On the great list of maladies you may consider likely in transforming the benign all-wheel-drive Audi R8 into a rear-wheel-drive special model—Death himself riding shotgun, wizards and fairies controlling the car’s otherwise innate balance, thrill-turns-to-regret oversteer—you can add zilch and nada. In virtually every use, this supercar remains the almost-too-tame, composed partner it has always been. It’s not boring—a 540-hp V-10 stuffed between the axles of any package this size doesn’t beget boring—but it’s certainly not batty.
As special models go, the new R8 RWS (for Rear Wheel Series) isn’t one you’re going to pick easily out of a crowd. Given that it’s the brand’s first rear-wheel-drive car since its origins in Auto Union, its assorted distinguishing features—an optional red vinyl decal across the hood and roof, matte-black grilles, gloss-black upper sideblades, and body-color lower sideblades—don’t exactly make a statement. To that list, however, we’d add another: on-demand oversteer, which is something you’ll not discover as easily in the R8 Quattro.
We spent a day wheeling the RWS around Madrid, Spain, which was burdened by unseasonably cold weather, including snow in the foothills. Accordingly, the R8s we drove were on Continental winter rubber—a factory 20-inch fitment. Pirelli P Zero summer tires on 19-inch wheels are standard, and 20-inchers are optional.
Remarkably little was changed in transforming the R8 into a champion of rear-drive dynamic purity. Removing the center differential, front differential, half-shafts, and driveshaft net a 110-pound weight savings according to Audi, bringing the coupe’s claimed weight to 3505 pounds. That is still 316 pounds heavier than the last McLaren 570S we tested, which has more power (and beat the all-wheel-drive R8 in a comparison test).
The RWS’s passive Bilstein dampers are about 10 percent stiffer in compression and rebound than those fitted to the base R8 Quattro, which also shares its springs with this car. Rear-wheel camber increases from 0.8 degrees to 1.3. The front anti-roll bar is made 10 percent stiffer to aid rear-axle grip, and the electrically assisted power steering is recalibrated for less effort than in all-wheel-drive R8s. A 15.7:1 fixed-ratio steering rack is standard, and dynamic steering, which is available on Quattro models, isn’t available. Nor are carbon-ceramic brake rotors. Two-piece iron rotors with an aluminum hat matched with eight-piston front and four-piston rear Brembo calipers do the stopping.
The same ramp-and-ball-actuated clutch-type limited-slip rear differential is used here as is present in the base R8 Quattro. Even its locking rates—a modest 25 percent under acceleration and 45 percent when coasting—are unchanged. William Wijts, the R8’s chief chassis guru since the car’s inception, says that an electronically controlled differential was ruled out because of cost.
Under the glass rear decklid resides one of the last great remaining salutes to unforced induction. The Hungary-built 5.2-liter V-10, which the R8 shares with the Lamborghini Huracán (also available in RWD form), stands out like Sriracha sauce in vanilla pudding. It is a Saturn V rocket in Monowi, Nebraska. A raving 10-cylinder shrine to all that is right with internal combustion. Even as its counterparts embrace the weighty breath of turbo- or supercharger boost in their manifolds, this V-10 soldiers on, oblivious to its absence.
Even here, in its mildest state of tune producing 540 horsepower and 398 lb-ft of torque, this powerplant is a thing of greatness. It remains paired exclusively to the same seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transaxle as the standard R8 Quattro, lacking only a front-axle output—no manual transmission in Audi’s arsenal can accommodate both mid-engine packaging and this much torque. Inspect its underside and you’ll find cast into the plate between the engine and transaxle a Lamborghini logo—a bullish hidden reminder that, although its skin might be stoic and German, its heart is raging and Italian. And rage it will. Few things on this planet are as alluring, or as explosive, as this engine at 8000 rpm. All this is to say that despite a distinct and sometimes obvious attempt to do the supercar limbo under a circus of look-at-me competitors, the R8 packs the right goods in the right places.
Truth be told, without a wide berth to explore the new rear-drive car’s limits, this is difference without a difference, which, last time we checked, doesn’t make a difference. We plodded around the Spanish countryside unmagicked by its geography and wholly intimidated by the wet, cold tarmac and its unforgiving, nonexistent shoulders. As before, there’s little to criticize in this R8’s role as a street car. Yes, you’ll notice the stiffer ride if you’re looking for it, but the mid-engine Audi has always been a machine of relative utility in a segment of compromise. With the exception of Porsche’s top-tier 911 models, virtually no car in the R8’s performance spectrum can match its civility. Historically, it lacks the practical penalties that come with supercardom. But it also—and this is even more true as it ages—distinctly lacks the specialness of shape that should accompany such a position. Yes, it’s easy on the eyes. But will you care next year? Or even next week?
Then, just as we began to figuratively nod off from all its sameness, this latest R8 did something as unsurprising as it was fantastic. Rounding a bend on a makeshift road course, with nothing to hit but orange cones, the RWS, at half throttle and half power, slowly stepped its rump sideways and held it there. Its tires spun modestly, and its steering arced intuitively to manage the slide. Then it did it again. And again. And with each slide came confidence. And with confidence came more speed and more noise. The eagerness of its actions and the comfort of controlling them was rewarding. The rear-drive R8 began its crescendo of glory. Revs climbed. Intensity ramped. The rage, we sensed, was certainly coming.
But it never arrived. Instead, as the engine wound, the tires spun, and the tail swayed, the hallelujah call of the rear-wheel-drive R8 RWS began to set in. It made its mark—many of them, actually—as this new, old Audi danced like never before. Yes, the Quattro version, which also exhibits a distinct rear-drive balance, is quicker, easier, and on some level equally engaging. But the RWS asks more of its driver at the limit. And there’s something special about that experience that all-wheel drive will never deliver. Audi knows this. And it’s why this car exists.