With 397kW fired through just the rear tyres, Audi’s history-making R8 RWS promises pure thrills
According to Audi, the R8 RWS is “for purists with an appreciation for essential driving enjoyment”. So what makes the RWS so special? First up, RWS doesn’t stand for rear-wheel steering, instead it’s short for Rear Wheel Series. Essentially, Audi has broken with a near 40-year tradition and made a go-faster model that’s not all-wheel drive. In fact, for the first time since the 1930s, here is an Audi road car that’s rear-wheel drive. It’s lighter than a standard R8, too, the deletion of driveshafts and differentials shaving 50kg off the weight of the V10 model. Its chassis has been tweaked to compensate for the reduction and subtle relocation of masses, with different spring and damper rates for the suspension, a stiffer front anti-roll bar and a subtle remap for the electrically assisted steering. Oh, and Audi will be building just 999 of them.

So far, Audi Australia has secured an allocation of 40 examples spread across both the coupe and Spyder variants, but if demand is there, the brand is confident that, with the historically strong sales of performance models in Australia, an increased allocation will be forthcoming. In fact, there’s already an extra dozen ear-marked for a boat ride south.

Three years after its launch, the second-generation R8 still looks stunning and boasts a gorgeously executed cabin. You need to look for clues that the RWS is something special over its V10 and V10 Plus stablemates. Externally there’s a matt black single-frame grille up front, while the two-part side blade features a gloss black upper and body coloured lower panel. Depending on body colour selected, for the coupe, there’s also the option of a Misano Red racing strip that runs over the bonnet, roof and rear deck (see white car page 90). For those that know their R8 history, the racing strip is the same as that seen on the R8 GT4. Inside there’s a plaque on the dash that declares this car to be ‘1 of 999’, but in all other respects it’s just another R8.

Still, any thoughts of ‘ordinary’ are shattered the moment that V10 stirs into life. The way it delivers its power is addictive, the acceleration building proportionally with every fraction of an inch of throttle travel, the 10 cylinders delivering an internal combustion orchestra like few others. Above 4000rpm the 5.2-litre really gets into its stride, accelerating with ferocity, and emitting a spine-tingling howl that has you chasing the 8500rpm redline time and again.

Like the regular V10 coupe and Spyder, the RWS is powered by the lower-output version of the fabulous naturally aspirated V10. Despite dropping 52kW to the more potent Plus version, you certainly don’t feel short changed in the RWS. After all, there’s still 397kW at 7800rpm and 540Nm at 6500rpm. And this translates to a 320km/h top speed in the coupe or 318km/h all out in the Spyder.

What’s most surprising is the traction, even in the wet. The combination of a rearward weight bias, that deliciously precise throttle and relatively sensible tyres (Continentals or Pirelli P Zeros) allows the RWS to dig in and accelerate without hesitation. Audi’s figures suggest that the lack of a driven front axle makes the RWS slower off the line, its 0-100km/h time of 3.7 seconds putting it two tenths behind the quattro version, but once rolling there’s barely anything between them.

Audi R8 RWS

Helping here is the standard seven-speed S-tronic transmission that serves up shifts so fast and seamless that there are no destabilising forces as the next ratio slips home. There’s also a ride quality that’s surprisingly compliant, even on passive dampers. Brutal throttle applications betray the rear-driven layout, but only via the briefest flicker of the stability control warning light.

Yet the Audi soon reminds you why it is one of the most user-friendly mid-engined machines out there. It just feels so polished and effortless, but not in a remote and detached way. Very much like how the Porsche 911 spans the gulf between everyday and extraordinary, the R8 brings that duality to the world of mid-engined supercars.
The steering isn’t too hefty, but it’s quick and offers decent feel, allowing you to instinctively judge the amount of grip on offer at the front end. Then there’s a stream of information through the seat, allowing you to judge the grip and traction levels of the back tyres. Obviously, without the traction of quattro, this information is now even more important in the R8 RWS.

The R8 feels settled on turn-in, with the merest hint of stabilising understeer. Allow the Audi to settle, feed in the power, and the car gently transitions to a neutral stance, helping straighten it for a slingshot exit. It’s efficient and fast, yet engaging at the same time. This feeling of well-honed poise is enhanced by the impressive body control, the long and wide Audi shrugging off bigger bumps and simply getting on with the task at hand.

Audi R8 RWS

It’s a hugely impressive display, but also a familiar one, because at the moment the RWS feels just like the quattro R8. Maybe we’re not trying hard enough. I attack the same stretch of road again, with the stability control disabled and with extra commitment. It’s just as composed as before, until we reach a well-sighted, uphill hairpin. Brake hard, hook second gear and turn in. Initially the RWS feels stable and locked on its line, so with the chassis loaded up I get greedy with the throttle – and it’s then that the tail suddenly swings wide, the combination of power and that pendulum of an engine doing their best to rotate the car in its own length. The quick steering helps get things back on track, but it’s clear now that the RWS has an edge to its dynamic repertoire that separates it from its quattro brethren.

But while it’s certainly more edgy and aggressive than the all-wheel-drive R8 models, the RWS never feels spiky and intimidating like the rear-wheel-drive Lamborghini Huracan LP580-2 with which it shares multiple strands of DNA. Perhaps it’s thanks to the Audi’s 30mm longer wheelbase (2650mm plays 2620mm for the Lamborghini), or perhaps, as the Italian brand has suggested, the Huracan is tuned to be more overt in its responses as well as it looks and sounds. Either way, the $299,950 Audi ($321,000 Spyder) is a faster, more engaging and more satisfying car to drive than the extroverted and more expensive Lamborghini (from $380K).

Driven sedately or on the edge, the R8 RWS still feels more extraordinary and memorable than the quattro models, but no less useable in most circumstances. The Audi feels like the real deal. It’s also blessed with one of the best engines in the business. Frankly, it could be shackled to a chassis with two left feet and you’d still forgive it the moment you first hear its sonorous cry and feel its explosive energy. Fortunately, the R8 has real ability, which also keeps you fully connected with the machine beneath.

James Disdale