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Audi's 2014 R8 lineup gets a refresh

To look at the unique proportions of the Audi R8 -- wedge-shaped nose, short hood, large greenhouse -- it’s easy to forget this all-wheel-drive sports car has been with us since 2007.

Cruise down the street in this mid-engined stunner, and its unmistakable facade looks like a movie prop stolen from a film set.

(Actually the car does have an enviable IMDB resume, showing up in concept form in the 2004 film "I, Robot," and serving as Tony Stark’s ride of choice in the "Iron Man" trilogy.)

But despite being on the market for six years, the various iterations of this car -- V-8, V-10, coupe,  spyder -- have sold only a modest 4,863 copies in the U.S. through April 2013, according to Audi.

This seems low when you consider the R8’s supercar looks and performance come at a relatively affordable price tag. A base R8 V-8 starts at $118,250 with a manual transmission and you have to work hard on the option list to hit the $200,000 mark for a loaded 550-horsepower V-10 model.

So Audi is looking to juice its sales numbers by refreshing the lineup for 2014, tossing in a breathtakingly quick new transmission option and making available an all-new V-10 Plus version.

The result is an even more desirable car that hasn’t even begun to show its age.

Audi wisely kept the exterior upgrades on all 2014 models to a minimum, swapping in revised LED headlights and taillights, updated bumpers and two round exhaust pipes in the rear.

The interior is also much the same, with slightly larger shift paddles on cars with the optional transmission, a thicker steering wheel, and more leather and aluminum trim.

The biggest upgrade is the new optional transmission. Previously, buyers could opt for a single-clutch automated transmission that impressed precisely no one with its speed or smoothness.

But with the 2014 model year, Audi finally made available its dual-clutch S-Tronic transmission as a $9,100 option on the R8. The base six-speed manual is still available on all R8’s, meaning the R8 is one of the rare supercars still available with a DIY transmission. All versions have Audi’s quattro all-wheel-drive system.

We recently logged some seat time in a quartet of R8 models, from a base V-8 coupe with a manual transmission, to the new V-10 Plus coupe. What’s notable about all of these cars is how approachable they are for daily use.

Many supercars treat a comfortable ride or proper visibility as collateral damage for aesthetics and speed. Not the R8. From behind the wheel, it’s easy to forget that you’re piloting a crowd-drawing machine capable of very high speeds.

Let’s take a quick look at each:

R8 V-8 Coupe with manual transmission: $133,900

This car, the darling of the R8 lineup, is the lightest and most nimble of everything offered. Thus, it was right at home in the tight passes in the hills of Malibu.

The mid-engine placement, low center of gravity and all-wheel-drive conspire to give the car a death grip on the road. This lends a sense of near invincibility as you search for this car’s limits; it is very easy to look like a pro behind the wheel of an R8.

Though the optional S-Tronic gearbox is undeniably quicker, this manual is an impressive setup. The clutch and the shifter were also easy to live with, as they were forgiving enough to manage in traffic yet capable of breathy performance under full throttle.

There’s also something resolutely satisfying about the soft metal-on-metal sound as you're hustling the manual shifter around the metal gates.

Other than the slower response, the only downside to the manual choice is that an already tight footwell gets even more cramped when you’re working with three pedals.

Mechanically, the base V-8 remains the same. It still uses a 4.2-liter engine to make 430 horsepower and 316 pound-feet of torque. In this manual configuration, Audi says it will do zero to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds, on its way to a 188 mph top speed.

If it weren’t for the V-10 model, this eight-cylinder powerplant would feel like all you need for this car. Though the engine could use more low-end torque, its comfort sitting at the high end of its rpm range means this is a rev-happy experience.

This model is also a bit of a bargain, with a starting price of $118,250, including destination and a $3,000 gas guzzler tax. Considering that for that money you’re getting a 430 horsepower, all-wheel drive car that looks like it should cost well into the $200,000 range, suddenly the asking fee doesn’t seem so high.

Our tester added options that included a full leather interior, navigation system and parking sensors for its $133,900 total.

