2022 Audi R8 Performance RWD Spyder Review: Heresy Has Its Place

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Audi built its revival — and its reputation — on the muscled shoulders of Quattro all-wheel drive. More to the point, the company’s power-at-all-corners hardware is a big part of why the R8 has been one of my favorite supercars since 2007, and also why it’s been widely regarded as such a startlingly competent daily driver. That’s why I couldn’t help but wrinkle my nose a bit at the limited-edition R8 RWS, a dedicated, rear-wheel-drive model introduced in 2017. Yes, it weighed about 110 pounds less and yes, it was cheaper, but it still struck me as a model that was beside the point, an oddly heretical way for Audi to turn its back on a cornerstone technology that powered its comeback and performance image. 

After being absent from the R8’s lineup for a handful of years, Germany is once again offering a Quattroless version of its flagship, the 2022 Audi R8 Performance Spyder RWD. I’ve just spent a week with it and I think I understand it now. In fact, I may have even been wrong about it. Kinda.

Regardless of how many wheels are driven, it’s not like this R8 was ever going to be dull to drive — Audi’s 5.2-liter V10 would never allow it. This naturally aspirated, mid-mounted masterwork remains one of the greatest high-performance engines on sale, arguably one of the best of all time. Yes, there are sports cars that offer more horsepower and certainly more torque for fewer dollars, but I can’t think of one that delivers its power in a more consistently thrilling fashion — especially sonically. 

Always a party

These days, it’s all but impossible to find a high-performance engine without a turbocharger or supercharger plumbed in, muzzling its soundtrack in exchange for more power — power that you’ll rarely find the open road to exploit. Audi’s V10 never fails to make the hair of your neck stand on end when uncorking the throttle. Even when you’re not exploiting all 562 of its horsepower or all 406 pound-feet of torque, there’s a sense of occasion that accompanies this engine. That’s true whether you’re caning it around a canyon road or being a childish idiot in tunnels. 

Manually shotgunning the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox into a lower gear, sending the V10 racing to its 8,700-rpm zenith purely for the amusement — or vexation — of fellow motorists is a never-ending temptation. Importantly, that underlying gravitas is also present when you’re trundling along in traffic, especially if you play with the shift paddles. The R8 may be remarkably docile and tractable for a supercar, but it never turns a wheel without feeling special.

To be clear, this topless rear-drive model is about 0.2 seconds slower to 60 mph than an R8 Spyder with Quattro — 3.5 seconds instead of 3.3. It also tops out at 200 mph, 4 mph before the AWD model packs it in. Away from racetracks, however, those are such slight differences as to only be lamentable by the most pedantic of spec snobs. On the plus side, reduced parasitic driveline drag yields improved efficiency; the EPA rates the 2WD R8 at 14 mpg city, 23 mpg highway and 23 mpg combined, gains of 1, 4 and 2, respectively, over the AWD car. Mercilessly flog the V10 on a race track or on a mountain road as I did, though, and you’ll be staring down single-digit fuel efficiency and contemplating making a donation to the Rainforest Alliance to salve your guilty conscience. 

This rear-drive model also feels slightly more playful than the last R8 Quattro I drove. That could be time playing tricks on me, or the fact that having recently moved from Detroit to Los Angeles, I now have some of the world’s most thrilling canyon roads at my backdoor. Either way, the steering feels slightly keener and the back end is more alive and willing to step out with a prod of the accelerator. This is intentional, as Audi’s engineers have baked a skosh more negative camber into the rear wheels’ geometry to encourage a livelier-feeling chassis. Don’t misunderstand, though. Unyoking the front wheels hasn’t made the R8 a sweaty-palmed, twitchy widowmaker. We’re talking degrees of playfulness here.

2022 Audi R8 Spyder V10 Performance Express Red interior

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2022 Audi R8 Spyder V10 Performance Express Red interior

Express Red seems aptly named.

