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Audi R8 V10 Plus v Ferrari 458 v McLaren 12C

The Audi R8 is aiming to move into true supercar territory with the 542bhp V10 Plus. We find out how it stacks up against the established class leaders

Audi R8 V10 Plus v Ferrari 458 v McLaren 12C

You know the protagonists, so let’s cut to the chase. Is Audi’s new R8 V10 Plus fit to keep this level of company? It’s a big demand, and one we haven’t previously made of Audi’s mid-engined flagship, but from the moment we drove the V10 Plus at the international launch we knew it had real star quality, with a depth of character and ability that marked it out as a truly great car and the most complete and desirable R8 yet.

So here we are, gathered with three of the most exciting mid-engined cars money can buy on some of England’s most challenging roads, high on the fabulous grouse moors of North Yorkshire. Less than a decade ago you simply couldn’t have brought cars like these to roads like this, driven them hard and expected them to come back unscathed. Such is the nature of the sustained high-speed sections, savage crests, lung-squeezing compressions and lumpen, frost-riven tarmac that you’d have left a trail of aluminium swarf and front splitters from Pickering all the way to Whitby.

But when you take the time to get to know them intimately, these are uniquely thrilling roads with an epic sense of scale and – if you pick your moments – the kind of sparse traffic that offers golden opportunities in which to stretch the legs of seriously quick cars. And these are three seriously quick cars, as witnessed by the fact the least potent machine (the Audi) has 542bhp and 398lb ft of torque to haul a modest 1570kg, hits 62mph from a standstill in 3.5sec and runs on to a top speed of 197mph. On days like these my friends, on days like these…

This magical test starts, as they so often do, with a mundane journey on everyday roads. Logistics dictate we’re converging on our rendezvous point at different times and from different locations, so we’re denied the spectacle of a 26-cylinder, 1720bhp convoy, but it does mean I get an unbroken three-hour journey in which to reacquaint myself with the McLaren MP4-12C.

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted that this is editor Trott’s current Fast Fleet loaner, which means it has the recent software upgrades to the engine, along with a softer action for the gearshift paddles. It’s also retina-scorchingly orange. Though as much a part of McLaren’s identity as Rosso Corsa is to Ferrari, I’m really not sure it sits comfortably with the 12C’s inherently understated style, but then I am becoming something of a Grumpy Old Man, so perhaps it’s just me. One thing I know I’m right about is the cursed invisible door release mechanism, which always works when you’re on your own, but never wastes an opportunity to humiliate you in front of bystanders. Only at the end of the test do I discover that double-clicking the unlock section of the key fob pops the door release, providing a neat solution to an irksome design flaw.

It’s a bad start to what should be a blissful experience. Fortunately, when the dihedral door finally ker-thunks and hisses skywards, there’s no denying it prompts a tingle of excitement. Once you’ve shimmied yourself round the trailing edge of the awkwardly upswept door and threaded yourself in behind the wheel, the 12C welcomes you with a fabulous driving environment. The simplicity of the architecture, clarity of the instruments and brilliant visibility afforded by the deep windscreen and rising tops of the front wings immediately sets you at ease. You feel ready to drive.

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There’s not a great deal of theatre about the start-up procedure, nor the sound of the twin-turbo 3.8-litre V8 at a gentle simmer, but a muted cacophony of hisses and whirs from the suspension and power steering systems adds some exoticism to the mix. Thanks to the Active Dynamics panel, it’s possible to tweak the 12C’s demeanour to suit the road. For the long haul north, that means Normal for both the handling settings and the powertrain. It’s a civilised combination that gives you best access to the 12C’s distinctive pliancy, but the overall refinement is dented by noticeable wind and road noise. That wouldn’t normally be a consideration in a 200mph supercar, but as McLaren makes bold claims about the 12C’s civility as a daily driver, it’s a relevant criticism. As is the fact the Bluetooth hands-free system makes you sound like Darth Vader in a dustbin.

Once on the motorway, it soon becomes clear that self-control is paramount in this car, for it has an uncanny knack of masking the sensation of speed. If you let the 12C settle at the pace at which it feels most comfortable, you inadvertently find yourself loping along at 100mph: good for fostering an imperious feeling of making progress, bad for the longevity of your driving licence. In a funny way it makes the car rather tiring to drive too, simply because you have to concentrate on not going fast.

