This is it, then. After more than 15 years of emphatically proving that the Porsche 911 isn’t the only way to do an everyday sports car, the Audi R8 is no more. The last one will probably be made about the same time as the final Jaguar F-Type, another car over the past decade that’s shown itself a more than worthy alternative. Both will join the Nissan GT-R in the history books, the R35's biggest claim to fame surely showing up the 911 Turbo for half the money; today’s awe-inspiring four-wheel-drive, four-wheel-steer, dual-clutch Porsches arguably wouldn’t be quite so formidable had the GT-R not returned.
Call this the retirement party for a couple of incredible sports car careers. For a while, it felt like the GT-R might just carry on indefinitely, fettled and fiddled with each model year to keep Nissan engineers from the drudgery of another SUV. Ultimately, though, it was noise regulations that killed it last year, which won’t come as much surprise looking at those four titanium bazookas out back. Probably good timing, anyway, given the GT-R's popularity had begun to wane and the price had soared. Last time we drove Oldzilla it felt like there might be one final flourish - now we know there won’t be. The least we could do after all these years of notoriety is sign it off properly.
The R8 has evolved far more than the venerable R35 since the late 2000s; from a Carrera-rivalling manual sports car with an RS4 engine all the way to a brother-from-another-mother Lamborghini supercar sibling, it’s hard to imagine an Audi lineup without an 8,500rpm R8 of some kind in it. While some bemoaned the demise of the V8, manual gearbox and hydraulic steering in the second generation, it was always hard to argue with a V10 unleashed to more than 600hp, a suave new look and a whole host of exciting tech. As was the case with the 2007 original, the 2016 R8 was exactly the kind of mid-engined halo Audi needed at the time. And let’s not forget this was the generation that provided us with a rear-wheel drive, mid-engined, V10-engined Audi. At the time it seemed bold, and with the last ones now being assembled it’s still bafflingly brilliant; give it a decade and the fact will seem unbelievable.
It’s from those RWS and RWD models that there’s now the GT. Having driven the car on the international launch last year, we won’t dwell on the details, but suffice it to say this R8 won’t be mistaken for any other. There’s the obvious stuff, of course, like the swan-neck wing, dive planes and diffuser, but some encouragingly subtle details as well, like the way it sits a tad lower than standard on forged wheels. The stance confers as much intent (complete with giant brake discs plain to see) as the carbon fibre. And if none of that does the trick, the GT starts with an almighty kaboom of V10 drawl that no standard R8 has yet achieved. Did well to get around those noise regs, surely.
If a familiar trope by now, we’re going to miss these engines so much. They’re both wonderful in their own individual ways: the 5.2-litre V10 a wrecking ball of high-rev energy, big cube torque and wailing sonics, while the VR38DETT V6 is still one of the most exciting turbos out there, its boost to be anticipated and embraced when it finally arrives. That nasal six-cylinder bark can’t fail to conjure up fond memories of games and films, either.
An electric GT-R, perhaps like the one previewed at Tokyo recently, would inevitably need to go without that unmistakeable soundtrack, though you wouldn’t put it past Nissan to conjure up some cool replacement. What it might gain, however, though the near limitless torque vectoring possibilities of electrification, is hugely exciting; through what are now fairly conventional methods, Nissan demonstrated that weight and size needn’t be impediments to enormous fun. Indeed, it might be argued that a GT-R wouldn’t be as entertaining if its dimensions more accurately correlated to the experience on offer. There is still nothing to rival the thrill of a GT-R, the way it so aggressively divvies up power seemingly for the most excitement possible. No other four-wheel drive car feels so desperate to power out from the rear than this, though there’s always some drive going forward to help haul you out. Here’s proof that 4WD - really quite old 4WD these days - doesn’t need a drift mode to be totally absorbing on a greasy road. Any road, really. The GT-R is agile, fearsomely capable, occasionally a tad unpredictable and completely unforgettable. Imagine what might be possible with individual motors for each wheel.
There’s a proper character to the experience as well, from a set-up that’s still pretty uncompromising (Comfort suspension goes on after the start button), the endless chuntering and thumping of the drivetrain, and genuinely lovely steering; there’s detail and delicacy to the Alcantara wheel that confounds so much of the GT-R’s stocky, burly appearance. For a car with a reputation forged on lap times and huge performance, there’s considerable joy to derive just taking in everything about this weird and wonderful car at sane speeds. Then just standing on the immense brakes for fun.
The R8 steers better than ever, too; presumably learning lessons from the RS4 Competition, it ditches the variable ratio rack for a fixed one. Alongside what must be lower unsprung mass, the front end is a lot easier to place confidence in than before - not least because the steering is so much more communicative. Still not up there with the very best, perhaps, but an improvement. Same with the ceramic brakes; the pedal feel is a little abrupt (between it and the overly long Nissan’s would be ideal), but this stops even more fiercely than it goes.
Perhaps unsurprisingly (we're hardly comparing apples with apples here) there’s a more traditional supercar feel to the R8 than the lofty old GT-R. You’re sat lower (though the seat lacks a bit of support), skimming across the surface as the Nissan attempts (with limited success) to pummel it into submission. Even on a new passive setup for this model, the Audi is much calmer and more structurally sophisticated in its ability to absorb the worst a road can throw at it than a bucking GT-R that’d rather be at Fuji. The R8 isn’t quite perfect, feeling like it’s maybe a tad too stiffly compressing and rebounding at low speed - and itself keen for big track kerbs rather than rutted tarmac - but it does make a better fist of a B road.
