There are many reasons why the friends of those of us lucky enough to write about cars profess to hate and envy us. Most of them are completely valid.
Driving a passel of brand-new 2014 Audi R8s, including the new V10 Plus model, on track in northern Italy and over the Alps is just one of the better ones.
Why? Because even aside from the stunning scenery, tortuous mountain ascents, and blazing high-speed tunnel and autobahn runs, the car itself is, mostly, fantastic. Let the hating commence. I'm OK with it. Hell, I deserve it.
Our first introduction to the car was at the Misano World Circuit, famous for its place on the Moto GP calendar, and now renamed after the late Marco Simoncelli. For cars, it's a tight, quick track with devilishly shaped corners and surprisingly fast not-quite-straights. In other words, it's a good place to assess a car's handling.
Audi only loosed us in the R8 V10 Plus on track, and then only in models equipped with the new dual-clutch seven-speed transmission. Both of those factors are very good things.
The new R8 V10 Plus is now the highest-performance R8 available, short of the previous (and even more hardcore) R8 GT. Splitting the difference between the R8 V10 and the GT in some ways, the new Plus model adds 25 horsepower and 8 pound-feet of torque to the V10's 525/390 total. While that might not sound like much, it's immediately noticeable in the car, as the quick-revving V-10 engine and lightning-quick dual-clutch gearbox send it into action.
That dual-clutch gearbox is really the highlight of the track experience, and fortunately, it's not limited to the new V10 Plus--it's found in all R8s for 2014 (Audi almost called this the 2013 R8, though, only changing the designation as we crossed the Alps). Snapping off Porsche-quick upshifts and Porsche-prescient downshifts in automatic mode, you'd swear there has been some cross-pollination with the brand's VW Group cohorts--but Audi swears it's entirely its own design. Either way, it's really quite brilliant. In manual mode it simply does what you want it to, holding gears or producing perfect rev-matched downshifts on demand. It's everything the balky R Tronic automatic before it was not.
For those of you who just can't give up your three-pedal arrangement even in the face of better lap times and greater around-town convenience, fear not: there's a six-speed manual offered in every model as well. Audi expects about 40 percent of its American buyers to row their own gears, but we didn't get a chance to test it on our drive over the Alps.
With the brilliance of the dual-clutch transmission taking the starring role on track, the 5.2-liter V10 engine of the Plus was almost relegated to an afterthought--that is, until the third lap, when, more accustomed to the track and the car, I ripped off a quick set of downshifts entering a hard braking zone and was almost startled out of my seat by the roar of the 550-horsepower monster right behind my head. But does the bite match the bark?
For the most part, yes. Squirming quite a lot under threshold/ABS braking with the hugely powerful ceramic brakes, the rear trying to catch the front yet remaining controllable, transition into the corner is easy, with the R8 readily pointing in and even rotating at mid corner. Response to trail braking and, in higher-speed corners, trailing throttle, is just about perfect. At corner exit, the limited-slip rear differential hooks up, slinging the car forward with little drama--but being too eager too early with the throttle can yield quite a lot of understeer as the car's 43:57 front:rear weight distribution and two-inch narrower front wheels answer to the laws of physics.