There’s no two ways about it: we are in the presence of one of the greatest engines currently in production right now. The R8’s 5.2-litre V10 is available in two states of tune: 562bhp in the standard version, and 611bhp in the Performance version. Whichever you choose, the engine provides a fusion of noise and visceral performance that beats the immediate competition hands down – all apart from the Lamborghini Huracan, that is, which uses the same 5.2-litre engine.
Being naturally aspirated, the V10 rips through the rev range and responds immediately without the turbo lag you experience in most rivals. You do have to work the R8 harder to release all its performance – the real fireworks don’t start until you’re past 5000rpm – but that simply adds to its glorious appeal. If we’re being sensible, the 562bhp version is fast enough, but the added ferocity of the Performance version is exceedingly hard to resist.
But when you are more inclined towards a comfortable and quiet journey, the R8 can seamlessly switch to being a comfortable grand tourer. At a cruise, the V10’s snarl dies down to a mere purr and it pulls effortlessly from low revs. In manual mode, when you’re pushing on, the gearbox proves obedient and capable of lightning-fast shifts. However, leave it in auto and you can find that kickdown can be a tad clumsy, and manoeuvring can be a jerky affair. Oddly, our experience found the regular R8 to be less smooth when set in auto mode than the Performance variant. There are several driving modes, too, which allow you to soften or sharpen the car’s responses.
Even over our rough British roads, the R8's ride feels composed. There’s a fair amount of the bobbing and bucking that’s typical of a very stiff-bodied and short-sprung sports car, but superb damping keeps the ride from getting crashy. On smoother roads, it actually plays the comfy GT card surprisingly well, even if you’ve opted for the more stiffly sprung Performance model. Whichever version you choose, we reckon that most will be more than happy with the R8's standard set-up, but optional adaptive dampers are available that, in their softer Comfort setting, offer even more compliance.
At a later date you will also be able to add dynamic steering, which brings a faster response to inputs as you apply more lock. However, it’s yet to be announced when this will become available. The standard steering, meanwhile, feels intuitive and enjoyable, although it doesn’t communicate grip levels and information about the road’s surface as well as the Porsche 911 or McLaren 570S.
When you want to test the handling, the R8 responds well. It’s not quite as immediate or driver focused as the McLaren 570S, Porsche 911 or Ferrari 488, but still turns in with breathtaking immediacy and grips ferociously. The four-wheel drive system is rear-biased for playful dynamics, but it never feels like it’s going to bite assuming you show it some respect. Naturally, having all four wheels driven helps wet weather traction greatly, so you won’t be afraid to take it out on rainy days.
The standard R8’s steel brakes offer good stopping performance and lots of feel, but can be upgraded to the carbon-ceramic brakes that come standard on the Performance model. These offer much the same ultimate stopping performance as the standard brakes, but will resist fade for longer during bouts of fast driving, such as when on a track. Just be aware that they introduce a rather firm pedal feel and are harder to modulate around town.
Some rivals are more agile, but the Mercedes-AMG GT Roadster i...