After a 150-mile tickle, up the A1 then across to Pickering on the edge of the moors, I meet photographer Dean Smith, who has driven up in the R8. Its recent facelift is hardly radical, but it definitely looks sharper thanks to more expressive DRLs and a slimline carbonfibre splitter. Combined with stark white paint, carbon sideblades and a neater rear-end treatment embellished by funky LED indicators that scroll left or right, it restores the R8’s sci‑fi drama and concept-car chic. Parked in this timeless market town, it looks like a spacecraft.

Compared to the McLaren, with its MonoCell carbonfibre construction and downsized forced-induction engine, the Audi is rather old-school, employing a thumping 5.2-litre naturally aspirated dry-sump V10 engine slotted into an aluminium chassis structure. Where the 12C features innovative suspension technology and fully integrated systems that control the feel and behaviour of the chassis, aerodynamics, engine and transmission, the R8 uses a simple passive spring/damper set-up that’s lower and stiffer than the regular V10 R8’s. As if to underline the simplistic approach, there’s nothing more than a Sport button to intensify the dynamics with a sharper throttle, louder exhaust and more lenient ESP system.

Further efforts to enhance the driving experience include weight loss (some 50kg compared with the regular V10 through the use of composite body panels), standard fitment of carbon-ceramic brakes and an increase in power and torque to peaks of 542bhp and 398lb ft, up 24bhp and 7lb ft respectively. A six-speed manual comes as standard, but the adoption of a smoother, faster-shifting seven-speed DSG ’box as an option in place of the abrupt old six-speed R-tronic single-clutch transmission is the single biggest area of improvement. I’ve gone on record bemoaning the prevalence of paddle-shift gearboxes, but readily concede that when they’re good, they’re very, very good. Prior experience of this S-tronic transmission from the international launch suggests it is the latter. For an as-tested price of £130,195, the Audi is a bargain in this company. Just how great a bargain is what we’re about to find out…

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The final piece of the puzzle arrives under cover of darkness, so it’s not until next morning that we see the Ferrari 458 Italia alongside the 12C and R8 for the first time. Compared to the immaculate minimalism of the Audi and the svelte understatement of the McLaren (colour aside) there’s a fabulous awkwardness to the Ferrari. Its conflicting surfaces cleverly collide to form a Stealth Fighter-like amalgam of edges and curves that somehow create a harmonious whole. It’s not beautiful in the conventional sense, but you can’t help but stare in wonder.

When Harry Metcalfe reveals how much this particular example is, our jaws hit the floor. As will yours when I tell you it’s a few quid north of £271,000. In other words that’s a mildly staggering £93,000-worth of options, a gobsmacking £41,000 of which is on assorted carbonfibre embellishments.

I resist taking Probably The 
world’s most expensive Ferrari 458 and instead elect to stick with the McLaren for our first collective foray onto the moors. It’s remarkable how big a change you can make in the car by twisting the rotary switches of the Active Dynamics panel clockwise a click or two. In its softest mode the suspension – such an integral part of the 12C’s unique feel and capabilities – isolates you from the impacts. But somehow it never quite manages to isolate you from what it’s having to do to absorb those impacts, instead transmitting a muted but pretty much constant stream of road and suspension noise into the cockpit. As you ramp up the damping to Sport, body control tightens appreciably, and in so doing quickly trades that sense of apparently bottomless wheel travel for a harder, busier ride. As its label suggests, Track mode is too stiff for all but the smoothest roads, and is best left alone up here.

Make the same adjustment to the powertrain switch and the engine note instantly hardens, the throttle and gearshift response gaining a similar level of urgency and purpose. This metaphorical shot of adrenalin is welcome, but the engine noise is borderline industrial and is unpleasant during full-throttle acceleration. In Track mode it’s actually painful. When you manage to get beyond the noise issue, click-click-click down the gears and floor the throttle, the ferocity of the acceleration is startling. There’s the slightest of pauses as the turbos react, before a monumental amount of power and torque is unleashed on the rear tyres. Traction is exceptional, and once you’re beyond second gear only a crest will induce a flare of wheelspin, which is then instantly and precisely quashed by the electronics.

The steering is light, direct and keen. It has a clean, polished rate of response, but not a huge amount of feel immediately each side of straight ahead. The lack of body roll doesn’t help you build an internal picture of how close to the limit you are, but with so many dynamic systems to rely upon – in particular Brake Steer – you never have to worry about understeer. The car simply grips and turns. The tail will shimmy and step out of line under hard acceleration from apex to exit, but it too is caught by the electronics. Apply some sensitivity to the process and you soon learn the best way to drive the 12C is to judge the limit as finely as you can and nudge into the driving aids, rather than drive like an oaf and crash into them. It’s clever, but a bit cold.

