The brand that made its name with all-wheel drive cars could make its new name stand out at last by ditching it.
The rear-drive version of the R8 is a gem, an emotion-rich, lively bundle of raucous throttle response and agile handling. For anybody living in a sunny country, it loses nothing to the quattro versions and backs that up by costing less money. Anybody who loves driving will love this when it arrives in SA in the fourth quarter of 2018.
This is the car Audi’s quattro division changed its name to build. And everybody saw it coming. Stefan Winkelmann, the then Audi Sport boss, knew this playbook. He’d done the same thing to the Gallardo and then the Huracan when he was president of Lamborghini, after all, and the current R8 is effectively a Huracan underneath its skin.
So, it wasn’t too exacting a task in pure engineering terms, but the top end of Audi town took some convincing to dump the quattro GmbH tag its go-fast division was born with. Quattro had never built a rear-wheel drive car. It took less than a year after the name change before Audi Sport did one.
They’ll be dead chuffed they did, too. The R8 V10 RWS is a hoot. It’s everything the R8 wanted to be, but couldn’t quite push beyond its safety-first Audi roots to become.
It’s 50kg lighter, at 1,590kg, than the standard R8 V10 quattro, gained mostly by dumping the front driveshaft, differential and centre differential, but it gains in areas that go well beyond just weight. It has terrific steering feel, delivering both the major and the minor of the tyre talk that the stock R8 tends to mask as it papers over the quirks of mass and the torque.
It slides. A lot. It’s a willingly irresponsible stallion when you want it to be, but it’s controllable, too. Its mid-engined layout makes it difficult to string together three or four corners together in one gloriously sequenced drift, but it’s a far simpler task to hurl it around one corner on the throttle than most people would imagine.
And it does it all without a drift mode, leaving its slides only for those brave enough to switch off the skid-control and skilled enough to keep it together. There’s a softer option, which is to leave the ESP in its mid-level, where the car catches things that go too far, and the commuting option of full ESP, no-skid modes, but where’s the fun in that?
It feels a bit like the last days of disco, a leap in the flame before the arrival of turbo power in the next-generation R8. It uses its rear-wheel drive, a mechanical limited-slip differential in an era of electronically controlled drive splitters and that massive, high-revving atmo V10 to simplify an incredibly complicated car.
It’s incredibly gratifying close to and beyond its limits of grip, with its mid-engined layout meaning it doesn’t need an outrageous toss of the car to get it sliding and it can be gathered in or maintained with surprisingly relaxed arcs of opposite lock.
The sad part is that there will only be 999 of them, and that some of them will be wasted on the slightly slower Spyder version. Even sadder: all of them will use the exact same "1 of 999" badge on the passenger’s side of the dashboard.
The short version is that the rear-wheel series (RWS) is a more appealing car than any of the high-powered, limited-edition iterations of the R8’s history. It’s fun. Fun of a kind the stock R8 can’t give you, swathed as it is in all-wheel drive seriousness and an intentionally not-Lamborghini demeanour.
It doesn’t lack for power, with 397kW of it hitting at 7,800r/min, but it’s not the sort of power we’ve become used to in the turbo era. It’s a wonderfully old-school kind of engine rewarding old-school driving techniques of throttle control and anticipation.
There is "only" 540Nm of torque and it arrives at 6,500r/min (when most turbo motors hit hardest at least 4,000 revs sooner). But that (and the 12.4l/100km fuel consumption) are about the only downsides for anybody who loves driving.
Its power delivery is beautifully linear and its noise is gruff down low with a bone-wobbling bellow in the mid-range and a lion-scaring howl up high. And it has a different tone of voice for every single change in revs, no matter how insignificant. And it has induction noise, as its side-mounted air intakes gulp in everything it needs to keep its pistons flailing at 27m/second at the rev limiter.
It’s not shatteringly fast in the modern era, hitting 100km/h in 3.7 seconds (losing 0.3 seconds to the stock R8), but it stretches out to 320km/h, so that’s something fun.
And there’s no manual gearbox to make it even more entertaining, so you just find the fun in the paddle-shift seven-speed sequential transmission instead. It snaps its shifts up quickly and down noisily, crackling and burbling at a level that depends on the revs involved. More energy, more noise.
The core of the car is unchanged, with the same mostly aluminium spaceframe chassis and a hidden chunk of reinforcing carbon fibre panel across the rear bulkhead and the transmission tunnel.
It retains its double-wishbone suspension layout, but it only comes with fixed-rate springs and dampers — so none of the quattro’s preferred magnetic dampers — and it even keeps the same 245/35 R19 front and 295/35 R19 rear tyres.
The changes Audi Sport has made have been basically to keep a rein on its boyish enthusiasm for oversteer, with minor tweaks to the steering, firmer damper rates, a slightly stiffer front antiroll bar and more negative camber at the rear end.
It even keeps most of the quattro version’s options list, so you can slip 20-inch wheels on it, you can put a wing on it, fit laser headlights, dynamic indicator lights and a reversing camera. There is even an optional 13-speaker Bang and Olufsen sound system, though if the V10 isn’t music enough, you’re probably doing it wrong.
The thing is, the RWS doesn’t feel demonstrably rear-wheel drive until you ask it to. You could easily drive it every day, with the car waiting your instruction to turn from surprisingly comfortable cruiser to tyre-smoking monster.
It’s still a very stable car, like its four-paw sibling, easing over imperfections with grace and dignity, and with the steering, liberated of its torque-masking role, sending constant nibbles of information without ever becoming tiresome.
It’s a reminder that while the drive is all at the back, the impressive steps have all been made at the front, which turns with a crisp authority the quattro can’t copy. The detailed feedback is so good it reminds us of one other German sports car maker, living beneath the same Volkswagen Group umbrella.
That brand is, of course, Porsche, whose 911 GT3 will ultimately be close to the R8 V10 RWS on price and is the only other car we can think of in this category with a high-revving atmo engine.
And choosing between them would be an enviable dilemma.