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Car reviews - McLaren - 540C - Sport Series Coupe

Our Opinion

We like
Exotic exterior styling, engine’s lust for revs and strong performance, dual-clutch smoothness, superb steering and ride quality around town
Room for improvement
Interior feels unique but cheap, excessive options, engine can sound bland, lacks steering feel and front-end tyre grip, dual-clutch needs greater intuition

Entry 540C attempts to play off its own 570S sibling in McLaren showrooms


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23 May 2018

IF THE forthcoming Senna and as-yet unnamed BP23 hypercar duo are the Big Macs of this world, then the McLaren 540C continues to be the Junior Burger.
For the last three years it has formed the entry point to British supercar ownership, its digits representing the European power figure that locally translates to a heady 397kW from a detuned 3.8-litre twin-turbocharged V8 petrol engine. Detuned? Well, the next-step-up 570S makes 419kW, in addition to slashing two-tenths off this 540C’s rather speedy 3.5-second 0-100km/h claim.
McLaren claims that several buyers simply step right up in the range, from $350K to $400K plus on-road costs. But is that really the smart thing to do? At a recent drive day in Sydney, we had the opportunity to sample the 540C back-to-back with the 570S (in drop-top Spider form) to find out.
With local sales having doubled in two years, and new competitors having flooded the market – such as the updated Jaguar F-Type SVR, Mercedes-AMG GT S and Porsche 911 GT3, as well as the new Audi R8 RWS – it was also arguably a fine time to return to the Mac in entry-level form.
Drive impressions
From the outside it is almost impossible to distinguish the $350,000 plus on-road costs 540C from its $395,000 570S sibling. Both sit low and wide, with contrast front spoilers and side blades, elegantly raising scissor-doors, and freckled LED tail-lights that swoop around the central tailpipes.
Both rear-wheel-drive, dual-clutch automatic-equipped McLarens also score 19-inch alloy wheels with 225mm-wide tyres at the front, and 20-inch alloys with 285mm tyres at the rear. The test cars we sampled all featured optional ($2140) racetrack-focused Pirelli P Zero Corsa tyres.
Where the duo most differ is behind the wheels and under the bonnet. There’s firmer adaptive suspension and faster hydraulically assisted steering in the 570S compared with the 540C. 
The 3.8-litre twin-turbocharged V8 not only moves from 397kW to 419kW of power at 7500rpm, but also from 540Nm of torque between 3500rpm and 6500rpm, to 600Nm from 5000rpm until 6500rpm.
With a tare weight a few kilograms either side of 1400kg, the context of these mid-engined supercars can be best imagined by thinking of a similarly heavy, but 397kW Hyundai i30 N.
Neither entry to Sports Series ownership – as McLaren calls all models that start with a ‘5’ and sit below the 720S in the Super Series category, and Senna/BP23 in the Ultimate Series group – is well-equipped, but the $45K gap between them does give buyers a choice of two ways to play.
That is because the options sheet is broadly the same, so a buyer could choose a highly specified 540C for the same price as an unoptioned 570S. 
Select on the former a carbon-fibre exterior ($14,580) and interior ($13,700), 12-speaker Bowers and Wilkins audio ($9080), electrically adjustable/heated sports seats ($7000), Nappa leather ($6800), electrically adjustable steering column ($3540), plus a reversing camera ($2640), and the price comes to $407,340, for example.
The only mechanical options on both include carbon ceramic brakes ($19,120), a sports exhaust ($8500) and vehicle lift function ($5320) to help avoid scraping the low nose on steep driveways. Even so, it is a lot to add for vehicles that certainly do not start off cheap.
With all that absorbed, slinking through dense traffic away from Sydney in the 540C comes a reminder of just how civilised and mature it is. 
Surprisingly for such a low vehicle with scissor doors, entry and egress is impressively easy, while the throttle and transmission operate smoothly and fluently when moving from standstill, to low speed, and back to a standstill once more.
Entering medium-speed, two-lane arterial roads reveals steering that is slick and sharp, yet beautifully measured, while the McLaren’s body feels so strong and its suspension so supple that it glides over road imperfections while keeping occupants immaculately undisturbed.
Very quickly it becomes apparent that there is a sophisticated depth in the engineering of this coupe that enables it to feel smoothly comfortable, yet tightly controlled, at all times. Suddenly, also, it moves into the realm of Ferrari or Porsche engineering, more than Jaguar or Mercedes-AMG.
Perhaps just do not look closely at the interior finish, though. McLaren boasts that it does not share interior parts with other manufacturers, unlike Lamborghini borrowing from Audi for example, but the slow and aftermarket-looking touchscreen and rubbery rotary dials still look and feel cheap. At least the driving position is spot on, and the driver’s colour screen is a high-resolution unit.
Having finally escaped traffic and arrived at a familiar hillclimb, the 540C can start to show off its twin-turbocharged V8’s broad rev band that extends to 8250rpm. 
Most turbo engines quit well below that figure, but the McLaren actually feels a fraction slow and unresponsive below 3000rpm. It thrives on revs, and delivers terrific throttle response, like old-school naturally aspirated engines.
It sounds bland, like a piece of industrial machinery, until it is worked in the upper reaches as well, where it takes on quick-spinning, more deeply furious sonics. There are three settings each for the suspension – Normal, Sport and Track – and even in the middle one the 540C delivers amazingly flat cornering even when pushed right to the edge of grip levels. 
It can also be a fraction dull, however, given that the slim – by class standards – 225mm-wide front tyres give up slightly early, yet the suspension does not easily shift its weight onto the rear section of the vehicle like, for example, the Porsche Cayman – another mid-engined coupe that brilliantly does. 
Try to use the throttle to make use of the rear-wheel-drive format and the rear 285mm-wide tyres just grip up and shoot the McLaren to the next corner. It is efficient, rather than absolute fun.
Perhaps the most sizeable problem of all is the otherwise excellent steering, which becomes incredibly mute when attempting to judge grip levels.
The drivetrain has three identically labelled modes, too, and in Normal it refuses to kick down to the lowest gear when the throttle is completely flattened, yet in Sport it both hangs onto gears too long in mundane conditions yet is not aggressive enough for sporty driving. 
That is the job for Track, no doubt, but a driver should not have to select a racetrack mode to gain an intuitive transmission. Ferrari and Porsche dual-clutch transmissions are much, much smarter than this.
Finally swapping into the 570S Spider, and that extra torque can immediately be felt and appreciated. 
The firmer suspension has a tighter handle on front-end turn-in and the extra aggression starts earlier and lasts longer when powering away from corners. It was ultimately more exciting than the 540C, at least on our back-to-back loop that was short, but crammed with bends.
In isolation, though, these are brilliant models. They look special, yet are easy to get into. Their urban manners are first rate, yet the V8 delivers a special kick at the top end that few turbo engines can match. 
Only some missing finesse in steering and transmission calibration, and a slight lack of grip and poise, let them these little Macs down within this class of big-time performers.

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