I’m quite a big fan of high-tech cars, and my personal vehicle choices tend to balance technology, styling, and performance.
My current car is a two-year-old Audi S5 Cabriolet. It is fast, good looking, and boasts an Nvidia-based infotainment system that, at the time of purchase, led the market. However, I’ve had my eye on an R8 Spyder for some time now, thinking that it might be eventually replace my S5.
As a joint Valentine’s Day gift, my wife Mary and I went on the Audi R8 Driving Experience (which was actually more like a real-world driving experience), and with a Guilt coupon the cost for the day was a fairly reasonable (given this is a $120K car) $1,000 each.
The conclusion? I’m no longer lusting after the R8, but am definitely looking forward to the next version.
The Transmission that Hates You
Frankly, if there is a car that more appropriately epitomizes the current technology problem with the auto industry I’m not sure you'll find it. Yes, the R8 is cutting edge in terms of engine, but Audi did make some tradeoffs in the transmission. Indeed, rather than the silky smooth twin clutch R-tronic transmission found in my S5, they deployed a single clutch version in the R8 - and the R8s we drove were all automatics.
This is the first time I’ve ever experienced a car with a transmission I truly hated. Imagine, if you will, what would happen if you pushed the accelerator to the floor with a manual transmission and just shifted without letting up.
As soon as you hit the clutch, you’d be tossed forward - and when you released the clutch in the new gear - thrown back.This is similar to the on power experience of the R8, and it is the first time a car I’ve driven has apparently tried to beat me up. Forget water-boarding, after an hour of this I’d likely admit to almost anything. Seriously, at some in the near future point, I'd really like to be able to turn my head on my neck again.
But it didn’t end there, because if you are stopped for what the car thinks is an excessive period of time (they must not have much traffic in Germany) the vehicle auto-shifts into neutral. Now picture this scene: You are at a stoplight being admired by both women and men, because yes, the car does look smoking hot. But then the light turns green and you can’t move because the car has shifted into neutral.
This happened to one of the drivers who sat there revving his engine until the light turned red again and the folks behind weren’t pleased. Had this been New York, someone likely would have walked up and given him a heated driving lesson. Can you imagine trying to impress a date when this happened? I can picture a blond leaning over and saying, "Well I may be a blond, but I do know you have to have the car in GEAR if you want to move forward."
I drove an older R8 last year with a manual as part of the Club Sportiva Exotic Car Tour and loved it, so the manual in the car, at least for now, is the less painful path.
Ancient in Car Tech
The other problem with R8? The in-vehicle tech was new back when the car first shipped. It was similar to my wife’s last generation TT, and lacked the Nvidia-based high resolution system in the current generation of Audis - and even required a key (most high performance cars went to keyless pushbutton start years ago).
This showcases the common issue with the auto industry, at least in terms of in-vehicle systems, meaning, they just don’t keep up and there is no real way to upgrade them either. If a particular system out of date now, think of what it will look like at the end of a three-year lease - or if you intended to buy and keep it for 5 years?
I bought an old XK8 Jag for my wife for Christmas and the first thing I did was yank the radio and replace it with a current-gen infotainment system. Given it takes a standard sized head unit, I can update this system every year if I want - and it was more advanced than what came in this Audi. I really think the car companies should design these systems so they can be updated more easily, so that new cars have up to date systems, at least when they are first sold.
Wrapping Up: Audi Experience & 2013 R8
Now the good news. Next year, the R8 is due for a refresh and Audi is slated to address just about every problem I’ve had with the current version. It gets a new transmission, an updated infotainment system (more advanced than what I now have in the S5) and will ultimately be equipped with a slightly faster engine. So I’m thinking a 2013 R8 could be the ticket for a great ride where the transmission was on my side and not trying to embarrass or make me ballistic and bounce the passenger around the cabin.
I do recommend the Audi Experience if you are thinking of buying a car like this, simply because you really get to know a car by driving it around. However, I do think they could have at least picked a course with less traffic, and, given these things are at raceways, at least one-track lap would have made it a significantly better experience.
Audi does have a full track class using TTs, 4&5S cars and not only is it cheaper than an R8 track package ($1,395 vs $1,895 for the R8); both have a full day of instruction and track time. Personally, I think it would be more fun and certainly less painful. Plus, Audi also has a nice entry program where you can drive all the cars on the track for a cool $249 - and that’s certainly a real deal.
All of the above-mentioned tracks and programs can be found here on the web, and they are located at the Infineon Raceway in Sonoma California and right next to Napa Valley wine country, if you want to make your test drive into a real vacation trip.