To you and I, the R8 RWS is just another version of Audi's mid-engined supercar - RWS stands for Rear Wheel Series, which indicates the removal of the front driveshafts. This is the first rear-driven R8 and it'll be limited to 999 units worldwide, split across Coupe and Spyder body styles. The R8 range grows a little; life goes on.
But within the boardrooms and offices of Audi Sport, the R8 RWS must seem like an enormous gamble. In fact, we know it's an enormous gamble for Audi because it's taken the company twelve years to take it. For one thing, building a rear-wheel drive version of a halo model undermines the core brand value Audi has spent the last few decades cultivating. If we all drive the RWS and say it's more enjoyable than the existing R8, what on earth does that say about Quattro? It's like Tesla turning its back on batteries and electric motors altogether and fitting its next model with a stinking great V8 instead.
And for another, even more troubling thing, by producing this car Audi opens itself up to the most bruising head-to-head comparison of them all; the exact comparison we've chosen to make right here. It's an unspoken rule in the motoring world that you do not take on the
. Audi has just done exactly that. Make no mistake, then; this car is an almighty punt.
By unbolting the standard R8's four-wheel drive gubbins, Audi has removed 50kg. It couldn't trim that same amount out again if it ditched the powered leather seats in favour of two beanbags and replaced every square inch of glass with clingfilm. There's no dynamic steering and no adaptive damping, and the differential is a very unsophisticated mechanical LSD. The engine is the lesser of the two 5.2-litre normally aspirated V10s, but it's still good for 540hp and 398lb ft. All things considered, this is the R8 at its simplest and most uncluttered since the original was retired three years ago.
Invariably, it'll be the edgiest R8, too, the one that demands the most of its driver. In a bid to make the RWS anything other than a widow-maker for the modern era, though, Audi has tweaked the suspension geometry and fitted a stiffer front anti-roll bar. Rear-wheel drive makes the R8 a little more dangerous; dialling in a smidge more understeer makes it a bit safer again.
Overall, the changes add up to the sweetest and most enjoyable second-generation R8 so far. The steering is uncorrupted now, and although it's certainly not the last word in detail it is more natural and more faithful than any four-wheel drive R8's helm, particularly any one that's fitted with dynamic steering. The RWS is just a more pleasant and immersive thing to thread between the hedgerows, and there's a lightness and a newfound responsiveness to the front axle. The dampers, meanwhile, may be fixed rate, but they strike a good balance between bump absorption and body control.
You don't so much feel the extra push that's been dialled into the chassis as sense the front tyres just starting to scrub as you really stretch the R8 out. Nor has disconnecting the front axle turned the R8 into some murderous oversteer machine. There's so much inherent traction, even in the lower gears, that you're trying extremely hard to unstick the thing before it starts to slide.
What's been lost? Some outright cross-country pace, I'm sure, but only if you measure these things to the tenth of a second. And it probably is true that you would drive a four-wheel drive R8 a touch more boldly, flinging it into bends with more abandon, safe in the knowledge that you could dig yourself out of all manner of trouble just by hoofing it. But for every one of those brain-out drives across some windswept moor, there must be 99 when you have only the space or inclination to link two or three bends, or lean on it around a deserted roundabout, and it's in these short-lived but frequent moments that the RWS is a touch more engaging than any other current R8. Its steering is crisper; its chassis balance more delicate.
But we aren't here to compare the RWS to any other R8. At first you might say the Audi is every bit as thrilling as the 911 GT3, because it's just as fast and it makes its own ear-splitting soundtrack, but when you chop and change between the two and drive each car across the same stretch of road, the gulf between them begins to emerge.
The Audi does have the more fluid low speed ride, but at higher speeds that manifests as looser body control and slightly fluffier responses. The GT3 steers with more tactility, too, and its engine is more feral and intoxicating. For all that the RWS is the most rewarding model in the R8 range, it is made to feel rather half-hearted in the company of the 911 GT3. It's like jumping out of an aeroplane with an instructor strapped to your back compared to a solo jump.
What the R8 has on its side, though, is presence and theatre. It looks absurdly low and wide and the engine is in the middle and, look, you can see it through that glass panel! And the view from the cabin is pure supercar. A 911 GT3 is really just a 911 and you see them all the time. But all that stuff is fleeting, none of it matters beyond the first week of ownership. An extraordinary driving experience is more nourishing; much longer-lasting.
In all fairness to Audi Sport, though, it didn't set out to build a car as single-minded as a GT3. But if you introduce a sports car with a naturally aspirated engine that develops something like 500hp, then charge around £110,000 for it, you invite the comparison. You couldn't write a series of novels about an English super-spy who carries a Walther PPK and penetrates as many secret volcano lairs as knockout brunettes, then get all cross when someone mentions the B-word.
All of which leaves me feeling there's more to come. Well, the use of 'series' sort of implies as much, doesn't it? Perhaps, some day soon, Audi will drop the Plus engine - with its 610hp peak output, its 9000rpm redline, and its more ferocious power delivery - into this rear-driven chassis, and perhaps it'll fit more aggressive tyres than Pirelli P Zeroes, and maybe it'll sharpen up the car's responses. That really would give the brains at Weissach something to fret about.
|Audi R8 RWS - Specifications|
|Transmission||seven-speed twin-clutch automatic, rear-wheel drive|
|Torque (lb ft)||398@6,500rpm|
|Porsche 911 GT3 - Specifications|
|Transmission||seven-speed PDK automatic, rear-wheel drive|
|Torque (lb ft)||339@6,000rpm|