Technology barely takes a breath these days, a point that’s soon made when trying to summarize this intergenerational clash between the new McLaren Artura and the rear-driven Audi R8 Performance we’ve chosen to pitch it against. The guiding idea was to contrast the Macca’s cleverness with the pared-back Audi, but the irony attendant on this digital versus analogue narrative is the stark contrast with the way the second-gen R8 was portrayed as being a bit clinical and aloof when it first appeared in 2015.
With its friends already gathered around the cake and helium in the retirement balloons, the R8 now seems like a minimalist masterpiece, especially in its rear-driven guise. The Audi’s mighty 5.2-liter V10 is basically a downtuned version of the one in the Lamborghini Huracan, making 562hp without turbochargers or any form of hybrid assistance. That gets delivered to the road through a standard twin-clutch gearbox – which did seem pretty cutting edge when the car was new – but a mechanical limited-slip differential rather than a torque-biasing one. In run-out spec it has been shorn of most of its former dynamic options – it’s no longer possible to buy an R8 in the UK with adaptive dampers, carbon-ceramic brakes or the Performance mode that used to bring a rortier exhaust note and slacker stability control settings. If it was any more old school it would be clutching glowsticks at a rave in a foam-filled warehouse.
It might seem odd to spend so much time introducing the aged stager in this comparison, this being the first time we’ve thrown the all-new McLaren Artura into the ring with anything. But that’s because the underdog traditionally gets to enter the ring first. On paper, this isn’t even neighboring postcode close. The Artura is sitting on the sharpest point of the cutting edge: think of a dynamic-sharpening piece of tech and the McLaren has it, plus a host of other stuff besides. For the full SP head back to John’s original review, but the highlights are a spanking new plug-in hybrid powertrain that combines the efforts of a 577hp 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 and a 94hp axial flux electric motor, an eight-speed twin -clutch gearbox and electronically controlled rear differential and a battery of active systems including an angle tweaking drift mode. This is all reflected in the price, of course – £189,200 before options, nearly £60,000 more than the corresponding figure for the R8.
There’s another big difference between the cars we ended up testing, and not one we’ve planned for. The Artura that arrives is a late replacement for the planned loaner, which went down with a mechanical failure, and the replacement arrives on P-Zero Winter tires. Which felt a bit too cautious on a day when temperatures were well above freezing. The Audi rode on regular P-Zeros, meaning the more powerful car was the one with less grip.
But the biggest disparity between our two challengers is obvious before they’ve even got together. Our meeting point is close enough to my house that I drive most of it in the EV mode the Artura defaults to every time it starts up, something PHEVs have to do to be regarded as electric in some markets. On one level it’s a neat trick, something I can certainly imagine owners using to sneak out early or get home late without waking family and neighbors. But silence doesn’t really suit a McLaren well, and selecting the blended Comfort mode gives the Artura an aggressively split personality – the electric motor Dr. Jekyll and the raucous V6 playing Mr. Hyde when it roars into life. It didn’t take long for me to select the punchier Sport powertrain mode, which keeps the engine running all the time. It sounds muscular and purposeful, but with some gravelly harmonics at low revs.
Reaching our rendezvous first in the Artura means I get to experience Cam Tait’s approach in the Audi. The R8 remains one of those cars that you’ll hear well before seeing it, and although it has been quietened with the arrival of particulate filters it still projects V10 zing well ahead of its arrival, with the aural telemetry suggesting Cam is enjoying making use of the engine’s enthusiasm for revs. He’s certainly wearing a broad grin as he draws up next to the McLaren.
The line between sportscar and supercar is a much argued one, but I’d say that the R8 and Artura actually encapsulate the debate, each sitting just to one side of the line. The Audi is actually shorter in terms of overall length, but has a higher roofline and a cabin that is both easier to get into and feels more spacious once inside, although with an obviously higher seating position. The McLaren is more practical than any of its predecessors with the possible exception of the GT, but getting in still means negotiating fat sills to reach the very chummy embrace of the test car’s optional fixed-back bucket seats. Fall in, climb out and all that.
But the McLaren also has a real purity of purpose. The chassis and powertrain mode rocker switches are now integrated into the upper corners of the instrument binnacle, but beyond a row of buttons next to the door (these including the all-important front-end lift) everything else is controlled by either stalks or the central touchscreen. Compared to the over-crowded complexity of a modern Ferrari steering wheel, the Artura is an ergonomic masterpiece. Beyond the fact my phone wouldn’t connect to the new CarPlay function – although Cam’s would – my only criticism is the lack of a Park mode for the push-button gear selector, meaning you have to use the handbrake when sitting with the ignition on .
By contrast, the Audi feels like an Audi. This is surprising and entirely deliberate. I spoke to one of the designers at the original launch who said the mission was to celebrate the connection to the rest of the range rather than to try and minimize it. The R8 is an Audi first and a near supercar second. But while practical and rational it does feel a bit lacking in specialness for something well inside six figures; from the driver’s seat most of what you see – including the digital instrument pack – feels pretty close to the view from an Audi TT. The seats also felt squidgy and lacking in lateral support when compared to the McLaren’s locked-in buckets.
