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McLaren reaches into luxury GT territory. Should Bentley, Mercedes et al worry?

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The October 2019 market launch of this week’s road test subject, the McLaren GT, must seem like an awfully long time ago for anyone reading this at the firm’s Woking headquarters.

From taking its creditors to court, to putting its factory and office headquarters up for sale, McLaren has had to resort to extraordinary measures just to survive as the Covid crisis closed its production lines and dried up so much of the business of the wider McLaren Group last year. A time of expansive thinking, when the outfit was reaching into new niches and imagining new roles for its cars, must be very hard to recall.

The GT's sophisticated styling really grew on me, but I’m not sure I’d use it any differently from a 720S, and I think I’d enjoy that car even more. My guess is that a 720S would be little less refined or convenient

And yet that kind of mood brought us what was claimed to be the most usable, most aerodynamically efficient and in some ways most innovative new model that McLaren has put into normal series production at any time during its short history.

Whether those claims are true of the £165,230, 612bhp McLaren GT is what this road test must ascertain. This car’s design concept, which we’ll detail shortly, is clearly not as wildly free-thinking as that of the £2 million limited-run McLaren Speedtail – but McLaren says the GT was inspired and influenced by that Ultimate Series creation. Fundamentally, this is a mid-engined, carbonfibre-tubbed, turbo V8-powered McLaren like every other of the current era – but it’s one with very different aims and priorities from a McLaren 720S, a 600LT or a McLaren Senna, one whose major ingredients may sound familiar but have been mixed quite differently.

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It isn’t the firm’s first crack at a GT car, of course. So is it a significantly different and better one?

The McLaren line-up at a glance

Leaving out limited-numbers specials like the 600LT, McLaren 765LT, McLaren 620R and any ultra-rare Ultimate Series models, what you could call McLaren's series-production range includes the current-generation Sports Series models, which are soon to be replaced; but it still positions the GT in relation to its immediate siblings.

Convertible versions of the 570S and 720S are, of course, available. The GT doesn’t have a derivative range as such, but some of the car’s option packs can be considered de-facto trim levels.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - McLaren

DESIGN & STYLING

2 McLaren GT 2021 road test review hero side

A lightweight and rigid carbonfibre tub with a turbocharged V8 hooked up behind it wouldn’t be where most makers of luxury cars would start when designing a modern GT car, but what would happen if you started there anyway? What dynamic advantages could you bestow? And how differently could you meet the brief of a fast, comfortable, distance-devouring luxury driver’s car from how, say, Bentley, Aston Martin or Mercedes-AMG might?

Those are the questions that the McLaren GT sets out to explore. The departure point for this car must have been decided mainly by the art of the possible, of course. It uses a Monocell chassis and aluminium double-wishbone suspension adapted from the firm’s Sports Series cars, and a 4.0-litre engine and hydraulic power steering system adapted from those of the McLaren 720S. But exactly how widely those ingredients have been adapted might just surprise you.

High-set arrowhead nose of the GT is a defining part of its styling. It’s also exactly what it looks like: the centre of aerodynamic pressure of the front of the car. Air flows away from it very much like the styling does

The GT is the longest model in the current McLaren series-production range. Measuring 4683mm from nose to tail, it’s 140mm longer than a 720S. Its wheelbase is 5mm longer than that of the 720S or 570S, and its overhangs are both longer, too. McLaren’s intention was to provide better aerodynamic efficiency for the car than its other series models have, as well as a more elegant, less aggressive look.

Powering the car is a version of the firm’s 4.0-litre twin-turbocharged V8, codenamed M840TE. It has a compression ratio some 8% higher than a 720S’s, as well as smaller and more responsive low-inertia turbochargers. So although peak power for the GT is pegged at 612bhp and torque at a peak 465lb ft, some 95% of that torque is available from just 3000rpm. Downstream of the engine, drive goes to the rear axle through a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox and an open differential.

The GT is suspended by coil springs, double-valved adaptive dampers and conventional anti-roll bars. Although it uses the same suspension control software as the 720S, it doesn’t use McLaren’s interlinked damping hydraulics.

