2020 Audi R8 Performance Review: What Makes This Supercar the Best It’s Ever Been

One of our favorite songs remains the same

This review isn’t a First Drive of the 2020 Audi R8 Performance. Well, it is—but not really. You can best think of the following 2,000 words as a last drive of Audi’s mid-engine, naturally aspirated, everyday supercar. The thing is, Audi didn’t change a whole bunch about the updated R8 for the 2020 model year. Did the car need a reworking? I’ll answer that in a bit, but for now let’s pause and take a moment to think about a machine I’ve been driving for practically my entire career. Case in point, the first auto show I ever worked was when the R8 debuted. The original Acura NSX might have pioneered the notion of a daily-driven supercar, but it was the Audi Le Mans Quattro concept made of aluminum und steel flesh that perfected it. Word on the street is that this refresh is the final iteration of the V-10 Wundercoupé. Should a new R8 appear in five years, it certainly won’t be mid-engine—because it won’t have an engine! Today that possible future is neither here nor there (Audi’s being tight-lipped). The new R8 is, however—to needlessly quote the Talking Heads—same as it ever was. Which is good, because the 2020 Audi R8—to SoCal slang it up a bit—is as awesome as it’s ever been.

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What’s New?

Not much! The ABS and ESC have been reprogrammed, and the Dynamic Steering tune comes from the rear-wheel-drive 2018 R8 RWS (RWS stands for Rear Wheel Series). Oh, and the tires. The cars we drove—R8 Performance and R8 Spyder Performance—get Audi-specific Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires stamped with “AO” right on the sidewall (245/30/20 front, 305/30/20 rear). Should you live in a rain-free locale such as Los Angeles or Scottsdale, you can opt for harder core Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires. A $1,100 carbon-fiber front anti-roll bar is also available, but none of the six R8s Audi brought along had that option. In Europe, the lusty 5.2-liter screamer of a V-10 gets more power—612 horsepower instead of 602, and 428 lb-ft of torque instead of 413 lb-ft—but the American cars get a louder exhaust. I’ll run you through the performance numbers soon, but A) 10 extra horsepower means nothing; and B) trust me, you want more noise. The base car does get a power bump, going from 533 to 562 hp, and 398 lb-ft of torque to 406 lb-ft, but you’re not here to read about the base car.

As for the exterior, quite a bit has changed. Back in 2015 when this generation R8 launched (known internally as the Type 4S, as opposed to the previous, first-gen car which was billed the Type 42), I found the front end too plain for a world-beating supercar. To be blunter, it looked like an A3. Happy to report, it’s all fixed now. The changes are mostly subtle. The grille loses its chrome surround. There are three little vents above the grille—yet still below the cut line—that help break up the mass of the hood/frunk lid. The headlights are actually darker. Not the lights themselves (now with laser beams, they are brighter than ever), but the nacelles are blacked out. Most important to the new snout are the Lamborghini-esque Y-shaped cuts in the side intakes. They look the business. As Audi owns Lamborghini, all is prego.

The silhouette of the second-gen R8 still reminds me of the Type B Rekordwagen from the 1930s. Audi’s designers tweaked the side graphics a bit for 2020, but the coolest change is on the R8’s derrière. There’s this fantastically complex 3D strip of hexagons/honeycombs that’s intriguingly futuristic. There’s a reshaped diffuser, and the black oval pipes on the sport exhaust are bigger and, as mentioned, louder. Most of the cars spec’d out for the launch had blacked-out badges, an option I highly recommend. There are a few new colors, as well, and a gold-wheeled Decennium limited edition built to celebrate 10 years of the V-10. The interior gets two new colors and a wireless phone charger. That’s pretty much all that’s new.

Behind the Wheel

What’s the same is the driving experience of a steel fist in a soft leather glove. The new C8 Corvette might actually be a more usable daily driver of a mid-engine supercar, but just barely. Like the R8 has done from day one, this final iteration seamlessly blends a lovely version of what you spend 90 percent of your time doing with that 10 percent when you set your hair on fire and assault the roads you love. The R8 is still shockingly good at both. A McLaren 600LT, for instance, is wonderful in the canyons, but it’s not built to run down and grab a latte. It just isn’t. The Audi, on the other hand, really is. For some owners or potential owners, this matters a great deal. Especially if the R8 (or a Porsche 911 Turbo) is your main or only car. Own a few dozen cars? Buy the R8 and a Lamborghini Huracán Performante. Why not?

Scott Evans, Angus MacKenzie, and I used to waste hours talking about our never-formalized-in-any-way Engine Hall of Fame. The Chevy LS7 is in, as is the 6.5-liter Ferrari V-12 and the AMG SLS Black Series’ 6.2-liter V-8. There are others, and I’d like to get the word out that the Audi/Lambo 5.2-liter V-10 is super worthy of inclusion in our made-up museum. What a lovely lump of gasoline-chugging aggression. The revs, the power, the vibrations—I like everything about it. Especially the sound. I think the R8 Performance’s base price just under $200,000 is totally and completely justified by the ludicrous, glorious, furious sounds this engine makes. Yeah, the Lamborghini version of the V-10 now gets 28 more horsepower out of the same lump due mostly to a different exhaust. Doesn’t matter, really. As my two-year-old says when presented with very similar things, “Same same!”

