Each of these cars actually sits at the opposite end of their brand spectrum, the R8 a halo sports car that actually shares more with Lamborghini than any other Audi, while the 570S is the “entry-level” McLaren (although McLaren also offers a 540C in Canada as well), a company we know more for its Formula 1 racing program and legendary F1 road car.
No question that one of the primary reasons to pick either the McLaren or the R8 over the default-choice 911 is looks. The 911, as much as we love it, and as close as it is in performance and price in Turbo S trim, is a bit boring and commonplace compared to these two.
The McLaren is more natural, in Ventura Orange looking like sand dunes at sunset that got sprayed with strips of carbon fibre, while the R8 looks like it might transform into a samurai wielding robot at any moment, the sharp creases and cuts looking like they might slice a limb off any grubby children that stray too close to its air intakes with their melted ice cream and sticky lollipop fingers.
The R8 might suit my aesthetic tastes a bit better, but the 570S design is just spectacular and the scissor doors put it over the top and trump pretty much anything the Audi does, even its dynamic tail lights and general LED-strip lighting artistry. Its swoopy lines and scissor doors will draw oohs and aahs and curious questions from children and teenagers and pretty much anybody, so you better like talking to complete strangers… a lot – think of them as your adoring fans.
Chassis and Powertrain
Both of these stunning machines is built around the ideal balance of a mid-engine, two-seat layout, but because the McLaren is a bona fide supercar maker, its core is a carbon-fiber monocoque chassis that has huge benefits in the rigidity and weight departments.
The Audi answers with aluminum and some carbon-fiber reinforcement, and despite that metal’s weight-saving properties, the R8 weighs in at a not-insubstantial 3,627 lb to the McLaren’s waifish 2,895 lb, with a slightly more rear-biased weight distribution of 43:57 to the R8’s 42:58.
Where the R8 and 570S really differ is in powertrain, each mixing a new trend with an old-school favorite. The R8’s old-school touch is a naturally aspirated 5.2L V10, hooked up Audi’s all-wheel drive via a twin-clutch automated manual.
The McLaren favors a traditional rear-drive chassis, but its power plant is a thoroughly modern and much smaller 3.8L twin-turbo V8, though like the Audi, power is distributed through a twin-clutch automated manual featuring seven gears.
While the traditionalist in us loves the light weight and purity of the McLaren’s rear-drive dynamics, the R8’s 5.2L V10 is one for the ages, revving spectacularly to 8,250 rpm and sounding better every step of the way, and the advantages of Audi’s Quattro all-wheel drive will be obvious once the weather starts to turn wintry.
The R8’s peak 610 horsepower arrives at over 8,250 rpm, hitting redline at 8,500, and every note of the V10’s spine-tingling wail reverberates through your skull in glorious harmony. From the rumbling gurgle at startup to the crackling overrun on gear changes at pace, the sound alone is worth the price of admission, but the way it plasters you to your seat on hard launches is spectacular, 60 mph arriving in a tick over 3.2 seconds according to Audi, though other sources managed the feat in under 3 seconds.
Hit the corners, and the low, balanced chassis just dives in effortlessly, and coming out of the corner you pretty much just stomp on the gas and let the Quattro all-wheel drive system sort it out, with a partial-locking rear diff in addition to fully variable torque distribution between the front and rear axles. Push too hard or go in too fast, and you might start to feel the weight trying to push you wide, so it’s imperative to put those big carbon ceramic stoppers to good use, 15 inches at the front, 14 at the back, with the 245/30ZR20 Pirelli P-Zero rubber giving enough bite in all situations we encountered on public roads.
The Audi’s steering is a mixed blessing, making the R8 easy to pilot, with a Comfort mode that makes the steering feather light, but Dynamic is where it’s at, firming up the weight and dialing in quicker responses, but it’s always very clinical and detached. On the other hand, in the R8 Plus, the fixed aluminum double wishbone suspension is always dialed in, but the car strikes an impressive balance between a firm ride for flat cornering and compliant damping when hitting rough city roads or mid-corner bumps.
With less weight, the McLaren doesn’t need as much power, so 562 hp is enough to get it to 60 mph in about 3.1 seconds, but some publications have documented it at 2.9. There’s a bit of lag before the turbos kick in, but once they come on, the rear end squirms until the rear tires bite, and then it’s liftoff. With fairly small displacement, it’s the turbos that are the vocal star of the powertrain, sucking in air to feed the high-strung 3.8, the wastegate hissing and spitting as you lift off once you reach your moral limits.
The 570S, being a turbo, actually out-torques the R8 Plus’s V10, delivering 443 lb-ft from 5,000 to 6,500 rpm while the R8 only ever delivers 413 lb-ft at 6,500 rpm. You would think that might make the McLaren a little better just trundling around parking lots, but you’d be wrong. The McLaren just is not wired for low-speed dawdling. The engine sounds a bit gruff, the transmission is a bit clunky, and the suspension, though featuring variable dampers, is not well suited to rough city roads. Visibility is also very restricted, so it all adds up to a car that is a chore to drive if all you do is need to get from one place to another. Obviously, that’s not what this car was built for.
