Not long ago we’d have this innate reflex to sneer at the sight or even mention of topless versions of high-performance automobiles. The argument being that hacking off the roof causes all sorts of havoc with vehicle dynamics through a structurally compromised chassis.
With its R8 Spyder 5.2, Audi offers a different point of view. You have to drive the car, says Audi product specialist Chaz Murphy, pausing for effect. It can’t be put into words. You have. To drive. The car.
A dramatic delivery, sure, but it turns out he’s right. Because the R8 Spyder isn’t solely about performance, although it’ll perform at probably 95 percent of its coupe counterpart’s capacity. The point here is more sensory immersion.
We might have laughed at something like that long ago, but we’ve already driven other convertibles that have challenged the traditional perception in similar waysGallardo Spyder, Boxster Spyder, Maserati GranCabrio. Convertibles ain’t what they used to be, and that’s a good thing.
Maybe no other geographical location offers a better convertible experience than a sunny Southern California day on the coast. That’s where we climb into the 525-horse, V10-driven Spyder 5.2, drop the top, and hit the pavement.
The engine note was a talking point at the launch event, and in Audi’s view, it’s the main reason you want the top down. The point was well takenat full throttle this thing sings like a Germanic thunder god belting out war hymns as he casts flaming hammers from the sky. Normally a V10 would produce a tighter, much more mechanical sound, but this one has been tuned to have pipes. It growls at low revs, roars as revs climb. And with peak power occurring at 8000 rpm, you’re well encouraged to plumb the accelerator pedal to its depths and explore the upper ranges of the engine’s voice.
The Spyder weighs about 200 pounds more than the coupe. You might have expected it to be a lot more, but advanced use of the aluminum Audi Space Frame has honed the topless chassis while keeping the necessary rigidity to put the convertible R8 on a close level with the fixed-roof version. Even with its extra weight, the Spyder 5.2 will still run to 60 mph in about four seconds flat, and all the way up to a 194-mph top speed whether the top’s up or down.
You can opt for a six-speed manual or a six-speed R tronic automated manual. We’ll invariably choose the stick because it always ups the entertainment factor as you clang the shift lever around the naked shifter gate and attempt to match revs on downshifts. Rowing through your own gears has hardly ever been more entertaining.
Audi’s signature Quattro all-wheel-drive system is standard, driving power through all four wheels. The R8’s system is much more biased to the rear than the system in a typical front-biased Quattro Audi would be, with 80 percent of torque output going to the rear axle, although up to 30 percent can be directed to the front if the electronics deem it necessary. Therefore, the R8’s drive system allows a greater degree of lateral slip during spirited driving, which can be further exaggerated by pressing the Sport button.
Even so, unless you’re being a total meathead, the slip in most cases feels a lot more dramatic than it would look to an outside observer. Break the rears loose and it’s easy to catch and put back in line. But that’s the inherent beauty of Quattroincredible mechanical grip in nearly every situation. Break the R8 loose in a four-wheel drift and you’re a better man than me. Crazier, anyway.
If engine noise isn’t your thing, a 12-speaker Bang & Olufsen audio system also comes standard. We bet it sounds fantastic. But like the top, we never really used it during the drive, so it’s kind of hard to say.
Yes, the top. Audi engineers have proclaimed that the R8 coupe is so well sealed and insulated that the engine note is fairly muted, which we experienced with just a smidgen of disappointment during our first go in the original R8 4.2. Audi claims the Spyder’s convertible top has been designed to offer a nearly identical acoustic experience as you’d have driving the hardtopthat is to say, mostly silent. Again, hard to say; we put the top down and it never came back up again.
Yeah, that topyou probably aren’t going to need it unless it’s pouring rain. If it’s not, or you know, raining flaming hammers, the top needs to be down. Just an opinion. Because if the day is hot and the sun intense, the leather has been treated with special pigments that help cool its surface by upwards of 60 degrees, even in direct sunlight.
And if it is pouring rain and you’re forced to go top-up, there’s a power rear window integrated into the rear bulkhead that you can lower independently of the roof, so you can still hear the engine. We sort of liked that touch.
The tiny microphones embedded in the driver’s seat belt shoulder strap are also pretty neat. They’re intended to pick up your voice when using your Bluetooth-enabled mobile so you can have a clear conversationwith the top down, driving at speed. At 190 mph, say.
The only real downside we find with this car, and this complaint comes up a lot with day-to-day working stiffs like us, is the price. The R8 Spyder 5.2 starts at $161,000 with a manual, $168,000 if you want R tronic. But then again, compare it to a competitor within the Volkswagen Groupthe Lamborghini Gallardo Spyderand the R8 5.2 starts to look like a pretty good deal.
If you still aren’t convinced, then the Audi guys were right. You do need to drive the car to really get it.
2011 Audi R8 Spyder 5.2
Longitudinal mid engine, all-wheel drive
5.2-liter V10, dohc, 40-valve
Six-speed manual; optional
R tronic automated manual
Double triangular wishbones front and rear, Audi Magnetic Ride active damping
Eight-piston calipers (f), four-piston calipers (r), ventilated and perforated rotors, ESP; optional carbon-ceramic rotors
Length/Width/Height (in.): 174.6/75.0/48.0
Wheelbase: 104.3 in.
Curb Weight: 3,792 lb
Peak Power: 525 hp @ 8000 rpm
Peak Torque: 361 lb-ft @ 6000 rpm
0-62 mph: 4.1 sec.
Top Speed: 194 mph