Fast Audis and Quattro all-wheel drive are a more than great match, and you could be forgiven for thinking they're essential bedfellows. Since the the original Audi Quattro brought its four spinning wheels to the world of rallying in 1980, that name has been synonymous with Audi performance. By pure tradition of nomenclature, it would seem bizarre for a car to ever wear that badge without sending power to all four corners.
But Audi's performance arm has now shed the Quattro moniker, adopting the blander Audi Sport title instead. That new name affords it the freedom to create vehicles that do not necessarily rely on all-wheels-driven architecture. Enter the, or Rear Wheel Series.
Interestingly, a rear-wheel-drive version of the R8 supercar had been in discussion for quite some time. And now, more than a decade since the first side-blade sensation was unleashed on the world, it has become a reality.
If you can spot the differences between the RWS and Quattro versions of the R8, you're a more eagle-eyed observer than I am. There are no RWS badges; a matte black grille and all-black wheel options are the only telltale signs of the rear-drive model. The body-color lower side blade panel is standard on the RWS, but since it's available as an option on the Quattro version, consider it a red herring for enthusiastic car spotters.
Nestled ahead of the rear wheels is Audi's 5.2-liter naturally aspirated V10 with 540 horsepower and 398 pound-feet of torque, mated to a seven-speed S-tronic dual-clutch gearbox. Audi says the RWS will accelerate to 62 miles per hour in 3.7 seconds -- a smidge slower than the Quattro -- and tops out at just under 200 mph.
The ever-so-slight hesitancy of the car upon turn-in and just-a-touch lighter steering feel could certainly be attributed to the rear-drive setup. Otherwise, the RWS feels exactly as expected, which is to say, really, really good. Apart from the obvious lack of driven front wheels, the RWS is mechanically identical to the R8 Quattro, which already feels relatively rear-biased in most driving conditions. The sound of the uninhibited V10 screaming away combined with the amazing balance of a midengine layout makes for an unadulterated, inescapably fun supercar.
A big advantage of the rear-drive layout is weight savings -- some 110 pounds have been shed compared with the R8 Quattro coupe -- and the steering and suspension calibrations have both been tweaked accordingly. The steering has been reconfigured to provide more feedback, even with its slightly lighter action. The suspension is also firmer and thus better equipped to handle 100 percent of the power being sent to the rear wheels. In reality, the changes are very minor -- they really just work to make the RWS behave like its Quattro sibling.
Fortunately -- or unfortunately, depending on your viewpoint -- my time with the car coincided with some truly terrible weather. Through heavy rain and snow along some challenging roads, it was possible to see exactly how the two cars differ most.
Push the R8 RWS beyond the limits of grip and you discover why this can be seen as a car for purists. With traction control and electronic stability control disengaged you are no longer dragged out of oversteer by powering forward. The front axle no longer kicks in to save you from a slide. Instead, the quickness of your reactions and the quality of your pedal and steering inputs are the only things standing between you and a spin.
Thankfully, the wonderfully communicative chassis precisely telegraphs the car's intentions, allowing you to instantly react. If your hands and feet are quick enough you are rewarded with an amazingly engaging drive that feels sufficiently different from what you're used to from the Quattro R8. Not necessarily better, but different. Yes, it's a little disconcerting to suddenly get such dramatic oversteer in a car that had previously rarely obliged to break traction at all. But it only takes a few turns to subscribe to the RWS' engagement, and all the raw fun it has to offer.
Instead of being a tool crafted for the ultimate in handling and performance, the R8 RWS is a joyful toy to be wrangled into submission and enjoyed to its fullest. It requires more of a deft touch to keep under control in the most challenging of conditions, but that is entirely the point.
For a car that didn't feel like it had much more room to improve, the R8 RWS proves that different flavors of the same treat can appeal in different ways. Perhaps this indicates a future where more fast Audis might offer to ditch the Quattro in favor of something a little more unhinged.
Only 999 examples of the Audi R8 RWS will be produced, with 320 earmarked for the US. The RWS will not replace the all-wheel-drive R8, but rather sit in a few limited garages as evidence that the Quattro name and significance of its heritage might not be as dominant for Audi as it once was. If nothing else, the RWS proves that, no matter the number of driven wheels, the R8 is a fabulous supercar.