As motoring writers, we are given some extraordinary opportunities to get familiar with the machinery of the rich and famous – but rarely the lifestyle. With this in mind, McLaren clearly wanted to make the Australian launch for its Sport series feel special, so it treated a small group of journos to the full supercar buyer experience on Monday.
From Southbank in Melbourne, Gizmag auto specialist Scott Collie and I stepped into a $6.5 million seven-seat helicopter and took a scenic arc around the south side of the city before flying out toward the green expanse of the Yarra Valley.
Here we landed at the impossibly manicured grounds of the Levantine Hill winery, where the McLaren team introduced us to our rides for the afternoon: the "entry level" 540C and specced-up 570S. Two spectacular dream cars that Scott, as yet, is too young to drive for insurance purposes. A rollicking jaunt for me, then, and an exquisite torture for him. Excellent.
The Sport series is designed to be an accessible entry point into the world of British supercars, both price-wise and in terms that it should be a car most of us can enjoy on the road or track. That means McLaren has ditched the active aerodynamics of its Super and Ultimate series cars, which offer extreme downforce for massive racetrack grip. The Sport series is less concerned with your lap time than the grin you come back into the pits with – as well as a gilded teaspoon full of practicality for those who want extreme performance in their daily driver.
McLaren refuses to classify the 540C or 570S as supercars (they've got plenty of those if you're interested), but in performance terms they fit most reasonable definitions. Nothing else in the sports class, for example, is built around a carbon fibre chassis weighing just 80 kg (176 lb). That helps make these beasties at least 100 kg lighter than a Porsche 911 Turbo or Audi R8 V10, two key competitors that punch out around the same power as the 540C – and it's worth noting that the 540C comes in about 60-70 grand cheaper than either of those in Australian pricing.
The doors also open upward, while the Porsche and Audi go with a very pedestrian outward. Let's face it, that's going to do far more for your rock star cred with the average onlooker than anything you'll find on a spec sheet.
The mid-mounted engines on the Sport series are McLaren through and through: 3.8-liter twin turbo V8s lifted from the 650S, and before that, the MP4-12C. With 30 percent of engine components new to the Sport series, it's detuned to make 540 horses and 540 Newton-meters in the 540C, and 570 horses and 600 Newton-meters in the 570S. The transmission is also straight out of the Super series, a seven-speed paddle-shift auto that changes character with the different powertrain modes, right up to Track mode where it uses the inertia of the flywheel to fill in the torque gap as you shift gears.
Put simply, looking at them from outside or from the spec sheet, these are exotic, intimidating machines, even if they're the bottom rung of the McLaren ladder.
Jump in, though, and they get a bit friendlier. While the seats are low to the ground, the chassis designers have made sure you've got more room to get in and out than the 650 or P1. The car looks tiny from outside, but it's deceptively roomy. Scott's six foot six and I'm broad with well developed stomach and buttock muscles, so we make a pretty decent team to test the outer extremes of comfort testing. We never found ourselves fighting for elbow room or headspace. The seats are sporty without being extreme, and more than comfy enough for touring or commuting.
Otherwise, though, it's a minimalistic cabin, cleanly shaped and efficiently put together. There's just enough buttons to handle the essentials, and a neat 7-inch touch screen for navigation, phone and media. There's a sense that the carbon shell's got just enough leather and luxury draped over it to cover its raw structural function. It's a sweet balance and a muscle move. I like it.
We start with the 570S, which is the red one in the photos. The engine fires up with a gruff, exuberant roar when I thumb the engine start/stop button, and again every time I come to a stop thereafter, thanks to an auto start/stop feature designed to keep fuel consumption from getting too crazy. I'm not sure you need that level of drama every time you take off from a stop light, but mind you, nobody's complaining and it sounds great from outside, too.
We taxi out of the winery car park and onto a country highway, where since the engine's already warm from the previous driver, I'm free to lay the boot in and see what 570 horsepower feels like.
