Us petrolheads are a perverse bunch, aren’t we? We all know cars like the Mazda MX-5 and Toyota GT86 are great because they’re simple and low-powered, and yet we want turbos and superchargers added. We’re completely in tune with brands like Aston Martin being all about blending performance and luxury, but damn, we don’t half love the idea of stripping all that luxury away to make something like a Vantage GT8 or GT12. And what about the Audi R8? It’s a supercar great because of its incredible all-wheel drive capability, but what if it was, you know, not all-wheel drive?
It seems Audi has been just as curious as the rest of us, giving birth to the R8 RWS, or Rear Wheel Series. It’s a not the best name for anyone whose mother tongue is English because it instantly makes you think ‘rear wheel steer’ (a function it doesn’t have, to be clear), but trust me, that’s really our only bone of contention with this car. Well, there is one other thing, but we’ll get to that later.
What we’re looking at is an R8 which has lost its propshaft, Quattro all-wheel drive multi-plate clutch and its centre differential, dropping the weight by 50kg to 1590kg. To compensate for the new setup the steering has been tweaked, the damper settings tightened up and the front anti-roll bar stiffened up ever so slightly.
The result of all this is an R8 that’s fundamentally different to drive, although without the optional red stripe seen on the reveal car at Frankfurt, you’d struggle to notice from the outside. Other than some subtle tweaks like gloss body colour lower sideblades, it’s all as-per the normal car. It doesn’t even have an ‘RWS’ badge on it anywhere.
On the move, the car’s Pirelli P Zeros take a little while to warm up, meaning the new drive layout makes itself apparent immediately. Even under partial throttle, the rear-most boots struggle to hook up. There’s something positively alien about hearing that heroic V10 letting out a series of shouty rev spikes while the RWS spins up its two driven wheels - we’re so used to instant traction letting the 5.2-litre engine get on with its job instantly.
Once those optional 20-inch hoops (19-inch wheels and tyres are fitted as standard) have enough heat in them though, the RWS has a mighty rear axle. It’s not quite as sticky as something like a McLaren 570S, but for a car that was designed from the outset to be propelled by all four wheels before the engineers got bored and wanted to try something different, it all works amazingly well. It makes you wonder if lessons learned in the creation of the Lamborghini Huracan 580-2 - which uses the same drivetrain and platform - might have helped in the setup of the RWS, but apparently it’s more about the R8 LMS GT4 racing car, which which was developed in tandem.
The big difference with this R8 is you have to think a lot more about your inputs. How much throttle you use on the exit, your steering angle - you can’t rely on all-wheel drive witchcraft to carry you around the corner and spit you out the fastest way possible. Why? Because despite high levels of grip and traction that back end does move around quite a lot. But keep on top of it, and you’re rewarded tenfold: there’s a newfound fluidity to the chassis that makes this R8 more engaging than any other I’ve ever driven. And that’s before we get to the steering: it’s heavier and more natural-feeling than before, and finally gives proper feedback from the road. A lot of it, in fact.
The stiffened chassis makes the whole affair seem more hardcore too, although teamed up with the 20-inch wheels the ride can be crashy at times - we’d probably stick with the standard 19-inch rims. It’s also worth pointing out that even with a much greater rear bias, it’s not totally immune to understeer - you just don’t experience anywhere near as frequently as before.
Audi has even tuned the ESP Sport setting to allow for “controlled drifts,” but given how much force it does take to properly break traction at the rear (on warm tyres, anyway), we’ll have to wait for another time and a location with, um, a bit more run-off to test that to the fullest.
Even with this considerably more playful chassis though, the 5.2-litre, naturally-aspirated V10 remains this R8’s defining feature. If anything, you enjoy it all the more because you actually had to think about how you’re going to deploy its full rage. Being able to wring it out isn’t a given - it’s an achievement. And no, I’m not sad that the RWS uses the ‘regular’ R8 engine, rather than the 602bhp ‘Plus’ version. Ignore the fact the 0-62mph time of 3.7 seconds is exactly the same as the ‘lesser’ TT RS coupe (losing the driven front axle isn’t going to help off-the-line performance) - the RWS feels ballistic. For fast road driving, it’s still akin to opening a letter with a samurai sword - 533bhp is more power than you’ll ever need.
I’ve been fortunate enough to try every road-going iteration of the current R8, but there’s no doubt in my mind that if I had the cash, I’d stump up the £112,450 required to bag the RWS and ignore the rest. It’s the most satisfying, most exciting and most engaging R8 around, but we need to deal with that second big issue I mentioned earlier. And that’s the dilemma it leaves me with.
"Audi's fast cars have always been about unflappable ability in any weather, yet I prefer the R8 that sticks two fingers up to all of that"
Quattro is a defining feature of Audi Sport, Ingolstadt’s rival to BMW M Division and Mercedes-AMG. Hell, it was even called Quattro GmbH until very recently. These cars have always been about astonishing and unflappable ability whatever the weather, and yet I prefer the version of its halo car that sticks two fingers up to all of that. Perhaps I wouldn’t have reached quite the same conclusion had the weather been a little worse during our RWS test, or maybe I’d have liked its mischievous mindset even more.
So how can I possibly reconcile this in my mind? That’s easy: we’re petrolheads. We’re perverse.