It’s 26 years since Formula 1 team McLaren seemingly got bored of winning a string of titles and decided to build the world’s fastest production car.
The McLaren F1 was the British marque’s sole supercar effort for nearly two decades, between 1993 and 2011, but then it got serious about beating Ferrari in showrooms as well as grand prix.
In the past eight years, it’s produced more than a dozen new cars.
McLaren’s latest model, however, promises to be something a bit different. So different that it doesn’t join any of the company’s three ranges – the entry Sports Series, the mid-range Super Series or the hypercar Ultimate series.
At $399,995 it’s priced to take on those cars and is slightly cheaper than the 570GT it effectively replaces.
The GT isn’t a 2+2-seater in the grand touring tradition like its British counterparts, but it is otherwise equipped better than any other McLaren for long trips.
In addition to the 150-litre ‘frunk’ typical to all McLarens but under the GT’s sleek glass tailgate is a 420-litre cargo section – created via a new upper rear section for McLaren’s trademark carbon fibre monocoque and the lowering of the engine by 12cm into the chassis.
However, the space is narrow, shallow and the floor is awkwardly shaped, so owners won’t be throwing bags casually into the back as they might a hatchback or SUV. Even placing a business bag under the mid-section security netting requires a bit of an ungainly reach.
McLaren says the boot will accommodate two sets of 185cm skis, though, while its Special Operations division has created a customised, handcrafted luggage set that includes the requisite golf bag.
All the pieces are optional, of course. The full set adds $22,500 in Australia.
To avoid bags being baked from underneath by the engine or from above by a hot sun through the sleek glass hatch, air coming through the large side intakes is not only directed to the engine but also diverted to the luggage bay to help keep things below 40 degrees.
Access to the cabin, like all McLaren models, is via scissor-style ‘dihedral’ doors, which are also unconventional for a grand tourer yet are handy in car parks.
The aroma of leather is stronger than we recall in any other McLaren. The material dominates a cabin that eschews the exposed carbon fibre or Alcantara found in other models for a more traditional luxury cockpit. (Alcantara, though, forms part of a sportier Pioneer trim option pack.)
It’s lovely leather, too – an optional perforated, porcelain-coloured softgrain type in our tester instead of the standard Nappa.
That comes as part of a $19,950 Luxe Pack that further embellishes the GT’s cabin with machined and knurled aluminium switchgear and trim elements, and covers the luggage bay in a tough, pimpled material called SuperFabric that was co-developed by NASA and is said to be resistant to scratches, stains and nicks. The bay is covered in leatherette as standard.
Another $19,950 pack called Premium adds full adaptive LED headlights, cabin purification system, power operation for the tailgate, and a 12-speaker Bowers & Wilkins audio.
With longer journeys in mind, the GT-specific seats feature extra padding and the softest leather of any McLaren. They felt fine for the first hour and a half of driving, though further time behind the wheel revealed a seatback that seemed to provide insufficient lower-back support despite the inclusion of lumbar control.
Adjusting the seating isn’t the straightforward exercise you’d expect, either, as you have to squeeze a hand awkwardly between the seat and centre console and then rummage around with your fingers trying to find the right button.
It contributes to a sense that everything feels close together in the cabin, including driver and passenger, though even the DB11 is not beyond similar criticism.
Behind the occupants is McLaren’s widely used twin-turbo 4.0-litre V8, featuring more power – 456kW – than in McLaren’s 570 models or the V8 versions of the DB11 and Continental rivals. Maximum torque is 630Nm, produced between 5500 and 6500rpm.
No question which is the fastest Brit, either. Factor in the GT’s 1530kg kerb weight that undercuts the Aston by about 200kg and the Bentley by about half a tonne, the McLaren covers 0-100km/h in just 3.2 seconds – eight-tenths quicker than both rivals.
GTs are about marathons rather than sprints, of course: utterly effortless, continent-crushing journeys.
And the GT’s top speed of 326km/h means in theory you could drive from Sydney to Melbourne in a bit over 2.5 hours to give Qantas and Virgin an unexpected interstate-travel rival. If only.
If you’re just looking to cruise along, however, the GT’s engine feels a bit sleepy in Comfort mode and the transmission a touch busy figuring out which gear it prefers. The lack of easy response from the throttle pedal prompts a switch to the mid Sport setting that brings some improvement without quite achieving the more linear experience using the Manual mode with the beautiful metallic paddleshift levers.
When you need to overtake, though, the GT’s surging performance dispenses with slower vehicles (i.e most traffic) in a very short distance.
Whether at low or high revs, the dual-turbo V8 offers up a soundtrack that is industrial rather than evocative. Turbo whistle is perhaps something that might have been dialled out, too.
Fuel economy is disappointing, too. Owners of a $400K-plus car may untroubled by a large fuel bill, but the GT’s 11.9/100km consumption and 72-litre tank means a theoretical range of just 605km.
The DB11 V8, which consumers 9.9L/100km officially and has a slightly bigger tank, has the potential to travel 788km between fills.
The engine is quiet enough at freeway speeds, with wind whistle around the A-pillars more noticeable.
There’s no option to have the vehicle adapt either its speed or distance to vehicles ahead, with radar cruise control one of several technological omissions that also include speed sign recognition, blind spot monitoring, and a head-up display.
The GT’s ride quality is one of its best grand-touring assets. All McLarens, benefiting from their super-rigid carbon fibre tub, ride remarkably well for their dynamic qualities, yet here the launch drive in France pointed to another level of pliancy despite the GT wearing the biggest rear wheels (21s, with 20s up front) of any McLaren.
There’s some clunkiness on poorly surfaced urban roads, but otherwise the GT’s Proactive Damping Control system, which combines sensors and a clever software algorithm to predict and learn the road surface, is impressive.
You can also tackle fairly sizeable speed bumps without any scrapes – or engaging the vehicle lift function that’s part of a no-cost-option Practicality Pack also including front/rear sensors.
If the rear-mid-mounted engine takes a chunk of the blame for making the GT an unorthodox two-seater grand tourer, it also grants it distinctive handling for the segment.
While the GT’s front end may not be as razor-sharp as the 720S’s, its low and central centre of gravity is obvious on winding roads compared to a front-engined rival such as the DB11.
And you get the same expansive view out front courtesy of the carbon fibre monocoque that allows for relatively thin windscreen pillars.
Grip and stability are provided in more than ample measures, with the hydraulic steering near-perfect with its medium weighting and unwavering accuracy.
Strong braking performance, too, though the overly stiff pedal feel is out of a step for a car positioned as a grand tourer – making regular driving feel harder work on your calf muscles.
So, as a McLaren trying to be more of an all-rounder, the GT could be more rounded. But perhaps the company is leaving room for another, properly dedicated grand tourer.
In the meantime, for the customers McLaren believes are looking for a car that can thrill them for the last 10km of a long journey, the GT will deliver.