Grunt. Grunt is what it feels like. Proper, mash you back in your seat, dig in and catapult you forward grunt. It arrives earlier on the tacho than I expected, and there's zero discernable lag from the turbos, whose hissing whine is clearly heard even over the throaty engine. These things have a definite sense of occasion about them, and hard acceleration is an event planned and executed to thrill. A Tesla P90D will rocket you to 100 faster, but there's nothing like a roaring supercar to make a passenger whoop and holler. And there I go again, calling it a supercar.
There's two performance mode dials on the centre console: the H knob for handling and the P knob for powertrain. Each offers Normal, Sport or Track options, and these choices make a big difference.
Left in Normal/Normal, I'm surprised to find I'd happily put my grandma in the driver's seat of the 570S. The suspension goes to full comfort mode, and the throttle mapping switches such that the first 80 percent of the pedal feels relaxed, even placid. You've got to hit the floor and push right through to make the beast come alive, anything less and you could genuinely fool yourself that you're driving a family sedan. It's the opposite of highly-strung; it's measured and refined and shockingly easy to drive smoothly. My guess is that owners who genuinely want to commute in this thing will make good use of this mode.
With the powertrain mode on Sport, it's a vastly different animal, quick and responsive. The transmission shifts quicker and holds a higher gear longer. It downshifts quickly on the brakes, doing a good job of reading what I need as we head into the twisty Black Spur – but I soon get on the paddles anyway, because real cars are driven, not steered, and against all relevant data I still trust my own judgement over a computer's.
Turning the handling dial to Sport or Track modes progressively increases the suspension damping, and changes the programming of the adaptive dampers to suit. In practice, Track mode is way too hard for real-world driving, smacking every bump up your backside and struggling to track over harsh surfaces. Sport mode feels spot-on in these reasonably smooth twisties, so that's where we leave it. The steering also firms up as you go, an electro-hydraulic system designed to give the most natural feedback possible.
We get about halfway through the wide, exuberant first section of the Spur in Sport/Sport mode, and I'm starting to feel the car sing. Brake feel from the standard carbon/ceramic discs is initially a little vague, but improves as they start to warm up. I'm enjoying the firm pedal setup, which helps keep me smooth on entries.
Likewise I'm starting to get a feel for the steering. And while we're nowhere near the edge of the car's capability or even my own comfort level – heck, Scott hasn't even started reaching for the Jesus bars yet – the car demonstrates enough precision and cornering grip to give me real confidence. Within a few minutes I feel ready to roll up the sleeves and give this thing a decent hiding to see just how far away those limits are …
… and then we get stuck behind a truck. And then it starts to rain. My building case of white line fever fizzles out completely, my pupils settle back to their regular size and we're back in commute mode. It seems like a good time to check out the optional Bowers & Wilkins stereo with a track I feel is appropriate.
Scott is suitably mortified, demonstrating his lack of taste for the finer things in life. He starts fiddling with the Iris touch screen system. Iris had some problems with reliability and touch lag when it first launched, but this is the updated version and we find no such troubles. It's quick, clean and responsive. Scott's only complaint with the system is that climate control is all managed through the touch screen, meaning it an eyes-off-the-road job. I think that's a fair criticism, although given the option I'd keep it that way rather than adding more physical buttons. Tight and clean feels right for this kind of car.
We stop, get out and switch over to the white 540C, leaving behind 30 horsepower, several reams of exterior carbon fibre, a slightly more complex rear diffuser and the carbon/ceramic brake setup of the 570S. As the rain starts to build into a proper soaking, it's hard to tell any practical difference from behind the wheel.
I go to make a spirited overtake on a long straight, and the 540C's power is just as electrifying as the 570, tearing the back end sideways before the stability system restores grip and rockets us forward. This is my first "thank god for driver assist systems on crazy machines like this" moment, but it's nothing compared to what follows.