However, it runs with longer, softer springs and more ground clearance than any other McLaren model. The 130mm of underbody clearance made possible by the car’s optional nose lifter is supposedly enough to rival many saloon cars, making it easy to negotiate urban environments.

A very low kerb weight relative to other modern luxury GT cars is what has given McLaren permission to run with such gentle spring rates, it says. The GT is claimed to weigh as little as 1530kg in running order, and our test car wasn’t much heavier, at 1580kg fully fuelled. A Porsche 911 Turbo S is 60kg heavier still but a Ferrari Roma can be less than 1600kg with the right options, which does throw one of McLaren’s key claims for this car into question.

INTERIOR

11 McLaren GT 2021 road test review cabin

Certain inconveniences are inevitable when you’re making your way into a low-riding, mid-engined McLaren.

The firm clearly understands very well what they are, and has done its best to manage and mitigate them in the GT. And yet, were you using this car perhaps not every day but regularly, you would quickly come to know them just as well.

Long, shallow rear luggage area will take two pairs of skis or a couple of sets of golf clubs, McLaren claims. Hard-wearing SuperFabric lining is now standard

McLaren’s upward-and-outward swinging dihedral doors have been made as light and as easy to use as they can possibly be for this car. If you’ve had a McLaren before, you’ll feel the difference. Finding the flap that releases the door takes a bit of head scratching and fumbling around, though – McLaren’s well-established aversion to the exterior door handle evidently enduring still.

Then there’s the wide sill to cross and the inboard-set seat to lever yourself into, a process that isn’t so awkward or physically testing but also didn’t become as intuitive to any of our testers as you might hope in a GT car.

You’ll instantly see where extra effort has been made to enrich McLaren’s habitually fairly sparse standard on cabin ambience. The machined aluminium trim on the steering wheel is conspicuously flashy, likewise the one-piece metallic gearshift paddle just behind it (usually finished in carbonfibre or plastic), which feels pleasingly sharp and cool to the touch.

The ‘metallised’ look to the transmission control buttons and window switches is less convincing, though, and overall the car’s aura of material lavishness is a bit inconsistent. If McLaren was aiming to get up into Bentley, Porsche or Mercedes-AMG territory here, you’d say it is on the way – but has some way still to go.

The driver’s seat is soft and comfortable in itself but, sitting in it a couple of inches higher here than in other McLarens, your extremities (elbows and knees) are likewise displaced upwards a little and want for proper support. Head room is no more generous than the McLaren norm, and the car’s header rail looms quite close to your eyeline, beginning to intrude on forward visibility if you’re tall. Over longer drives, such things make a big contribution to comfort levels. Visibility in other directions is quite good, though.

For carrying capacity, the GT does well for a mid-engined car without equalling the accessible space afforded by a good front- or rear-engined one. A strict two-seater with an open, shallow luggage area running backwards over the engine bay, and a long glass tailgate above it, the GT will admit longer loads like golf clubs and skis surprisingly easily, leaving limited room to pack soft bags around them at the rear. There’s also the separate, 150-litre box in the nose, and limited storage space around the cabin.

It’s still a car in which you might struggle to house either one big suitcase or a couple of smaller ones without putting one in the passenger footwell and longer trips away for two might mean packing light.

McLaren GT infotainment and sat-nav

The 7.0in portrait-oriented touchscreen infotainment set-up on the GT is billed as McLaren’s most sophisticated yet. It is intended to be operated very much like a modern smartphone, with pinch and swipe gestures aiding usability. Most of our testers still struggled with that usability, though, and it was noted particularly that top-level processes like climate control adjustment are made more distracting and difficult by the system than they might be via a range of physical controls.

The navigation system gets real-time traffic information and, while it still seems harder to programme than it needs to be, it directs you clearly and simply. Smartphone mirroring isn’t possible by any means, though, which is disappointing.

