The McLaren 540C may be billed as the company’s most attainable and useable sports car, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bargain or any less a sports car than its pricier carbon-fibre-tub siblings.
That given, there’s good news for those fiscally erudite buyers bent on saving around 50-large on their new McLaren – and no one will ever know you only forked out $325,000 (plus on-roads) for your race-bred sports car, instead of the $379,000 for the up-rated 570S.
There’s good reason for that – there’s no exterior badge on the car, just a small plaque in the console to signify the model. You’ll also be hard-pressed to pick any aesthetic differences between this and its garage sibling, the 570S, such is design similarity between the two models.
Taking a look at the pics, you’d have to agree the 540C, with its dihedral doors and killer styling, looks as good any other McLaren in the Sports Series.
It sits impossibly low to the ground and the bodywork is beautifully intricate, until you get to the rear of the car where it takes the form of a full-blown GT racer, complete with one of the most aggressive diffusers ever worn by a road car – and a base model at that.
Besides Lamborghini, which has been designing head-turning supercars for more than fifty years, it’s the upstart British-based McLaren which now commands the bulk of the retail space on bedroom walls these days.
There are precious few exotics in this class that so perfectly embody the supercar aesthetic as cleanly as McLaren’s new breed of road cars. And that unique design language is already starting to resonate with buyers and fans alike, despite very few years in the production car business.
While its genuine Formula One heritage and racing success is well known, McLaren’s road car business really only kicked off in 2011, when it launched the 12C. Prior to that, it built the iconic McLaren F1 – a technological masterpiece and one of the world’s fastest naturally aspirated production cars ever built, but that was 25 years ago now.
Clearly, it’s been a stop/start affair, but, with a three-tiered product range introduced in 2015, encompassing three distinct series; Sports (540C, 570S,570GT); Super (650S, 675LT, 720S) and Ultimate (P1 & GTR), McLaren is more than making up for lost time. And there’s genuine demand from those wanting to stand out from the usual brands.
In 2016, the company sold 3286 cars, almost doubling sales of the previous year, as well as recording its fourth consecutive year of profitability. It’s all part of McLaren’s Track22 six-year plan that will see a total of 15 new cars or derivatives delivered by 2022.
McLaren is also finding favour in this country, too, selling 93 cars last year, up by almost 160 per cent. By way of comparison, Lamborghini sold 127, while Ferrari found 188 new car buyers for its prancing horse-adorned cars.
Entry-level status aside, the 540C still looks devastatingly lethal, even at idle. And while it might miss out on some of the higher-tech wizardry of more exotic stablemates, it’s still very much the real-deal with a lot of the same race-derived engineering under its skin.
Both the 540C and 570S use the same super lightweight one-piece carbon-fibre monocoque, and both are fitted with the same 3.8-litre twin-turbocharged V8 engine and seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox. It’s ever-so-slightly de-tuned for 540S, but still makes a thumping 397kW and 540Nm in comparison with 419kW and 600Nm for the 570S.
It’s still blisteringly quick, going from standstill to 100km/h in just 3.5 seconds, which is identical to exotic rivals such as the Audi R8 and a tenth better than the Mercedes-AMG GT R (both more expensive vehicles), while top speed is a licence-shredding 320km/h. At least, that’s what the brochure says.
In the real world, though, it feels even quicker. Dial-up the full-noise Track mode and pin it, and you’ll experience the same kind of g-force-jolting shove as you would in any other supercar in this league. Entry model be damned, the 540C is 100 per cent legit supercar.
McLaren’s seven-speed dual-clutch transmission is impeccably engineered, for its all-round refinement, response and adaptability. Much of the week’s driving was made up of the daily commute, as well as those occasional mad moments of joy when conditions permitted a quick, full-throttle sprint here and there.
In the standard drive setting, you simply cannot detect the gear changes. It’s as seamless as it gets in this rarefied class, even at crawling pace. Mind, shift-speed is still split-second-quick, along with perfectly timed throttle-blipping on the downshifts, yet there’s an inherent level of refinement built into this transmission.
