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McLaren redefines 'entry level'

Power pair: Take your pick of either McLaren 570S (right) or 540C, both are a hugely enjoyable way to travel.

540C is Brit brand's cheapest model but McLaren says 'entry level' needs rethinking


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10 May 2016

MCLAREN'S new 540C is the most affordable and least powerful model currently available in its line-up, but with a top speed of 320km/h, zero to 100km/h acceleration of 3.4 seconds and full carbon-fibre construction, the car-maker says describing it as entry level does not do it justice.

Slotting in under the 570S and 570GT, the 540C is the most affordable model to be introduced to date with a driveaway price of $350,000 and represents the third variant in the least expensive McLaren Sports Series.

Speaking at the first Australian media drive of the 540C and its faster 570S sibling, McLaren Automotive Asia marketing manager Geoff Tink told GoAuto that he believed the term entry level had negative connotations and did not suit McLaren's most “attainable” car.

“I don't use the words entry level, but its the most attainable,” he said.

“I think entry level is a bad term to use. A car that is $350,000 driveaway and offers that level of performance, carbon-fibre MonoCell, you can't really call that entry level in anyone's book can you?” GoAuto had an opportunity to test a brace of Sports Series pre-production cars that Mr Tink explained had been specially imported to demonstrate the purpose of each variant following numerous enquiries from potential customers.

“Part of the reason that car is here right now is because we've got a lot of customers who are saying 'what is the 540?' so it's giving people the opportunity to compare the two, and we are finding that people are still choosing the 570,” he said.

“That's the trick with these cars – you don't want to create a (540)C that makes people feel like a second-class citizen driving what is still an incredible car. They are two great cars, they offer a slightly different personality and for a slightly different driving experience and we are getting strong demand for both.” While the 570S remains the most popular version of the Sports Series for now, Mr Tink said that there was a longer wait for the newer 540C and that some customers were prepared to stump the extra cash for the more potent version to get into a McLaren sooner.

“There are definitely more 570s being ordered, but primarily because I think people want to get their hands on these cars right now, and the 570, when you factor in options (and standard equipment), it is a really good deal.” The performance and layout of McLaren's most affordable model may prompt some to compare it with the likes of Lamborghini's Huracan LP580-2, the Porsche 911 Turbo and Ferrari's 488GTB, but Mr Tink explained that the company is not concerned by the prancing horse brand.

“There's performance comparisons then there's ownership experience then there are brand value comparisons and I don't think we compete with Ferrari at all. I'm not blind to the fact that customers who have that much money are looking at the two (brands), but we don't look at Ferrari and say 'what are they doing'.

“We are creating a unique ownership experience and we are out there doing it and we aren't looking at them. Ultimately, for those brand value reasons alone, I don't think it's an apples for apples comparison.

“We know that the customer makes comparisons like that but when we are designing these cars, we are not. If your competitors are in your line of sight when you are creating things, you don't stay true to your brand values and you don't create something which is truly unique.” From an initial sneak peek at the Sports Series pair we are certain McLaren will generate enough interest in both the most potent 570S and 540C, as well as the third member – the 570GT – when it arrives later this year.

For our first drive in Victoria's Yarra Valley, conditions were far from favourable, especially given the Pommy pair were wearing Pirelli P Zero Corsa semi-slicks and packing a mighty 3.8-litre twin-turbo V8 punch.

The 540C forfeits 22kW and 60Nm over the 570S but that still leaves it with a thumping 397kW and 540Nm of torque in a two-seater carbon-fibre coupe that weighs just 1350kg (dry).

Finding enough traction for full throttle in soggy conditions was a challenge, but the McLaren's traction control system is the smoothest and least intrusive we have experienced in a vehicle of this performance.

With a little too much enthusiasm, the ESC does abruptly cut power but subtly limits it to the maximum possible in the prevailing conditions. The effect is as if the driver is carefully feathering the accelerator and not the intrusive nature of some other systems.

