature in theory, but, who is going to take a call from anybody when there is a 5.2-litre V10 engine to be taken advantage of? Having a conversation via the seatbelt microphone feature should, I suspect, prove rather problematic for potential R8 Spyder owners. “Yes, I  would indeed prefer the mushroom coloured tiles for the Zimbali home’s new…just hang on, I need to downshift for this second gear corner…(appropriate wailing V10 crescendo, dual-throttle blip follows)…hello? Are you still there?” Not really going to work, now is it?

I really have no hope for the seatbelt microphone justifying its purpose, considering the speeds R8 Spyder is capable of and the irresistible urge that overcomes one to extend this V10 Audi at each and every opportunity. Those who pointlessly bide their time seeking weaknesses in the engineering heritage of Audi’s R8 will immediately have you know that its 5.2-litre V10 is in fact a weakened Lamborghini Gallardo engine, down by nearly 34kW. Even more interesting, and providing additional hallow-point ammunition for R8 V10 detractors, is this particular engine’s internal architecture, featuring an undersquare balance of dimensions, with those ten cylinders resting in 84.5mm of bore whilst stroking 92.8mm.

Conventional mechanical engineering wisdom dictates that a ‘long-stroke’ engine should never be as responsive to throttle inputs - or spin with the required urgency - required in a high-performance application such as a supercar, which is what the Audi’s R8 V10 espouses to be. Audi though, has this peculiar a way proving the traditional methodology wrong.

In practise the R8 V10 Spyder feels supercar quick with all the vertigo inducing urgency it should. Statistically it’s fractionally slower than Gallardo soft-top, but we are talking negligible numbers here – 3.2 seconds versus 3.7...
At low speeds, despite the long-stroke engine block dimensions and Audi’s trick camshaft phasing, there is a slight lull before the tachometer needle passes the 4 000rpm mark and sets the R8 about its way with shattering pace. In a world of low-revving forced induction performance car engines, sampling the R8’s traditional crankspeed hungry naturally-aspirated engine kinematics is a rare treat, one to be savoured.

BORDERLINE DEFECTIVE TRANSMISSION

Where the R8 does disappoint, and it’s curiously enough an entirely avoidable state of affairs if you are considering ownership, is its R-Tronic automated manual transmission – which our test car was equipped with. In every possible way it’s plainly terrible. Slower to shift (with the ratio swopping grace of a cement mixer) than a conventional planetary geared automatic transmission at commuting speeds, less tactile than a manual and all things considered, thoroughly bested by a modern dual-clutch transmission, the R-Tronic is an option box best left clear when ordering your R8 V10 Spyder.

Thanks to R-Tronic the R8 Spyder occasionally rolls on inclines at parking speeds. There is no rapport between driver and machine as to when it may actually take up a gear or not. Although Sport mode improves things (it comes into its own when operated with real zeal on the edge of the dynamic driving envelope), and I understand the engineering rationale behind it, it remains the R8’s (only) mechanical engineering mistake. The background? Well, Audi did not wish to equip its signature supercar with an automatic transmission because that would be like having to sit on your hands during a lap dance. Considering the number of R8s produced, and the expensive of developing a dual-clutch transmission tough enough to cope with the V10’s torque output, economies of scale guided the decision to an automated manual and truth to be told it’s too much of a compromise.

A final word on transmission choice? Just get the six-speed manual (with its classic Ferrari heritage chrome shift gate finish) and learn to apply proper clutch control so you don’t stall it like a fool in when pulling off at an incline location traffic light.

Despite the transmission being a driving experience debit, the rest of Audi’s open-top V10 rewards with a driving experience of superb engagement and benevolence.

ALL-WHEEL DRIVE, WITH A RWD TWIST

R8’s classic mid-engined supercar configuration ensures near pre-cognitive steering responses, without any of the throttle lift sensitive snap-oversteer foibles that traditionally afflicted mid-engined supercars a decade of few ago. Its stability, despite the engine being amidships, is of course thanks to the all-wheel drive traction security of Audi’s signature quattro all-wheel drive system. An electronic centre-differential lock keeps power delivery perfectly distributed without the wheel-scrubbing understeer that’s so often the bane of very powerful all-wheel drive cars.

Geared to shift 90% of available torque to the rear wheels exclusively, when required, R8 Spyder is capable of enacting as near to full-rear wheel drive as you’ll ever reasonably require, with all the razor-sharp turn-in characteristics associated with performance cars that have only a single differential, located in the rear. Our test car was equipped with Audi’s magnetic ride adaptive dampers (a R25 000 option in case you are wondering), enabling the R8 Spyder, despite its preciously low-profile rubber, to resolve a ride quality shaming most other supercars.

Featuring hydraulic - instead of electric – assistance, the R8 Spyder’s steering is light yet intuitive, reverberating with tactile feedback in a manner few contemporary performance car helms do. Considering its tiny dimensions (at only 4.4m bumper-to-bumper, it’s smaller than a Jetta, for example) placing this V10 supercar on the road accurately, even at vertigo inducing speeds, is never a nerve-flailing experience.

Critics, especially those who believe Audi’s R8 is a simply a lesser Gallardo clone, will no doubt point to the German car’s rather portly mass. Sure, at 1 725kg the R8 Spyder V10 is hardly an insubstantial car (Lamborghini’s Gallardo LP570-4 Spyder Performante is 140kg lighter), yet it’s worth remembering one is comparing low-slung supercars with an exceptionally low centre of gravity; the issue of a rolling mass centre-point is not as disruptive as would be the case in a four-door performance car. Succinctly, R8 Spyder’s dynamics are scintillating – and if you really wish to go LP570-4 hunting, there’s always Audi’s limited-edition R8 V10 GT models…

You would have to be desperately ambitious (or gloriously mad) before Audi’s R8 Spyder starts to misbehave on a public road. Even on circuit it’s a devastatingly accomplished car – neat, agile and fast enough to draw nothing but a veil of stunned silence from any occupant fortunate enough to be in the passenger seat.

A PROPER GERMAN SUPERCAR

Much of the R8 Spyder’s appeal is constituent of its engine. The curiously undersquare V10 is one of very few naturally-aspirated performance engines that remain in production. In an age where forced-induction has lowered peak power delivery to below a rather unremarkable 6 000rpm threshold, the R8 Spyder’s 8 400rpm rev-limit is an addictive indulgence. The R8 Spyder’s acoustic appeal is further enhanced by a very neat feature, activated by a switch located on the centre console, just behind the one that retracts the roof. Flip it and the tiny rear window drops, which, on a rainy day (or at night), when you are keen to listen the V10 signature soundtrack, provides kilometres of cheap low-speed entertainment in first and second gear.

At low (posing) speeds the R8 is disarmingly docile (if frustrating, in R-Tronic configuration) to drive. Navigate off major traffic routes onto a properly surfaced mountain pass and it’s as good a factor ten “anticipate-brake-turn-accelerate-repeat” supercar as one can buy. Crucially, you never feel it being in any way dynamically deprecated by having a canvas roof.

Porsche 911 Turbo S is a fine dynamic rival yet lacks the R8’s visual drama, whilst Mercedes-Benz’s SLS soft-top is still some months from reaching local dealers.  Between the VW Group brand siblings Audi’s R8 Spyder is clearly the less crass choice, without any of the embarrassing pseudo criminality that still haunts Lamborghini ownership.

More Stories in New models

«Back
Ad:Funeral Cover from R35/m