Time gets sneaky in SoCal. The seasons shift invisibly in these balmy climes, morphing days into months into years — then one day you find yourself by the pool, sunburnt, hungover and a couple decades older. How did we get here?
The Audi R8 as we know it is almost defunct, at least in its current, V10-motivated, gasoline-powered form. The Teutonic two-seater debuted fresh-faced and fancy free in 2006, the same year Taylor Swift’s first single dropped and Blu-Rays came to market. With the final R8 making its curtain call in 2023, time is ticking before Audi’s Ironman supercar exits stage left, and an inevitable replacement steps in that’s motivated by nothing but angry electrons.
The R8 began life as an improbable result of platform sharing within the Volkswagen Group. Sharing a wild streak of DNA with the Lamborghini Gallardo (and later, the Huracan), the four-ring supercar always felt strangely subtle — and thus, virtually indistinguishable — from its raging bull counterpart. While the Lambo’s razor’s edge bodywork and snorty sounds fulfilled more spicy Italian stereotypes than you could shake a Calabrian sausage at, the Audi earned its reputation as the ultimate smooth operator, the reliable one you’d want to marry, not the one-night stand that would leave you with a rugburn and a rash in the morning. Ditching the V8 option in 2020 may have lessened the options for R8 buyers, but improvements lent the V10-powered version up to 602 horsepower.
One Last Blissful, Traffic-Free Drive
As time marched on, the R8 persisted in the same way the original Acura NSX struck a chord with a shrinking minority, getting lost in the mix as a quiet warrior while flashier competitors stole the spotlight. When I got the email offering me an R8 loan ahead of its imminent extinction, I made a point of planning a small road trip. As fate would have it, a tiny restaurant called Bell’s in the out-of-the-way town of Los Alamos was hosting an intimate Sunday brunch to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Napa Valley-based Silver Oak wineries. Aging supercar, meet Michelin-starred meal — this could be fun.
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The great thing about Southern California on an early Sunday morning is the break from traffic. Even better about piloting the rear-drive Audi R8 Spyder V10 performance from the Valley to Los Alamos: you have some of the finest driving roads emptied out for your enjoyment, the experience of which is amplified when the softop is tucked beneath its louvered tonneau cover. Highway 33 snakes from Ojai through the Los Padres National Forest and cuts through the pastoral Highway 166 in the Santa Ynez Valley. Rather than address these meandering roads with the brutality of a racecar, the R8 is more like a four-wheeled diplomat, negotiating each corner with the palatable neutrality of someone ever-so-smoothly managing to get their way. The V10 sings, but not overly loudly; power flows strongly to the rear wheels, but is managed by the imperceptible shifts of the dual-clutch transmission. And the seats are accommodating enough to make a 4-hour journey feel like a jaunt to the corner store. It’s a weird matrix for a supercar, this charm offensive of agreeability. But it works: I arrive in Los Alamos startlingly ahead of schedule, yet none the worse for wear.
Modern Supercar Meets “Franch” Cooking
Voted one of America’s best new restaurants in 2020 by Esquire, Bell’s is a modern French bistro housed in a delightfully ancient building circa 1914 whose walls could most certainly tell some tales. Led by Per Se alums Greg and Daisy Ryan, Bell’s specializes in what they affectionately call “Franch” cooking — a hybrid of “French” and “Ranch” style food. An exquisite coulotte de boeuf is accompanied by simple roasted cherry tomatos, charred lettuce, and sauce au poivre; urchin and caviar are employed like condiments; delicate appetizers are balanced by satisfying desserts like mimolette cheese with roasted strawberry and bee pollen. Flights from Silver Oak and Twomey wineries offer delectable counterpoints to the courses, but we imbibe the reds and whites sparingly (and delay our departure), for obvious reasons.
There’s a certain pleasure in discovering a gem of a restaurant in a Gold Rush-era town that feels light years away from home, but there’s also a joy in getting there expediently and taking your time savoring a thoughtfully prepared meal. After dessert and a moment on the patio, I stroll the town to walk off some of the meal, passing through antique stores and local bakeries. Get there fast and take it slow is an age-old cliché of travel, but it’s one that serves my purposes well. With a languid afternoon melting into evening, it’s eventually time to climb into my borrowed Suzuka Grey Metallic Audi R8 Spyder and head for the 101.
With the ragtop up, the R8’s cabin feels mostly insulated, but still a tad in touch with its surroundings. Far quieter than the next convertible but not as vault-like as a coupe, this Audi feels about as California as a high-performance open-air sports car could be. It can whip a windy road into shape, but thanks to its adjustable drive modes the two-seater can also muffle its exhaust note and cruise down an interstate with the sedateness of a refined sports sedan. This is not the aggro ‘F you’ of a steroidal sports car, but rather the nuanced capability of a finely tuned machine. There are some lapses for a car with a sticker price of $189,690, like a multimedia screen that feels woefully dated. But there are also supple underpinnings that enable the duality of a car that can launch to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds while also serving as a comfy highway cruiser.
Taking the interstate home in the R8 is like taking the easy route and switching to autopilot. But after drinking from the firehose of everything this SoCal Sunday had to offer — engaging backroads, intoxicating speed and the sensory overload of an adventurous multi-course meal, leaning into the familiarity of a tried-and-true sports car before its final bow offers just the right spell of comfort for the long journey home.
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