The McLaren 540C: sports car or supercar?
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IT LOOKS, SOUNDS AND FEELS LIKE A SUPERCAR, BUT MCLAREN SAYS IT'S NOT
The "baby" McLaren has arrived. But rather than a kindergarten kid in a field of grown-ups, the 540C is a sports car that takes both its performance and value offerings right to the competition.
There's entry-level and then there's entry-level. There's absolutely nothing about the McLaren 540C coupe that suggests it's a base model. But it is.
It's part of McLaren's Sports Series and at around $330,000 out of the box, it's the entry point to the entire McLaren range. Yet remarkably this thing — all swooping lines, carbonfibre racing seats and dihedral (scissor) doors -- isn't even a supercar according to the manufacturer. It's a sports car.
A mere mortal like me would beg to differ. It's still pretty bloody super.
As it says on the tin, the McLaren 540C boasts 540PS (or 397kW) peak power and 540Nm peak torque from its mid-mounted V8, all directed to the rear wheels. Don't bother trying to inspect the engine up close though; that honeycomb mesh grille across the top is as close as you're going to get, what with the engine bay sealed to all but those sporting official McLaren overalls and toolbox (and, one assumes, Eftpos machine).
So how does the 540C stack up against the other McLaren sports car, the 570S?
It's a close-run thing in all departments.
They feature the same V8 -- although with 491kW on tap in the 570S -- the same seven-speed SSG (Seamless Shift Gearbox) twin-clutch transmission and much the same comfort and convenience feature set inside the cabin.
The 570S wears Pirelli P-Zero Corsa tyres versus the 540C's standard P-Zeros (and different alloys too), but they both run 19-inch wheels up front and 20-inch wheels at the back. Inside, our tester had a few extras such as heated electric seats and an upgraded eight-speaker stereo system; not track day-regulation stuff but nice to have all-the-same.
Like the 570S, the 540C features adaptive damping and front and rear anti-rollbars, but the adaptive dampers come with softer settings optimised for the road rather than out-and-out racing.
The first thing you notice after setting off in this super — er sorry, sports car, is how compact it feels dimensionally. At 4.5m in length, the 540C looks long and low before you lift the doors and hop in across its deep sills, but you acclimatise pretty quickly. Even the view rearward across your left shoulder isn't as restricted as you may be expecting.
One thing that did take me a good 5km of traffic to get used to was the progressive feel of the brakes. Unlike the big brother 570S' carbon ceramic discs, the baby McLaren features cast-iron brakes with four-pot aluminium calipers front and rear (the orange calipers on the test car are a $2177 extra).
I was expecting a big bite of brake that'd have the orange seat belts tightening across my chest with the lightest application of the pedal. But in practice you have to stomp on the pedal -- especially when cold -- to halt your progress; something that managed to give me heart palpitations and make me look like an idiot all at the same time on the first few occasions.
On the "unsurprising" side of the ledger was the acceleration feel. Squeeze and go; but you knew that before you got in.
A fat-rimmed steering wheel with that stylised red Kiwi on the steering boss sits ahead of beautifully-weighted carbon fibre gear-shifter paddles. A gear selector is replaced with large buttons.
Everything feels both exquisitely engineered and perfectly simple. Nothing is fussy or overdone; a theme that extends beyond switchgear and gauges to the McLaren's IRIS 7-inch portrait-format touchscreen infotainment system.
The car weighs 1446kg (only 6kg more than the 570S) and features weight distribution of 42/58 front-to-rear. Despite the featherweight engineering, it's fully loaded with premium equipment, down to a reversing camera and nose-lifter system for getting over particularly vicious judderbars.
Those dihedral doors look heavy but they aren't. They add a touch of the dramatic to every stop and are effortless to open and close too; within an hour I was getting in and grabbing the handle to ease the door into the closed position in one fluid movement.
Getting out? I still felt like a 70-year old with bad knees every time.
I struggle with the idea of spending $7913 on a sports exhaust such as you need to here, but crikey, what a sound. A bit like the simple-to-use controls, the 540C is a comfortable car that offers as much feedback as you wish for through its simple Active Dynamics Panel switch controls for power and handling (there are Normal, Sport and Track modes to mix and match; no complicated multi-layered onscreen menus).
Accompanied by the smell of Nappa Alcantara and hot engine, the 540C sprints from 0- 100 km/h in 3.5 seconds and — if a race track is at your disposal — 0-200 in just 10.5 seconds. Top speed is 320 km/h.
You could drive away in a Porsche 911 Turbo or Audi R8 V10 for similar money ($354,000 and $355,900 respectively). They're both undeniably exhilarating cars and, seriously, if you are genuinely facing such a purchase conundrum, then you have my heartiest congratulations.
But the Porsche and the Audi are cars that many people own -- and you'll notice even more once you start driving one. The McLaren is something different. It may be an entry-level car -- it may not even be something the manufacturer classes as a true supercar -- but it is still a McLaren. It still features the ability to go all "attack mode" in the blink of an eye, with a soundtrack to match.
The McLaren 540C showcase both hand-built bespoke and finely-machined precision. As well as a price tag that takes the fight right to the German competition.
2016 McLaren 540C
ENGINE: 3799CC MID-MOUNTED V8 (397KW, 540NM)
PRICE: $358,422 (as tested)
PROS: McLaren doesn't call it a supercar, but it is. And a very usable one at that
CONS: You can't open up the rear and marvel at the engine