Pirelli's top-performing rubber was specifically developed for the McLaren, but despite the bespoke rubber, the Corsa is not intended for wet weather fun. That said, we were surprised at the mid-corner grip with neutral power.

When we finally found some drier and more consistent surfaces, unchaining the McLaren was a sensational experience. The initial torque when opening the taps lead us to believe the pair of turbos are lag-free, but they are not. After a minimal pause, the brace of blowers top up the V8 up to its maximum output and the effect is glorious.

A small but noticeable difference in acceleration can be felt between the two variants (3.3s Vs 3.4s), but both provide fearsome pace and the performance is accompanied by a soundtrack that is just as theatrical.

With the window open, the driver's ear is located just forward of the engine's air intake and the full noise of a big turbo spooling up can be fully appreciated. An initial whistle builds to a full angry hiss like a tortured taipan, but not too loud to drown out the fantastic mechanical flat-plane crank sound.

Opt for the 570S and you'll get more bark from the exhaust, but McLaren will fit an optional sport exhaust if you want to match the volume of the faster version.

In both versions, power is sent to just the rear wheels via an excellent seven-speed dual-clutch transmission that is just as accomplished as the engine. McLaren calls it a Seamless Shift Gearbox which we think is accurate only part of the time because with the powertrain setting in Track, the cog swaps are as violent as they are fast. Top marks.

Steering wheel paddles adhere to the conventional pull left for lower gear and the right for a higher gear, but we like the simple but innovative touch that allows the paddle to be pushed for a shift in the opposite direction.

The carbon-ceramic brakes as fitted as standard to the 570S require a bit of heat to get them working efficiently and can catch you off guard when cool, but the iron rotors fitted to the 540C do a brilliant job and share the same firm but progressive pedal feel as the pricier options.

But easily the McLaren's stand-out party piece is its handling and steering feel, which is sublime, remarkably natural and class-leading. Both the 540C and 570S deliver so much feel and sensitivity through the beautifully crafted carbon-fibre wheel that is hard to believe the steering is power assisted.

While many other manufacturers have opted for fully electric PAS, McLaren has stuck with electro-hydraulic and the result is outstanding. The Sports Series cars respond to steering input with an almost telepathic intuitiveness.

Combined with its carbon-fibre MonoCell the McLaren's chassis is as taught as Artemis' bowstring and an absolute pleasure to position on the road and, while imperfections cause the wide tyres to tramline a little it is not a deal-breaker. With focused concentration the McLaren can be piloted in the most rewarding manner we have experienced in some time.

The 570S' chassis is tuned slightly sharper and offers an even more visceral experience but we would be happy climbing aboard every day. Particularly as the cabin is such a pleasant place to spend time.

We particularly like McLaren's approach to the centrally mounted information screen. While many brands have gone for the iPad look, the Brit is more Kindle with a simple but good looking system that is easy to navigate and as rapid to respond as the steering.

The fully digital instrument cluster, which prioritises different information depending on the drive mode, continues the cabin's generally clean and pure design. Subtle touches like the absence of switches and buttons on the steering wheel work well.

The 570S gets a posher stereo, electrically adjustable steering column and a few other embellishments but we would find it hard to justify the extra expense over the 540C, which is simply brilliant in its own right.

It may be McLaren's cheapest, slowest and least powerful model but regarding the 540C as some kind of soft option is a big mistake. Not only is it significantly cheaper than some models with comparable performance, it is a stronger performer in many areas as well.

From a pure driving perspective, the 570S and 540C are all over two of our favourite sportscars – the Lamborghini Huracan LP580-2 and Ferrari 488 GTB and may even better the Italian pair as a package, but when you then factor in the 540C's price it becomes a seriously compelling proposition.

2016 McLaren pricing*
540C (a) $325,000
570S (a) $379,000
570GT (a) $406,800
*Excludes on-road costs

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