Chris Paukert/CNET

Pricing and options: What’s gained and what’s lost

This latest two-wheel-drive R8 Spyder isn’t a limited-edition thing like the 2018 RWS — it’s a regular production model, available to anyone with at least $162,395 burning a hole in their boutique-branded track pants. That price, which includes a mandatory $1,495 delivery fee and $1,300 gas-guzzler tax is actually a relative bargain compared to the Quattro. That’s a whopping $52,600 savings — enough spare change for a midrange Q5 SUV or an S4 sedan for those days when you really need AWD. If you don’t want a convertible, the hardtop R8 Performance Coupe is cheaper still, starting at $151,495 all-in.

Of course, you don’t just lose out on a couple of prop shafts and a front differential for that money — you lose power (the Quattro comes with 602 hp and 413 lb-ft) and you take a meaningful hit to standard equipment levels, both in terms of visual and actual performance parts. Out go the brilliant magnetic ride adaptive dampers and electronically controlled limited-slip differential (fear not — what’s substituted is still a legit LSD), along with carbon ceramic brakes, carbon fiber side blades, rear wing and laser headlamps. (You can add much of this equipment back in à la carte, of course.) In exchange, the R8 RWD gains a larger anti-roll bar up front and substitutes a solid rear axle in place of the Quattro’s hollow unit. In total, Audi says this car is 67 pounds lighter than its AWD sibling, at least before you start piling on the options. 

And speaking of piling ’em on, the Spyder test model that Audi loaned me did exactly that. On top of the base price, my tester added nearly $26,000 in options. That tally included helpful performance hardware like $1,400 for Dynamic Adaptive Steering and $3,500 for laser headlamps, but most of it was dedicated to visual and luxury touches. These big-ticket bundles included a $3,600 Premium Package (B&O audio, extended leather, illuminated door sills), $3,600 Sport Exhaust Package (throatier exhaust with dedicated Performance drive mode and sport steering wheel), $3,400 Carbon Interior Package, $3,500 Diamond Stitch Leather Package and the coup de grâce, $4,800 for a Carbon Exterior Package (carbon side blades, air box cover and convertible top compartment lid). 

2022 Audi R8 Spyder V10 Performance side view

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2022 Audi R8 Spyder V10 Performance side view

Contrasting side blades are a key part of the R8’s visual identity. They’re also expensive.

Chris Paukert/CNET

That last option group would normally strike me as unnecessarily frivolous, but I believe those blades are essential to the R8’s visual identity. Their contrasting color breaks up what otherwise becomes an overly long wheelbase, messing with the design’s proportions — especially on the convertible. And speaking of messed-with proportions, I still believe the restyled nose introduced with the 2020 refresh did this car’s appearance no favors and I have yet to meet anyone willing to say otherwise.

The R8 is in its twilight years, but you wouldn’t know it from looking inside. Premium materials and solid-feeling switchgear serve the cabin well. In particular, the absence of a large center screen unwittingly lends the dashboard a timeless quality. These days, very little ages an interior’s appearance quicker than a dated-looking infotainment display, whether in terms of size, resolution or even the way it’s mounted in the center stack. The R8 gets around that time trap by running everything through its 12.3-inch Virtual Cockpit gauge cluster, including Google Earth navigation and audio chores. This single-screen arrangement isn’t great if you want your passenger to play deejay or wayfinder, but on the other hand, there’s nothing left for them to do but hang on and enjoy the ride.

Also, I typically don’t make a big point of discussing advanced driver assist systems on supercars, as features like adaptive cruise control are usually too practical in nature to be significant considerations for weekend and track-day cars. After all, buyers with this kind of cash typically have a luxury SUV or sedan available for mundane everyday chores. That said, the only cruise control system you’ll find here is the traditional type and other active safety nets like lane-keep assist and automatic emergency braking are absent.

Days rarely get better than this.

Chris Paukert/CNET

Ready or not, the future is closing in

Audi already confirmed that this car’s successor will be battery powered. I’m sure that means it will be even more performant while simultaneously being kinder to future generations. That’s progress and I’m truly excited to experience where the nameplate goes from here. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to miss this 2022 Audi R8 Performance and its rev-happy V10. A lot. High-performance electric cars may be unrivaled for breakneck acceleration, but even at their most visceral, EVs lack the mechanical noises and spine-tingling vibrations that many of us buy sports cars for. 

I love EVs and consider myself to be greener than most, but in the R8’s case, I’ll opt for the ongoing heresy of internal combustion — no matter how many driven wheels it has.

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