For audible entertainment, a four-speaker set-up is provided as standard and is the lightest yet fitted to a McLaren production car. Our test car’s 1200W Bowers & Wilkins premium audio system has crisp, powerful reproduction quality but may have seemed more impressive still in a car with less ambient road noise.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

21 McLaren GT 2021 road test review oil cap

This might be the first McLaren road car in which how fast you’re able to go has been considered of secondary importance to how you’re able to go fast; and how much you’re able to enjoy what you’re doing even when you’re going slowly, for that matter.

The facets of its performance that have been really sweated over, McLaren says, are things like the feel and progression of its brakes, the low-end engine response and drivability of its engine, and the flexibility and audible richness of the exhaust note.

Steering has perfect weight and pace and the GT responds crisply to your inputs. It feels athletic and precise in corners and there’s negligible body roll at road speeds

However, for reasons we’ll come to explain, we have doubts that the GT would be quite as hushed at a fast cruise as you might like a continent-crossing long-distance machine to be. One revision that would plainly pay off for a GT owner is how much more flexible the car’s performance is than the McLaren norm. The car’s 4.0-litre engine still feels like a significantly over-square, fast-revving, flat-cranked V8, and still revs beyond 8000rpm, but unlike other McLaren V8s it also wakes up and boosts from as little as 3000rpm, so you don’t feel the need to manage the gearbox constantly or keep the revs high to make it responsive.

The gearbox shifts cleverly and engages smoothly, too, so the GT certainly begins to feel instantly, breezily brisk across the ground, often rolling on quickly without even needing a downshift. It is, in some ways, a more relaxing McLaren. It’s fast in outright terms, too.

On a slippery surface, it hit 60mph from rest in 3.3sec, ripping through the upper part of the rev range with vigour and drama. But it also needed only 5.0sec to get from 30mph to 70mph in fourth; a 12-cylinder Bentley Continental GT, with its 664lb ft, is no quicker in that respect.

Running with McLaren’s carbon-ceramic discs, brake pedal feel is good, making it easy to hold the car at a standstill and modulate deceleration smoothly. The car’s V8 is, like other McLaren units, somewhat flat and toneless to listen to on part-load and at ordinary crank speeds, but it can be made quiet enough, and pretty unobtrusive, over longer trips.

RIDE & HANDLING

22 McLaren GT 2021 road test review on road nose

Altered animal or not, this mid-engined car’s true calling cards remain the incisiveness and purity of its handling. Long-legged luxury cruisers aren’t, by and large, anything like as precise, agile and lithe-feeling as this on sweeping roads, and they don’t deliver control feedback to your palms as faithfully.

Although the GT has McLaren’s usual three-position dynamics controller, it actually has only one calibration for its hydraulic power steering. And by simplifying their mission, McLaren’s development engineers have arrived at a steering compromise here that has ideal weight and pace; the former remaining constant even at low speeds for easy manoeuvring, and the latter as moderate and measured as ever. The steering filters out some wearing influences of camber and bump from the surface of the road but still gives plenty of information to come through, so you can gauge the car’s grip level really clearly at speed.

I couldn’t help thinking of the Ferrari Testarossa while driving this car. That, too, was a larger mid-engined supercar that made a surprisingly effective grand tourer

Despite the allegedly soft suspension, the GT hardly rolls when cornering at normal road speeds and it responds with crispness to steering inputs and settles smartly on its outside wheels. Vertical body control isn’t always so closely composed, but rarely is it seriously flustered by a mid-corner disturbance, so the GT can be placed accurately at all times and generally puts you at ease at speed. It sacrifices a shade of the rapier immediacy on turn-in that we’re used to from other McLarens, but plenty is left to impress.

High-speed handling stability is good, although outside-lane motorway composure is a little dependent on the selected dynamic mode. Comfort mode made the GT a bit too susceptible to long-wave body movement for the tastes of most testers, and while Sport stops the oscillation, it introduces unwanted bite in the primary ride. In neither setting is the easy, fluent poise and progressive high-speed body control you’d hope for in this car quite as perfectly conjured as it might be.