With a bit of jiggery-pokery reminiscent of using a cheat in a console game – ‘with the car in such-and-such a mode, push and hold button A, wait for message, then press buttons X and Y to confirm’ – you can completely disable the stability control. It’s worth doing because you gain a feeling of connection and ownership of the driving experience, partly through the increased jeopardy in driving by the seat of your pants, but also because the car is more consistent and transparent in its behaviour. Doubtless it’s not as quick, but it’s liberating to feel the limit of the car’s mechanical grip and then occasionally exceed it without the subtle but discernable nips, tucks and nudges from the electronic systems. It’s like you and the car are finally able to connect on a tactile level.

Switching to the Ferrari is quite a culture shock. The interior is fussier, the driving position not quite as perfect. From the moment you fire the raucous V8 into life, the whole car quivers with a tense, hyperactive energy. The steering is light and ultra-responsive, so you have to calm your inputs down to make smooth, measured progress. It feels a bit manufactured to me, and as we begin to gain some serious speed I really wish the steering wasn’t quite so immediate, as it turns the nose in so hard you feel the tail get a little edgy in an effort to keep up. The ESP system thankfully works well, allowing the car to move a little, but not so much to spook you. But you have to trust it. Amongst the countless buttons on the steering wheel, there’s one that switches the dampers to their Bumpy Road setting, and that relaxes the tension a little, but the Ferrari’s fast-twitch dynamics still demand you work equally hard at measuring your inputs.

In performance terms it wears its heart on its sleeve far more readily than the McLaren. You always feel like you’re travelling more quickly, even though in reality the 12C and 458 are evenly matched across the ground, but you have to be on top of your game more because the Ferrari requires more frequent steering inputs. Work your way around the manettino settings and you’ll feel the 458 become progressively more expressive, allowing greater levels of unchecked slip until finally you make that final twist to disable the stability control. The handling balance is more extreme than the 12C’s, and takes bigger steering inputs to balance. At first you feel the need to make aggressive throttle inputs to make the tail step out of line in a tight corner, but once you learn the 458’s natural inclination towards oversteer, you find smaller inputs will provoke and control slides with greater progression and precision.

The engine and transmission are spectacular, both for their ferocity and speed of response, but also because they are equally adept when travelling slowly. For a car that thrives on delivering 562bhp at 9000rpm, it’s remarkably tractable, certainly more so than a peak torque figure of 398lb ft at 6000rpm might suggest when the 12C’s force-fed 442lb ft arrives at half those revs. Both have an immense and instantaneous ‘snap’ when you crack open the throttle, the 458 shading the 12C for synaptic immediacy but lacking the turbocharged car’s tumescent mid-range.

Wringing the 458 out across the moors is a heart-pounding experience, not because it’s a ragged handful, but because it is capable of sustaining obscene speed over mile after mile of rollercoaster road. Like the 12C, it’s incredible to experience how much punishment the suspension absorbs without deflecting you from your chosen trajectory. I lose count of the times I wince in readiness for a crunching impact, only for the Ferrari to shrug it off as though nothing happened. It’s incredibly impressive and a vivid reminder of how different the Ferrari and McLaren are in character and delivery, yet how similar they are in real road capability.

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I’ve saved the Audi until last because I wanted the clearest idea of what it has to live up to. Swing open the driver’s door and first impressions are of a cool, impressively confident car, yet one with more obviously mainstream roots. Both the 458 and 12C offer more instantly impressive driving environments, but because they can make a meal of things everyday cars do effortlessly, they inadvertently highlight the user-friendly brilliance of the R8. The car’s age is betrayed by not having up-to-the-minute Audi satnav, but what’s there works intuitively and without bugs or glitches. It lacks an A-list sense of occasion, but it’s immediately intuitive.

Twist the ignition key (no starter button here) and the V10 catches with a boom before settling into a subdued but menacing idle. It’s a refreshing change after the anti-social look-at-me racket that pukes from the back of the 458. In fact, the R8 is one of the few modern supercars that trades volume for richness of tone. It’s also the only car that has any kind of gear selector lever sprouting from its transmission tunnel. It might not look as tidy as a row of small buttons, but it’s possible to go from Drive, through Neutral to Reverse and back again in a split-second without the need to look down. Again, it’s a small thing, but one that you appreciate every time you need to make a quick three-point turn or shuffle out of a parking space.