The Performance of the Performance

I can’t imagine that the 2020 Audi R8’s updates translate to any meaningful improvement in terms of straight-line speed and/or handling, though perhaps the tires would add or drop a tenth here and there. The last R8 V-10 Plus we tested a 2017 model, hit 60 mph in 2.6 seconds and ran the quarter mile in 10.6 seconds at 130.3 mph. Let’s not forget that an R8 won our World’s Greatest Drag Race 6, beating cars like the McLaren 570S, Nissan GT-R, and Acura NSX. I also remember hitting 189 mph in that car. Because I ran out of road. Braking from 60 mph takes place in a very good but not great 102 feet, and the R8 handles the Figure Eight in a respectable but not elite 23.5 seconds. For those last two metrics, I feel a retest is in order, preferably on both types of tire.

Nobody’s Perfect

Like the engine, the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox is also carryover. I gotta tell ya, seems as if time has passed the transmission’s software programming by. The shift logic is no worse than before, but Porsche will never rest when it comes to PDK, Ferrari’s dual-clutch might just be even better, and the new Corvette’s eight-speed unit will be holding everyone’s feet to the fire. By comparison, the R8’s shifts seem long, almost languid. And it’s not the hardware; when you shift manually, it’s snick-snick quick. Plus, the Huracán Evo uses the same physical part, and that sucker mule-kicks. The solution is to simply drive around in manual mode, which isn’t a bad solution. I should add that when I say “drive around,” I mean when you’re hammering the R8 up around the limits of your/the car’s ability. For your daily drive, the transmission shifts just fine. Worlds better than the old R-Tronic single-clutch automated manual in the original car (a transmission that was ceremoniously dumped in favor of the current seven-speed S-Tronic halfway through Type 42’s life cycle). Yes, it would be killer if Audi offered that six-speed manual with the gated shifter from the first car. But it doesn’t. Maybe as a final edition model in a few years? All any manufacturer need do is look at the success of the GT3 Touring.

The R8’s handling remains stellar, with two caveats. As an increasing number of high-performance cars adopt active engine and transmission mounts, the ones that don’t feel conspicuously obvious. This V-10 sits on passive motor mounts and swings around back there. Imagine a large boulder packed tightly in an oil drum. That’s the sort of feeling. The biggish motor and transmission combo aren’t going anywhere, but you feel them shifting about as you turn the wheel. Has the car always done this? Probably. Now it’s just more noticeable because the R8’s competitors have stopped. Not a huge deal, and really a pea under a mattress type complaint, if it weren’t for the new tires.

There’s a level of squish present in the Michelins that simply wasn’t present in the pre-refresh car. The tire squish only affects the first few degrees of steering wheel angle. The issue is that, through almost every single corner, you wind up putting in a little more turn than you need to. As such, you need to slightly pull the wheel back in the other direction almost instantly, making the R8 difficult to drive smoothly. Couple that with the movement of the engine, and the helm is a bit busier than need be. Fatal? No, not at all. But both issues are present; however, I bet you the tire squish will be eliminated by opting for the Sport Cup 2 tires.

Here’s a problem that hasn’t been solved: Halfway through our drive, all the R8s pulled off the road, some friendly folks from the California Highway Patrol closed down a nice, straight section of road, and the 12 of us took turns running the quarter mile via the car’s ridiculously easy to use launch control. Fun? Hell, yeah. The thing is, there were three Coupes and three Spyders. Now, I’ve already explained how the sound of the mighty V-10 justifies every single thing about the R8, yeah? Well here’s something else to consider: The Spyder sounds about twice as good as the Coupe. There’s no sealed rear glass to eat the engine note. I’m talking from outside the car toward the rear, where a dozen car journos stood and watched the cars launch. It’s the Spyder, which costs $12,200 more, that sounds the best. The lousy part? Most people still can’t fit in it!

“I fit just fine,” a 6-foot-4 Audi product planner assured our table at the previous night’s dinner, after I asked if the R8 Spyder’s wheelbase had been lengthened. The convertible soft top eats up a crazy amount of cabin space. I’m 5-foot-11, and I’m at the outer limit of barely fitting. I remember talking with Jethro Bovingdon about the R8 Spyder, and he said the first time he sat in one he assumed the seat was broken. That’s how bad the lack of space is. It’s a damn shame, too, because what a fantastic machine the R8 Spyder is. Fast, fleet, gorgeous, practical, fun—if you’re short and rich, go for it!

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Finale

I’ll miss the Audi R8 when it’s gone. Yeah, Audi might keep the name around and cram batteries into the spot where that legend of a V-10 once sat, but you know this future R8 E-Tron won’t be the same. There are other supercars out there that land with more coveted badges, go a little quicker, and cost a lot more. I can’t think of any, however, that so skillfully combine the exotic with the everyday, the cool with the practical, the super with the car. I know the car world is changing fast and will be hardly be recognizable when the R8 as we know exits the scene around 2023. But what an exit. Talk about going out on top: The R8’s the best it’s ever been.

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