Then there’s Performance mode. For both of these cars, you’ll want an optimum configuration for an optimum experience. In the GT-R the muscle memory comes back soon enough: up on the left toggle for R powertrain, down on the middle one for comfort suspension, up on the right one to loosen the reins of the ESC. Then commence brain melting. In the GT, all that’s needed is the chequered flag on the steering wheel - press it and you have the best R8 of this generation at its most enthralling. Twist the knurled button and a whole new world of Torque Rear possibilities is revealed, though that didn’t feel entirely appropriate at the end of November in number 332 of 333 ever to be made. Nevertheless, Performance brings the Audi to life, the newly revised gearbox flashing through upshifts and ramping up the drama with more revs than is really necessary. The sound is divine. A mid-way ESC setting, plus that additional faith in both axles, makes it only too easy (and enjoyable) to exploit a sublime engine and approachable chassis balance. After so many years the R8 doesn’t especially feel like a big car, and it isn’t long before you’re revelling in the experience like a slightly bigger V10 Cayman. It’s every bit as joyous as that sounds.
And here’s the thing: for all the aero bits and racy seats and sportscar racing heritage, the R8 GT doesn’t feel that hardcore. Which is an observation, not a criticism. It goes without any four-wheel steer flightiness, or pared-to-the-bone weight saving; the tyres on this one were a regular Michelin Pilot Sport 4S. Front 245s and rear 305s are not going to raise any eyebrows these days. Some might say it’s a missed opportunity not to send off the R8 in a blaze of V10 glory; given the project remit was to make the car fun, however - an objective that’s been comprehensively nailed - it’s pretty hard to argue. For use at road speeds, despite appearances, the R8 is fantastic. No doubt it’d be pretty special on a circuit with some sticky tyres, too. For something more track-focused than this, you'll need to speak to Abt. But for most people, this feels a perfectly struck compromise: just as at home on the road as any other R8, while always more enjoyable to be behind the wheel of. With reduced mode anxiety thanks to the steering and suspension tweaks. And plenty, plenty more in reserve.
An afternoon spent with both is nowhere near enough to learn everything you’d want to know - and that's a compliment: it's what makes both the NISMO and GT such absorbing company. The Audi in particular - some R8s of this era have felt curiously normal for 200mph V10s, a bit aloof and almost anodyne given the engineering. Probably it was intentional given Audi's penchant for making performance cars that seem impossibly forgiving to drive; the step up from senior-grade TT to R8 being no more bothersome to negotiate than a dropped kerb. But no longer - this is a mid-engined Audi supercar that well earns a deeper, longer-lasting infatuation, without threatening to overwhelm you. Even the earlier RWD didn’t capture the imagination like this.
In contrast, perhaps the NISMO feels more hobbled by a track-ready set-up, though it too remains challenging and captivating in the most adorable way. When steering angle and boost and corner arc come together perfectly, there’s still not a more exciting car to be in; a gear too high and it’ll trundle around lethargically. There must be more to learn with brakes and weight transfer, plus all sorts of potential with more heat in the Dunlop SP SPORT MAXX GT600 DSST (real name) tyres. Even after all these years, the GT-R still presents like a giant, crotchety canvas - it is up to you to figure out how you get the best from it. Which is part of what makes it an enthusiast favourite, even a millennia from its launch.
Indeed, it's hard now to recall a time when its tech-fest way of doing things was considered a death knell for driver involvement. Or whatever the 2009 headlines said. Sounds a bit like the scaremongering around an all-electric future now, in fact. Nissan proved that large, heavy, automatic, turbocharged, four-wheel drive performance cars can excite and engage like the best - making an EV achieve the same should be a cinch.
Similarly, nobody at the time could believe that Audi would seriously challenge Porsche when it came to high-grade sports cars, only for the original R8 to confound all possible expectations. Now we’re here at the end of the second gen’s time bemoaning the demise of a supercar great that’s better to drive than ever, forged wheels, ceramic brakes, drift assistant and all. The object lesson, if we're inclined to learn one, is surely that hastiness is best avoided when considering the future of fast cars. Both R8 and GT-R, admittedly in high-priced, run-out format, depart the global stage as performance icons that will live long in the memory. If the people responsible for helping to make them that way are involved with whatever comes next, engine or not, we ought to consider ourselves in good and capable hands.
SPECIFICATION | 2022 AUDI R8 V10 GT RWD
Engine: 5,204cc, V10, naturally aspirated
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch auto, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 620@8,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 417@6,400-7,000rpm
0-62mph: 3.4 seconds
Top speed: 199mph
MPG: 18.8 (WLTP)
CO2: 340g/km (WLTP)
SPECIFICATION | 2020 NISSAN GT-R NISMO (R35)
Engine: 3799cc, V6, twin-turbo
Transmission: Six-speed dual-clutch, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 600@6,800rpm
Torque (lb ft): 481@3,600-5,800rpm
0-62mph: 2.8 secs
Top speed: 196mph
Kerb weight: 1,703kg
MPG: 20.2 (standard GT-R)
CO2: 316g/km (standard GT-R)
Price: £180,095 (no longer on sale)
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