The difference between performance goes by the form book. The Audi has much less urgency, but more character. It might seem ridiculous to publicly suggest that any car with 561hp and a 204mph top speed could feel slow, but after experiencing the two cars back to back the R8 seems almost tame. That’s largely because, as always, the V10 doesn’t deliver much low-down torque, and although this definitely helps driveability in slippery conditions – making it much easier to push to the limit of adhesion without overstepping it – it does mean that the Audi often needs to be woken up with multiple downshifts before the engine really starts to pull. Revs make it better and better, the exhaust note hardening as the needle sweeps the digital dial, pretty much screaming as it reaches the 8,700rpm redline.
The rear-driven R8 lacks traction compared to its Quattro sister, but the proportionality of the engine’s power delivery means that it rarely feels like an issue, even on cold and often greasy road surfaces. Pushing harder on slippery stuff sometimes brought the distinctive fluttering noise of the V10’s top-end power coming close to overwhelming the rear tires, but it never felt wayward. Even the stability control’s more permissive Sport mode was reluctant to surrender much discipline; the Audi felt secure even when pushed into oversteer.
The McLaren is much more dynamically exciting. Much of that is down to the increase in performance. The combination of the V6’s turbo-boosted low-down torque and the even quicker responses of the electric motor means that savage acceleration is never more than a flexed foot away. The Artura’s new eight-speed twin-clutch transmission was quicker to react and even snappier at swapping ratios than the R8’s seven-speeder. Side-by-side the McLaren has projected itself down the road well before the Audi has finished changing gears. The Artura’s 3-second 0-60mph time is impressive enough, but it’s the 8.3-sec 0-124mph that actually sums up how otherworldly it feels. Yet although the engine gets louder and more hard-edged with revs, it never finds any especially compelling harmonics. I don’t dislike the way the Artura sounds, but I don’t particularly like it either. Which is an issue in this part of the market.
Not that the McLaren’s winter rubber was often up to delivering all of the thrust. The Audi might have less power, but even in the chilly conditions its summer tires found more grip and traction – with the immediacy and hugeness of the McLaren’s urge requiring a significant amount of respect on winter rubber; full throttle feels like an occasional treat rather than a regular state of being. With the Artura’s stability control fully activated it was possible to engender oversteer at part throttle even in fast, shallow corners – something which felt a little too exciting when it happened for the first time. The question of how cars such as potent as this will behave on older or heavily worn tires feels like a relevant one.
Yet even when pushed beyond the edge of grip, the Artura felt composed and benign. Much of this is undoubtedly down to good, old-fashioned chassis engineering, yet a fair amount is also due to the smartness of the active dynamic systems. Ferrari have long been the masters of invisible driver-flattering assistance, but the Artura suggests that McLaren is getting close. The adaptive dampers also coped impressively well with British roads in both Comfort and Sport modes. The McLaren has both better body control and a more pliant ride than the passively sprung Audi.
In terms of subjective experience, one of the biggest differences between both cars was steering. This is where the digital versus analogue narrative switches 180 degrees – Audi using electric power assistance while McLaren has gone to the considerable effort of keeping an electro-hydraulic rack. But the contrast isn’t far off night and day. The second-gen R8’s steering has always felt a bit lifeless by performance car standards, something that moving to pure rear-drive (and lacking the former option of a variable ratio rack) hasn’t really improved on. The resistance-free plastic gear change paddles behind the steering wheel are also a perpetual mild disappointment.
By contrast, the Artura’s steering is like switching from chewing a soft mint to an XXX strong one. Even on winter tires it feels better night and day: more accurate, properly dialed in with a stronger caster effect to keep the helm tacking faithfully with the front wheels. It is also alive with copious amounts of the shades of gray feedback that the R8 is almost completely lacking in. It would be a stretch to say that the McLaren’s steering is good enough to bridge the chasm in price between the two cars, but it certainly sums up the core differences between them.
Comparing R8 and Artura is a bit like heading back to the Jurassic era to twin-test a dinosaur and one of the snazzy new mammals that evolution had just delivered; they won’t be sharing the world for long. Behind the marketing puff, the R8 Performance RWD is effectively a base model on the cusp of retirement, and without access to the run-out 620hp GT version, it feels like an old car. It is also very much the exemplification of Audi’s past, with the company having already confirmed it won’t be making any more sports cars with combustion engines, let along awesome Lamborghini-derived V10s. The Artura is brand new, although slightly delayed, and McLaren’s future. On engine character and price the Audi takes it – but on everything else, it’s the McLaren all the way.
SPECIFICATION | MCLAREN ARTHUR
Engine: 2,993cc, V6 twin-turbocharged, plug-in hybrid
Transmission: 8-speed dual-clutch automatic, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 671
Torque (lb ft): 531
Top speed: 205 mph
Weight: 1,498kg (DIN)
Price: £189,200 (std), £211,480 (as tested)
SPECIFICATION | AUDI R8 PERFORMANCE RWD
Engine: 5,204cc, V10
Transmission: 7-speed twin-clutch, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 562 @ 7,900rpm
Torque (lb ft): 406 @ 6,400rpm
Top speed: 204 mph
Weight: 1,590 kg
Price: £128,510 (std), £130,195 (as tested)
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