The McLaren GT had slightly damp conditions to contend with at MIRA, but even in the dry it would have remained a good couple of seconds a lap slower than the average dry handling circuit lap time of Woking’s supercars over the past five years or so. And yet it would still be quicker than even the most powerful front-engined super-GTs by a similar margin in like-for-like conditions, being so much lighter, lower and fundamentally more agile.

You wouldn’t characterise the car as softly sprung on the evidence of its track handling. Roll and pitch are handled very tidily. The outright grip level of the P Zero tyres isn’t huge but it’s well balanced, so you can drive the car hard right up to its lateral limits. The front axle doesn’t have the tenacity of some McLarens but it doesn’t wilt under pressure midcorner and any rear breakaway is kept progressive by a mix of chassis and electronics as you add power.

McLaren GT comfort and isolation

This is where McLaren really needed to concentrate its efforts to move the usability needle of its model range with the GT; and while the body design does deliver a certain carrying capacity for the car, it takes a toll on high-speed rolling refinement. That’s because the space behind the seats into which you might load your golf clubs or fitted luggage doubles as a resonance chamber that gives noise and vibration travelling up from the 21in rear wheels an unimpeded route directly into the cockpit.

It’s road noise that seems to reverberate around inside that cavity mostly, with engine noise better suppressed at a cruise. Even so, despite McLaren’s efforts to dampen it with noise-cancelling tyres and various insulation measures, there’s a notable quantity of it. For what it’s worth, wind noise intrusion is low. And yet we recorded 74db of cabin noise for the GT at a 70mph cruise, at which speed a Continental GT would be registering only 66dB.

We touched on the strengths and weaknesses of the GT’s driving position earlier on. It could certainly be better supported in some ways, although it’s broadly comfortable. The ride is supple when set for comfort but not always as settled, still and composed at speed as we’d like.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

1 McLaren GT 2021 road test review hero front

Technically, the GT is a McLaren model series in its own right, but the car’s pricing puts it close enough to the heart of the firm’s Sports Series that it could almost have slotted in there.

A 570S is only £12,000 cheaper, while a McLaren 720S is more than £50,000 pricier. If next year’s Artura model is priced above the GT – and you wouldn’t bet against that – this could become Woking’s de-facto entry-rung model. If it does, it won’t look like one, or seem that way to travel in, which should work in its favour.

CAP expects the GT to be outperformed by rivals from Bentley and, over the shorter term only, Porsche

After slow sales thus far, McLaren has just sweetened the GT’s value positioning by enriching its standard equipment tally for the 2021 model year, making what was formerly the content of several big options packages (the Pioneer/ Luxe, Practicality, Premium and Lightweight Sports Packs) all standard kit. It makes a big difference to what owners might pay for the car; our test car would have had an after-options price some £35,000 higher had we tested it last year.

McLaren claims the GT’s touring range is 418 miles from its 72-litre tank. But our touring economy testing suggested that’s conservative: the car returned 34.2mpg on our touring efficiency test, making for a touring range of up to 540 miles. Few would surely want to travel further without stopping for something.

VERDICT

25 McLaren GT 2021 road test review static

Whether the aim with this car was to reinvent the mould of a modern sporting GT, or simply to show that a mid-engined, carbonfibre-tubbed car could fit the conventional one just as well as something taller, heavier and more generously lined with hides and veneers, the McLaren GT can be considered only a partial success.

As a driver’s car, it works compellingly well: it has more performance, crisper handling and a purer brand of dynamic appeal than a long-striding luxury option really needs. As a tool for covering distance, though, and for conveying well-heeled people from A to B in comfort and calm, complete with the trappings of their enviable lifestyles, it works okay – but probably not well enough. There is greater drivability, practicality and material richness here than McLaren’s habitual mid-engined standard. But the car doesn’t level with a traditional front-engined 2+2 GT coupé in enough respects to be considered a truly credible, equally usable alternative to one.

Plenty of pace and purity; less GT-typical usability and refinement

What the GT confirms is that before McLaren can truly broaden its horizons and customer base, it must first broaden its technical armoury. There are no shortcuts to that.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

McLaren GT First drives