We turn off from Buxton towards Marysville, where we get a chance to throw these things into some faster sweepers. Even in the wet, the 540C exudes confidence and grip at impressive cornering speeds, and I'm starting to have some genuine fun again.
And then, Melbourne's famously precocious weather decides to turn on a proper show. The wind picks up to a howling gale, fog rolls in and the steady rain escalates to a lashing downpour. It's biblically epic. Small rivers form across the road, giant puddles develop in the braking zones. Scott and I are laughing in amazement.
Still, if there's any supercar to be driving in a deluge, surely it's a British one. Figuring McLaren knows a thing or two about wet weather conditions, I decide to give it a bit of a nudge.
The handling limits of the Sport series feel miles away in the dry; you're rarely going to trouble the ABS or stability control systems driving anywhere near the speed limit. In foul weather like this, though, you can feel them at work. The Pirelli P Zero Corsa tires, with their 225/285 section widths, do an extraordinary job maintaining traction on wet tarmac, but under hard braking from high speed over deep standing water we start to aquaplane. Not a problem, I can barely feel the ABS operating through the pedal but it sets us right in a fraction of a second.
Braking deep into slippery corners, the McLaren gives you an extra nudge into the corner by distributing extra braking to the inside rear wheel, and I can almost fool myself into thinking I can feel it.
Likewise, on corner exits it takes a surprising amount of throttle and a deliberate lack of finesse to get the ESC working, but once the rear does breaks away, an impressively smooth intervention brings it gradually back into line without a nasty snap. That's in Sport Dynamic mode, mind you, where it's programmed to let you have a bit of sideways fun safely without completely ruining the party.
That's the magic of the new generation of supercars. Five hundred plus horsepower is a staggering amount of tire-torturing grunt. And while these kinds of figures have been achievable for decades, they've never been this easy to control or this quick to forgive your mistakes. Given that exceptional driving skill doesn't necessarily correlate with the exceptionally fat wallet you need to own one of these beauties, that's a lifesaver.
A few small slides are about as much as I'm interested in on a day like this; it's pretty much equal to the worst conditions I've driven in shy of ice and snow. Scott seems relieved when I flick the suspension and powertrain back to normal mode and marvel again at just how friendly these things are in tame tiger mode.
As we trundle back through a soaked and traffic-clogged Black Spur, we discuss the separation between the two models. To me as a complete pragmatist, I'm taking the AU$350,000 540C over the AU$408,000 570S. Despite the S's lashings of carbon, the C is actually a fraction lighter. It's a scant 0.1 seconds slower to 100 km/h (62 mph), getting there in 3.5 seconds against the S's 3.4, and if you stretch that out to 200 km/h it gets there in 10.5 instead of 9.8 seconds. That's not really going to ruin my day.
A 58 grand, or 16 percent price difference is too much for me to overlook when the 540C is still such a spectacular car. I mean, the doors still go up, so immediately it'll attract just as many fawning babes if I park it outside a nightclub as the 570S. It goes so damn fast on the road that the only people ever likely to notice the difference are spec sheet boffins – and I found out long ago that there's not much benefit in impressing those guys.
Scott, on the other hand, thinks I'm mad. He loves the carbon details and feels the 540C's plastic exterior trim shades some of its exoticism. He says he'd feel like he missed out on that 5.5 percent power difference, and if you're going for a car like this, you buy the one that makes you feel funny in the pants, not the cheapest one that does the job. Not to mention, there'll be far less collectible value in the base model than the up-spec dream machine. In this topsy-turvy world, if you buy the right supercar its value will actually increase over time instead of tanking like any other vehicle.
There's little time to ponder the difference as we roll back to Levantine Hill for an exquisite big plate/little food lunch, during which the clouds part and the valley is warmed by a taunting glow of sunshine. Right in time for us to have a clear helicopter flight back into the city, and an extremely depressing train ride home to think about what to do with this brilliant monster of a thing when we get hold of one for long enough to make a full video review.