The paddles are short, stubby and fixed to the steering wheel. Actually they’re a bit too short, but they’re still particularly satisfying to use, with less fore and aft travel than the Ferrari’s and without the constant click-click of the 12C’s. The ’box also seems to change gear more decisively than the others, always delivering sharp, precise shifts where the others slur their shifts at low speed. The R8 feels weightier, both in terms of vehicle mass and control weights. The hydraulic power-assisted steering is calmer and more instantly feelsome. There’s an honesty and cohesion to the match of feel and response rate that fosters a sense of connection and gives a clear sense of grip levels and chassis balance.

The handling set-up is more foursquare than the 12C and 458, both of which are all about front-end response. The R8 doesn’t have their aggressive turn-in bite, preferring a less edgy feel that can push into very mild understeer if you simply turn in and get back on the power. However, if you’re prepared to play with the turn-in balance with a small (or large) lift of the throttle, you can use the rearward weight bias of the car to bring the tail into play. With Sport mode on and the ESP system engaged, this helps to neutralise the understeer, while with ESP off you can slide the V10 Plus like a rear-drive car, but with a greater sense of progression and stability. It’s great fun without the edginess.

The Audi’s 5.2-litre V10 lacks the extreme ferocity of the Ferrari and McLaren V8s, but it counters with a deliciously muscular character. It revs too, pulling through to 8500rpm more keenly than you’d think such a big-hearted motor could. Part of you wishes it had the crazy top-end fireworks of a Gallardo unit, but there’s something genuinely wonderful about the way the R8 summons such monstrous pace without resorting to shouty histrionics. Better still, in Sport mode it sings a sweeter and more soulful song than either the 12C or the 458, howling exuberantly under load and emitting a roiling barrage of pops and bangs between downshifts.

The fixed-rate suspension is a revelation. It’s a bit knobbly at low speed, but not offensively so, and once you’re free from the 30mph limits it comes alive. Indeed, the faster you go the better it gets, seemingly never running out of pliancy or body control and keeping all four wheels on the ground more of the time. When you’re really going for it on these roads, all three cars feel like pebbles skimming across open water, but it’s the Audi that telegraphs its intentions most clearly and is therefore the car you feel most confident in pushing harder into the faster corners. What’s more, you’re not forever fiddling to find the best dynamic mode for the next few miles of road.

The brakes have a very small amount of dead travel, and then bite with a little too much enthusiasm, but once through that initial phase they’re feelsome and easily modulated. They don’t have the finessed early response of the Ferrari’s Brembos, but they do feel as though they have more outright stopping power and stamina, and they’re a hundred times better than the 12C’s horrid binary stoppers. They also feel the most natural to use with your left foot. I know that sounds like pretentious bullshit, but with only two pedals to play with there’s a lot to be said for using the opportunity to try learning the technique for braking with the ‘wrong’ foot.

As Smith and Riley get the last 
few frames of stills and video, we’re free to head back home. I take the Audi. It’s the right choice, not least because I get another revealing drive across the moors back to Hutton-le-Hole. It’s enough to convince me the V10 Plus offers a greater sense of connection, is less prickly with no loss of enjoyment and summons equally mind-blowing point-to-point pace without the need to do anything more than press the Sport button. That it then demonstrates supreme duality by effortlessly shrugging off the long homeward journey confirms the R8’s brilliance as a true all-rounder.

Still, let’s not kid ourselves here. Both the 458 and the 12C are incredible cars. The 458 reigns supreme for pedigree, spectacle and drama, while the 12C basks in McLaren’s ‘Supercar by NASA’ geekery and, dare I say it, for Not Being A Ferrari. Inevitably some of the reasons to buy the 458 or 12C are also vacuous; perhaps most of them if you blow a further £90k on option-list bling. In truth few of those customers will lose much sleep over the fact an Audi can match them for pace on real roads, nor that it delivers a more generous, less contrived driving experience for far less money. Put bluntly, Ferrari or McLaren won’t see the V10 Plus as a serious rival outside that critical slice of the marketing department’s Venn diagram. Can you lose to a car you’re not competing against? Perhaps not, but drive them on the same roads and the folly of that mindset is ruthlessly exposed.

It seems that rather like the Nissan GT-R, the R8’s only weakness is its badge. But to me that modesty only serves to make the V10 Plus even more special, for its appeal is built on something deeper and more satisfying than F1-assisted brand image. Ultimately we didn’t get these cars together to proclaim a winner; rather to test the Audi’s mettle against the established masters of the class. It could have come to this test and taken a brutal kicking. Instead it taught a few lessons of its own. The R8 has come of age.

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