It ramps up a notch or two, though, when you switch to Sport. Throttle response and shift times become noticeably more urgent. And you don’t have to be going all that quick, either, to enjoy such mechanical mastery. Even during braking from 70km/h to a dead stop, the gearbox will rifle off a six-gear burst of blips, which will evoke a kiddish grin and leave you feeling like an F1 test pilot.
Suddenly, that lack of engine note isn’t so top-of-mind. You might even question the very need to ever engage the paddle-shifters, given how quick the shift-mapping adapts to your driving style. Well, almost. Truth is, the 540C, like every other McLaren, begs to driven manually, even on local roads, and even at a law-abiding pace.
The chassis feels just so wonderfully hooked-up, so that every corner is a treat. Turn in is sharp, but not too so, and it’s dead flat through the bends, as you’d expect. And just like the 570S, it’s also one of the most intuitive cars to drive.
There’s none of the intimidation and end-swapping threats you might get from other supercar marques, as mechanical grip and chassis balance is on another level.
Mind, it’s not quite as ferocious as the 570S out of the blocks, but there’s not a lot in it, at least until you hit the mid-range. Only then, can you detect the 540’s 50Nm shortfall in back-slapping shove. But unless you drive them back-to-back on the same loop, you’ll be none the wiser. This base model McLaren is a very, very quick car.
This is also the first time we’ve driven a McLaren with cast iron brakes – every other McLaren we’ve driven has been equipped with carbon-ceramic discs. Oddly enough, the pedal didn’t feel any different, at least around town – you still need to apply plenty of quad-powered muscle to bring it to a stop.
Ride comfort will surprise you, too, especially those bent on using their McLaren as a daily. While nobody expects a limo-class ride at this extreme level, the 540’s ability to absorb general bumps and lumps is quite amazing given its exceptional handling prowess.
It’s nicely damped, too, perhaps a tad softer than the 570S, but there’s still a good breadth of range between the various ride settings. That said, even Track mode offers acceptable compliance around town.
We just wish it sounded better. But then, that’s an issue affecting all McLaren road cars, even the hardcore 675LT (which we still rate as one of the world’s most capable track-ready production cars).
The fact is, the 3.8 litre twin-turbo V8 deployed across the entire McLaren range, doesn’t produce the kind of typical V8 noise that we all crave so dearly, and it’s the one glaring omission in an otherwise superb package.
And the 540C is no different, despite being equipped with the optional Sports exhaust, which only serves to amplify (particularly the loud bark on start-up) what is a disappointingly dull note.
But the more you drive this car, the less it becomes an issue, such is the connection between car and driver, from the very moment you drop into the contoured bucket seats. And buyers should be grateful that the leather is soft and the bolsters aren’t too extreme. This car should suit a whole range of body sizes.
There’s not a single button or rocker switch on the leather-clad, flat-bottom steering wheel. Nothing to distract the driver from the job at hand – driving.
In fact, there are very few buttons anywhere in the cabin, but for two switches on the console; one for Powertrain settings (Normal, Sport, Track) and one for Handling. Both become live only when you hit the Active button in between.
It’s all very familiar stuff. McLaren does cockpits devoid of bling, brightwork and colour. But, it’s not old-school, either. The entire instrument pod is one large digital display, which centres around an oversize tacho and smaller digital speedo, while other essential data like fuel levels and range sit on the side panels.
You could argue the push for a cheaper McLaren emanated from the Chinese dealer network, and I guess there’s probably an element of truth in that. Over there, outright performance and range-topping prestige take a back seat to the badge itself.
But here in our part of the world, the 540C makes all the sense in the world. Forget about entry-level status, this is stunning looking supercar, capable of blisteringly quick performance, sublime handling and is comfortable enough to be driven daily.
And let’s not forget about the 50 large, that’s at least two first-class tickets around the world and a dozen bottles of Cristal.