R8 V-8 Spyder with S-Tronic: $155,050

As gratifying as the manual transmission is, it’s hard to pass up the immense advantage this new transmission gives you as a driver. The switch from the outgoing automated single-clutch to this dual clutch is transformative.

Gear changes are instant, whether you choose them with the (still too small) shift paddles or the computer chooses them for you. Put the car in Sport mode, and the car will hold the gear until the engine is shouting at its  8,250 RPM redline (8,700 on the V-8).

After spending nearly a week with this transmission, the only question was what took so long? Audi said this gearbox wasn’t available in time to launch the original version of the R8 because designing a dual-clutch setup that would fit in the small space behind the mid-mounted engine was tricky.

Otherwise, this version was notable for its weight difference versus the manual coupe. By adding on the power-folding softtop and the heavier transmission, this convertible weighs about 200 pounds more than the first car.

This means this car weighed nearly 3,800 pounds -- not a lightweight but still very capable of thrills with the top down. This model’s zero-60 mph time is the same as the manual coupe’s --- 4.4 seconds.

This model starts at $140,050 with the optional transmission. Our tester added the bright orange paint, a full leather package, navigation, Bang and Olufson sound system, and other goodies for the $155,050 total price. 

Audi R8 V-10 Spyder S-Tronic: $184,350

Despite being visually identical to its lesser V-8 brother, the driving experience in the V-10 model is surprisingly different. Compared with the more subdued V-8, the V-10 is noticeably heavier, yet simultaneously more manic and high-strung.

Peak horsepower comes at 8,000 rpm, just 700 shy of its redline. Meanwhile, this particular model is the heaviest of any R8 configuration, weighing in at 3,957 pounds.

This means that even though the V-8 is easy to keep in line when you (or it) are at the limits, you can’t let the all-wheel-drive or road-hugging ethos of the V-10 lure you into forgetting that this is a 525-horsepower car.

Driven hard, this car demands all of your attention in a way that the V-8 doesn’t. In many ways, this version feels like its loud, Italian cousin -- the Lamborghini Gallardo -- went to finishing school and learned some manners.

Despite its hefty weight, the V-10 Spyder is still plenty quick. This particular variant will do zero to 60 mph in 3.6 seconds, while top speed is 193 mph. This speed comes courtesy of a 5.2-liter V-10 engine that makes the 525 horsepower and 391 pound-feet of torque.

The V-10 Spyder starts at $175,750 including the gas guzzler tax and the destination. Our tester added  beautiful dark blue paint and a full Napa leather interior for a total of $184,350.

Audi R8 V-10 Plus coupe S-Tronic: $191,445

New for the 2014 model year, the Plus is the grand pooh-bah of the R8 lineup by adding power and subtracting weight.

This model takes the V-10 coupe (no convertible is offered) and sheds about 130 pounds. It does this by including carbon ceramic brakes, a smaller fuel tank, less sound deadening in the engine bay, a smaller fuel tank, and carbon fiber in the front splitter below the bumper, the rear diffuser and spoiler. This car also jettisons the adaptive magnetic ride suspension found on lesser V-10s.

The Plus also boosts the horsepower to 550 and the torque to 398 pound-feet. This means that with the dual-clutch transmission, this is the fastest R8 available, hitting 60 mph in 3.3 seconds and a top speed of 197 mph.

Despite its speed-oriented build, this R8 feels as amenable to daily driving as the others, save for the carbon ceramic brakes that get touchy when cold. The sound deadening isn’t missed at all -- the better to drink in the wonderful sound of the V-10.

Neither is the adaptive suspension. Yes, the ride is a bit bouncy on L.A.’s all-too-neglected freeways, but it’s never harsh or uncomfortable.

Meanwhile, the weight reduction keeps the car feeling a bit more snappy in eager driving, like a more concentrated version of everything that makes this car great.

Visually, in addition to the extra carbon fiber trim pieces, there’s little to tell others you opted for the Plus model; the trim above the rear bumper and on the front grille is now painted a titanium color. That’s about it.

The V-10 Plus starts at $182,595 for the S-Tronic model, which is nearly $20,000 more than the V-10 Coupe with the same transmission.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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