First Drive: Audi R8 Spyder

The Audi R8 was arguably the definitive supercar design of the last decade. A brilliant, thrusting sum of its components parts, the car is a proportional masterpiece of automotive styling. Every individual element of the body is so well reconciled with the next that removing that elegant teardrop of a roof was always going to be problematic when the time came to build a convertible.
The R8 Spyder was unveiled at the Frankfurt show last year and instantly proclaimed a triumph. But viewing the car under the harsh grey light of the real world, it's difficult not to conclude that with the distinctive two-tone sideblades gone from in front of the rear wheels the rakish drop top might have relinquished just a fraction of the coupe's visual presence.
Hunker in to the familiar interior and it's a similar story out on the road. Depriving the R8 of its roof means forfeiting some of the car's rigidity. The only way to solve this is to strengthen what's left, and inevitably this leads to some weight-gain. The Spyder might have only put on a 100kg, but that is sufficient to slightly tarnish the standard R8's exemplary handling. The convertible can't quite reproduce the coupe's agility at pace, and challenging roads cannot be driven with such effortless fluidity.
This isn't noticeable at more sedate speeds of course, but around town the Spyder has other issues. No matter how good the car's ride quality is – and it is – present the car with too many potholes and you will feel the roofless body flex through the steering wheel. Combine this with the faltering around town performance of Audi's optional R tronic automatic transmission, and the Spyder doesn't exactly sell itself as a convertible for the commute.
The R8 Spyder does suffer from a number of niggles, then. Certainly more than the coupe on which it is based, and they are readily apparent within several miles of driving the car. However, drive the Spyder a few miles beyond that point, and its shortcomings slowly begin to fade into the background.
After a while you begin notice how good the steering is, and how delightfully mechanical the paddle shift-operated gearchanges feel over the transmission's fully-auto mode. Then rather than just hearing the V10's fibrous purr, you actually begin to listen to it. Drive for long enough and you begin to leave the car in a low gear just to revel in the raucous howl of its ten-cylinder temperament.
Reach this stage and you're pretty much hooked. Unlike the standard R8, the Spyder doesn't persuade you with its supreme competence; it seduces you with a visceral brand of drama that is only found in open-topped supercars. Sure, the last three bends could have been taken quicker in the coupe, but you're so wrapped up in the noise and energy of the experience that you don't care one jot.
As soon as you've allowed the car to emerge from its sibling's shadow, there's plenty more to appreciate, too. Even with the roof up the Spyder feels more spacious than the standard car inside, possibly because there seems to be more headroom. Audi have opted for a fabric roof to save weight, and it can be opened in 19 seamless seconds at speeds of up to 30mph.
The interior is practically faultless. Finish is always Ingolstadt's trump card, and it was hardly likely that their most expensive production car would fail to measure up, but the Spyder really is an object lesson into how to construct an ergonomic driving environment without sacrificing appearance or purpose. Refinement is also top notch; the V10 drops to a whisper on the motorway, and blustery wind noise is kept to a minimum even with the cabin open to the sky.
Such is the allure of the convertible supercar niche that for many prospective buyers the Spyder will now be the only R8 that makes sense. Uglier, slower, heavier, not as comfortable and less practical; but they may be right. It's utterly seductive the rest of the time.
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