High-performance cars tend to have unique and easily identified styling. Fortunately in the case of the R8, unique and attractive go together, and since the luster hasn't worn off in the five years from its debut, the R8 doesn't change for 2011.
At the ends every R8 is similar. Three separate grilles on the front and more on the rear, gloss-black on V10, variously inhale and exhale cooling air. Bi-Xenon headlights are traced by LED running lights on the V8 while the V10 uses LED headlamps, some chrome details and slightly larger grilles with fewer slats. At the rear rectangular light inserts echo the Audi TT; twin tailpipes on either side identify a V8, a single oval on each side a V10. The GT version will get a big round barrel on each side, air extractors behind the rear wheels, a fixed rear wing, more aggressive diffuser and a wider, more contoured leading edge.
Aerodynamic function and engine placement define the basic bones of any mid-engine sports car. A low snout improves visibility and keeps the nose to the ground, and the creases above the front wheels keep air moving over the windshield and not spilling over the sides. At the tail end a pop-up spoiler automatically lifts at certain road speeds or if the engine needs maximum cooling; it can be done manually as well for cleaning. Look underneath and you'll find it almost totally flat like many race cars.
In profile the R8 coupe is dominated by what Audi calls a sideblade, that vertical slice of bodywork that runs from the roof to the bottom just ahead of the rear wheels. It can be ordered in a variety of finishes, including painted to match the rest of the car. All the scoops and vents are there for machinery cooling or propulsion, and on the V10 the sideblade scoop is larger. Both V8 and V10 come with 19-inch wheels, five twin-spoke on the V8 and five tri-y design on the V10.
The Spyder features a fabric folding top (two colors) with two buttresses over the engine cover. It can be opened or closed in about 20 seconds, and it can be done so at speeds up to 30 mph. The buttresses help direct air around the rear of the car but they don't actually sit on the paint and won't scratch it. The silver panels behind the headrests are engine bay cooling vents, replacing those that run down the roof pillars on the coupe. What the Spyder loses to the coupe is the clear engine cover that lets onlookers admire the beast within.
A Spyder has an electrically lifted rear window (with defrost) to limit some noise and buffeting, and a drop-in wind-blocker closer to the headrests for further reductions. We found with just the window it's possible to converse at legal speeds with the top down, and lowering the window with the top up adds engine intake sounds to the exhaust noise.
The coupe has a minor advantage in cargo space. Coupe and Spyder have a small 3.5-cubic-foot trunk up front, a compact but deep well that might hold your carry-on duffel or a half-case of wine. The coupe has another 3.1 cubic feet of storage space behind the front seats for soft-sided bags or a minimal golf bag. On the Spyder that space is consumed by the folding top.
For those accustomed to putting on their sports car rather than getting into it the first observation of most R8 occupants is it's surprisingly roomy and civilized. Yes it's low and a wide step in but it looks more conventional than the average exotic car, and downright familiar to any Audi driver.
Powered and heated sport seats provide plenty of comfort and rely partially on the encapsulating doors and console for lateral retention. They are not as confining as some sport seats that assume a 30-inch-or-smaller waist, and not as heavily bolstered and contoured as some Audi S or RS sedan seats. Not only do 6-foot, 4-inch adults fit inside, their feet fit in the footwells, a common pinch point in mid-engine cars.
With a range of power adjustment, a good dead pedal, and a manual tilt/telescoping steering column, it's easy to get a suitable driving position and good view of the instruments. Forward and rearward visibility are good, while rear quarter vision is better in the coupe with the small rear side windows and slightly compromised with the convertible top up.
The V8 cars come with leather-framed, alcantara-center upholstery; full leather of the V10 is available, and both cars can be enhanced further with leather for the dashboard and upper door panels. Spyders have specially treated leather to keep cooler than regular leather. Aluminum style cabin trim is standard; upgrades include carbon fiber and piano black, the latter high-gloss that suggests it might be a good idea to test drive in the sun top-down before ordering one that way. Audi's cabins are well-regarded and if there's a weak point in the R8's cabin it's the plastic console trim.
All the instruments, including oil temperature and electrical condition, are in a pod ahead of the driver with a glare-free covering. The steering wheel foregoes an excessively thick rim and has redundant-control thumbwheels and switches, but the flat-bottom shape is not ideal for urban driving or ribbons of mountain roadway that require more than a turn of the wheel. Flat-bottom steering wheels are better suited to formula cars. A proper handbrake is immediately right of the driver, much preferred over the electronic kind.
The manual shifter has a slotted metal gate like Ferraris of yore; R-Tronic cars use paddles on the wheel.
Stalks handle the usual wiper/signal/main beam/cruise chores. The navigation screen is easily seen in direct sunlight, with or without polarized lenses). The audio/navigation system is a standard Audi part and reasonably intuitive, and the climate controls are right out of the TT. Bluetooth and iPod integration are well thought out, detailed to the point the Spyder driver's seatbelt has three microphones in it for hands-free calling with the top down. Cabin storage space is moderate in the coupe, smaller in the Spyder.