Audi decides that one way to add extra interest to the already-pretty-exciting R8 supercar is to take away some of the vehicle's legendary quattro-derived traction. Thus, what we have here is the R8 Rear Wheel Series (RWS), a rear-driven Audi that's the best thing the company has ever made. Period.
In the metal
The second-gen Audi R8 is perhaps not as pretty as the original model, but it still cuts quite the dash. There's also a wonderful purity about the RWS version, which gains its own design of 19-inch alloy wheel, but, as you may have noticed, body-coloured side blades. That one change alone makes this R8 stand out, without the need for big spoilers or garish badging. Indeed, a solitary '1 of 999' motif on the passenger-side dashboard is about the only tell-tale giveaway you're in the two-wheel-drive R8; nothing else about the beautifully built - if rather visually sombre - cabin has been changed.
It's somewhat simplistic to say the RWS is merely an R8 V10 with two missing driveshafts at the front, as the car has also lost its centre differential and propshaft. All told, in Coupe form the RWS is 50kg lighter than its equivalent 540hp AWD model (the Spyder RWS is 40 kilos trimmer than its quattro analogue), but this isn't some hardcore, stripped-out racer in the mould of a Porsche 911 GT3; instead, it has all the luxury accoutrements and ease-of-use civility of the four-wheel-drive R8s. That being said, a thicker front anti-roll bar and the inability to specify either Dynamic Steering or adaptive dampers on the RWS speaks volumes about the company's confidence in what it has cooked up here...
Driving any second-gen R8 is a special experience and the changes wrought for the RWS aren't radically transformative; but they do sharpen and enhance what extraordinary chassis ability was already there, without sacrificing any of the Audi's easy-going nature, which makes the RWS fantastic to deal with on a day-to-day basis and also the best R8 to drive quickly by some distance - and, by extension, therefore the most rewarding driver's machine the German company has ever made.
You'll notice the enhancements most in the steering, now uncorrupted by the torque of any of the mid-mounted engine's exertions being sent to the front axle. While still not perfect, the RWS nevertheless has steering feel and immediacy of turn-in that many other hot Audi products would kill for. Despite the loss of the quattro system, the traction in the dry is every bit as good on the rear-drive R8 as it is on its all-paws siblings, because a 5.2-litre V10 pressing down on big, fat rear tyres culminates in a level of grip that is quite plainly enormous. And as the engine, which is one of the finest internal combustion units known to man, retains all of its sensational noise, rapier throttle response and ballistic performance (you won't ever lament the fact the RWS runs the lower 540hp version of the V10, as opposed to the plus models' 610hp iteration), then manhandling the R8 about on the road is a thoroughly intoxicating and enjoyable experience.
It requires respect, though. It's not massively fidgety, but it does move about more under hard braking, does seem to wander with a little more eagerness if there are cambers and ruts in the road, does feel like it needs handling with care when the engine is coming on song at the top of the rev counter and you're exiting a tighter corner. Nevertheless, while the quattro R8s are by no means shabby in the corners, the RWS just feels that little bit more enthusiastic to dance to its driver's tune, and it's precisely this sort of interaction that so many fast Audis have lacked in the past - granted, the quattro R8s are not among that infuriating host of dynamic near-misses, yet the fact the RWS gives the impression that not everyone who slides in behind its flat-bottomed wheel will get the best from it is what makes it all the more endearing and desirable. For reference, you need the car in Dynamic, the S tronic gearbox set to 'manual' mode and the ESC off to reap the biggest rewards from the RWS.
Indeed, mention of the gearbox brings us to about our only bugbear - we kind of wish Audi had gone 'all-in' on the idea of the RWS and given it a six-speed manual transmission to go with its two-wheel-drive format. It still wouldn't have been a hardcore GT3-challenger as a result, but the three-pedal immersion of driving one of these V10 beauties at full chat would be almost impossible to resist. Maybe there's more to come from this series of vehicles, then...? Here's hoping, because even with S tronic, the sublime R8 RWS is one of our favourite cars on sale today.
What you get for your money
As Audi's flagship car, the R8 comes with a high level of standard specification and the RWS doesn't miss out on any of that - our test car 'only' had around €4,500 of options fitted to it, none of which were truly essential to the driving experience. The best news of all (and the reason why we've given such an expensive car four out of five here) is that the RWS is not only the best R8 of all, it's also the cheapest - by a good €39,320, when comparing the RWS Coupe to the equivalent 540hp quattro model, and a whopping €71,000 less than the 610hp 'plus' variant. For those who want to hear that scintillating V10 screaming into the air even better, you can even have the RWS in Spyder form.
While the mesmerising Audi R8 RWS is strictly limited in number and will be difficult to get hold of, we should take heart from three things: one, its name is Rear Wheel Series, the use of that last word indicating there might be more rear-driven R8s to come; two, it’s the least expensive R8 by a considerable distance; and three, it’s absolutely, utterly, completely and totally magnificent to drive. Taking everything that makes the R8 so special in the first place - its genial good manners, that stratospheric V10 engine, its preternatural grip and traction - and adding to it with better steering and a keener chassis is nothing short of a stroke of genius. The cheapest and simplest R8 is therefore also the greatest - and one of the finest cars for driver reward on sale right now.