Entry-level: It’s the ultimate back-handed comment, it’s supposed to be a good thing (hey, it’s cheaper) but the interpretation is never so charitable (You, Sir, are a tight-arse).
But without the usual social baggage that afflicts other high-end brands, you might just be able to get away with your reputation intact with an entry-level McLaren under the Stratco.
And the more you learn about the new McLaren 540C (and 570S which we’ve already briefly sampled) the more you realise that entry-level translates as slightly more attainable, rather than actually cheap. It’ll still be a rare sight in the Costco car-park, for instance.
That it looks a lot like the mega-buck 650S makes sense, too, because the basic structure including the carbon-fibre tub has 650S stamped all over it. There are detail changes to the tub like the slimmer, more profiled sills and doors that open wider, but the basics are familiar.
The seven-speed twin-clutch tranny remains and so does the rear-wheel-drive layout. The engine is fundamentally the same, too, as the powerplant in the 650S. It’s the same twin-turbo, 3.8-litre flat-plane-crank V8 but with a different tune to produce less power and torque. So, power drops to 397kW at 7500rpm and there’s 540Nm anywhere from 3500rpm to 6500rpm, 22kW and 60Nm shy of the 570S.
Doesn’t sound like a huge distinction? Clearly, it’s still mumbo aplenty, but it’s also one of the big differentiators from the 540C to the other McLarens. The other difference, of course, is that the 540C (and the 570) misses out on McLaren’s celebrated hydraulically linked suspension system that does away with sway bars and – more or less – body roll.
Instead, you get conventional sway bars. Also missing is the active aero-package of the 650S. Oh, and the 540C gets steel brakes rather than the carbon-ceramics of the 570 and misses out on powered chairs and the reversing camera a $20K Kia gets.
So let’s get this straight: This is a McLaren 650S with a few less trinkets and less bunga bunga (although there’s still plenty)? In a nutshell, yes, even though McLaren will hate us presenting it that way. And the best news is that the 540C will save you a lazy $120,000 or so over the cheapest 650S ($350,000 drive-away versus $459,250 plus on-roads) it’ll still get to 100km/h in a claimed 3.4 seconds and, according to McLaren, will top 320km/h should you be somewhere near an autobahn.
And now, having driven it locally, there’s not much doubt about any of that. Getting in isn’t difficult, but it’s still not as easy as having a conventional door. Once inside, the chairs grab you nice and firmly and the dashboard is simple with the controls either on stalks or well forward on the centre console. Meaning you don’t get Ferdie Alonso’s steering wheel or the sort of gothic-chrome mash-up that characterises a Zonda interior. The tiller is small but perfectly placed and the lovely alloy pedals are spot on for left-foot-braking.
Hit the starter button and where the 650S’ engine has a collection of snorts and whistles and the 570S sounds a little gruff and rowdy, the 540C’s V8 is more muffled but the nicer for it when you’re poking about at low speed (where the flat-plane crank engine is least tuneful).
Start spanking it and it initially feels quite flexible and refined, but boost soon builds and you’re away. Big time. Entry-level or not, this is still a small, light (1350kg) car with a 540-horsepower heart.
The electronic speedo can’t keep up in the lower gears, leaving you with two blurred `8’s and pretty soon, three of them showing on the display. The gearbox can be tailored through three settings ending with `Track’, as can the suspension, but, frankly, that’s best left in `Sport’ or `Normal’.
But even once you’ve started to get used to the urgency of the V8, you’ll continue to be open-mouthed at how damn well this car rides. Sure, it’s low (the 540 loses the lift-kit for driveways) and the travel is relatively short, but it handles big lumps no worries and is crazy-supple for something with such balance and control. The dampers, too, are spot on and allow for that plush ride but counter any tendency to a secondary jounce or wobble.
And the front end? Gorgeous, sensuous and - dare I say - as good as any. By which, of course, I mean, as good as a 911. And that’s the bottom line here: the price of the new McLaren must surely force people looking at a 911 Turbo to at least consider our new mate Macca.
What’s that skip? PCOTY’s just a few months away? Ooh.
ENGINE: 3799cc V8, DOHC, 32-valve, twin-turbo
POWER: 397kW @ 7500rpm
TORQUE: 540Nm @ 3500-6500rpm
WEIGHT: 1350kg/ 0-100km/h 3.4sec (claim)
PRICE: $350,000 drive-away