The McLaren was built for speed and handling, so when you flick the dial to Track mode and start to push, it comes alive, the weighty steering finally feeling purposeful and communicating the road’s character and the tire’s grip, throttle and engine response sharpening up, the transmission snapping off gear changes with speed and poise, and the chassis blissfully sticking to the road and all that chatter filtering back through the seat and wheels and your ears, immersing you in the joy of driving and transcending beyond the carbon fiber, metal and rubber from which it is constructed. While the R8 feels like it will stay on course no matter what you do, the McLaren behaves like a proper rear-drive car, showing a willingness to rotate with judicious use of throttle coming out of turns.
Every individual will have different circumstances that determine how much to spend on vehicles and what they use them for, and while the McLaren endows a sharper sense of connection, the Audi is thoroughly entertaining earlier and more often, with fewer sacrifices that need to be made to enjoy oneself and is the more inviting car in which to commute into the city for work or take on a long road trip.
The final piece of the puzzle for these spectacular machines is the cabin in which you spend your time. Like the exterior, the 570S is all curves and swooping lines, our test car covered in black suede and trimmed in orange leather, with satin-finish carbon fiber splashed around to reinforce its sporting character. The materials are top notch, but it seems like a fairly uninspired design, and the craftsmanship and finish are not up to the level of Audi, which is the benchmark for luxury brands short of the exotics like Rolls-Royce and Bentley.
The seats were superb, also covered in black suede with orange inserts and stitching to make them look dramatic, and they hugged me in place for any of my driving antics. However, getting in and out of the seats was its own unique challenge, because even though the seats swing up out of the way, getting across the wide sill required a multi-step process of contorting and positioning before being able to enter or escape.
The infotainment unit has most of the features you’d expect in a modern car, with a premium stereo and navigation, accessed through a small-ish vertical touchscreen in the center stack, but it seems something of an afterthought and in my short time with the car. It worked well enough but didn’t impress in any particular way, and the convoluted process to engage certain key aspects of the vehicle’s performance arsenal (ride height lift, Active button to engage drive modes, transmission buttons) were frustrating.
Although the R8 interior design seems simpler at first glance because of the absence of a central screen, it has that clean, modern look that Audis embrace, but heating and ventilation controls offer a touch of whimsy and curiosity above the solid block of a shifter. Granted, the interior of this V10 Plus is somewhat plain, all black and silver with some white stitching on the seats and carbon-fiber on the console, but it makes up for it with quality and solidity. Every panel seems riveted in place, every button, switch and knob moves with precision and feels like it is built to last. It’s the kind of detail and finish you would be right to expect when paying $200,000 for a personal coupe.
The seats are also everything you expect from a sports car like this, well bolstered, widely adjustable and with creamy, contrast-stitched leather, but I found them somewhat narrow for my frame, which is the one thing that would concern me on longer drives.
Audi is also at the forefront of convenience technology, with one of the best infotainment systems on the market in Virtual Cockpit. With a 12.3-inch display in the gauge cluster, the driver can control all aspects of the car’s Bang & Olufsen sound system, the navigation system that is displayed in large or small view between the digital gauges. When focusing on driving, you can switch the view to a centrally displayed tachometer with ancillary performance gauges like g-meter.
The system is controlled by a small scroll wheel and several buttons on the steering wheel, or the buttons and large knob on the console. Although the system is extensive and it will take some time to explore all its functions, the controls are ergonomically situated for easy use and minimal distraction while driving. However, along with controls for Virtual Cockpit, the steering wheel also houses the big red start button, buttons for the Drive Select driving modes and even a button to unleash the full volume of the exhaust system, so it’s a very busy steering wheel, even if the perforated leather grips feel superb in texture and shape.
While the McLaren gets points for visual flair with its orange leather accents, it just doesn’t come close to the comprehensive quality and well-conceived and flawlessly executed technology in the R8’s cabin.
With its racing heritage, McLaren has the credibility to deliver a world-class performance machine at a price that is still exclusive, but not completely unimaginable. But ultimately, the 570S is a barely tamed track car that looks like an alien landing craft and drives like it wants go all out all the time, which makes it, at best, an occasional playmate. If you’re looking for a track car or pure excitement to go along with other cars that already fill all your daily driving needs, it’s the one to have.
While it might give up a sliver of speed and handling at the very limits, the Audi R8 is a car you can drive hard any day, any time, all year long, but can take a chill pill and cruise into town on a commute or eat up miles on a longer road trip, and still looks and sounds like nothing else on the market. It’s a car that you would get to enjoy all the time, which is what tips the scales in my mind.