Review: the ‘entry level’ McLaren 540C

Is this the entry-level McLaren?

It certainly is. The McLaren 540C slots into the Sports Series range below the 570S and 570GT and has (you won’t be shocked to learn) slightly less power. So the 3.8-litre twin turbo V8 develops 533hp, instead of 562hp.

What difference does this make?

Well, here’s the thing: there’s a bit of a difference between what McLaren says the difference is, and what the actual difference is. So McLaren says this one hits 100km/h in 3.5secs (0.3secs slower than the 570S), 200km/h in 10.5secs (1.0secs slower) and can hit a 320km/h top speed, but I’ve just strapped our test gear on to the 540C…

And…?

It hit 100km/h in 3.1secs. Exactly the same time we recorded in the 570S earlier this year. To 160km/h there was less than a quarter of a second in it (6.3secs plays 6.1secs) and it was still only half a second adrift at 200km/h – which the 540C hit 1.2secs faster than McLaren claim.

So are you saying there’s no discernible difference between the 540C and 570S?

No, because flat-out pace is only one facet of performance – and one you can’t use that often. Or at least not for more than a handful of seconds.

Key here is the 540C doesn’t ramp through the mid-range quite as ferociously as the 570S, so I found myself making more use of the paddles. With the engine pulling just 1900rpm at 112km/h in seventh, you need to drop down a couple of gears to get the 540C to go properly.

Low-rev throttle response also seems tardier than I remember – the car seems noticeably more alert above 3500rpm, so I’m guessing some software alterations have taken place.

What other changes distinguish 540 from 570?

Very few. The front bumper and rear diffuser are marginally different apparently, but without having the two cars parked next to each other I couldn’t tell. There’s also a unique wheel design and the suspension has been softened a bit. But it’s not quite the same as the set-up used for the 570GT. That’s softer still apparently.

Should you buy a 540C, you might therefore be glad to know that there’s no external badging to reveal your tight-fistedness – the only 540C badge I could find sits at about mid-shin level on the console under the dash. Put something in the cupholder and you’ll obscure it completely.

And how is the rest of the cabin?

Fine. The trouble is that my current daily driver is an Audi R8, which has perhaps the finest supercar cabin of them all. The McLaren is cramped in comparison, the driver and passenger sitting close together and pressed forward towards the windscreen.

This is the first time I’ve driven a Sports Series McLaren that didn’t have the one piece seats, and I’m not convinced by these more adjustable seats. They’re very firmly padded, and didn’t hold me in place quite as tightly as I’d like. Plus you’ll need fingers like toothpicks to reach and operate the electric seat controls.

But you can get in and out in a reasonably civilised fashion. The doors pivot outwards as they swing up, so you don’t have to lean back and post yourself under a door and the sills are relatively narrow. That’s good.

You can see out well, the IRIS infotainment operates logically and the driving position can be as racy as you like. Pedals and steering wheel all operate with a precision that smacks of proper engineering know-how. You don’t so much get into the 540C, as put it on – the cabin is a snug fit and there’s a level of intuition to the controls that means you don’t have to think about your inputs.

That’s true of the 570S as well, isn’t it?

Absolutely – there’s very little difference between how the two cars drive. I will say one thing though. I couldn’t tell that the 540C rode detectably better than the 570S – both are very dexterous in that regard – but I think the altered damping has adversely affected steering response, injecting a fractional delay between you turning the wheel and something happening. It’s not quite as snappy on turn in as the 570S. Not quite.

It’s marginal though, and I only noticed it because of the precision with which the car drives. It feels its way along the road in an uncanny way. The whole chassis teems with information, chattering to you about surface condition, roll angle, weight balance and a thousand other things.

It’s super-detailed, yet inspires colossal confidence, making this emphatically a chassis car rather than an engine car.

Why is that?

Because the chassis is the best thing about it. The engine may feel sharp at the top end, but it’s not the star of the show. The V8 noise is pretty flat and uninspiring (I don’t think the turbos whistle as shrilly here, either), so on a good road you find yourself leaving it in third and enjoying the crisp high-rev response and thrust rather than any particular charm or charisma.

But the dynamics are more than capable of keeping you fully occupied. The steering may have that fractional lag, but once you’re past that the amount of detail, the weighting and texture is just delicious.

All in, it’s a terrifically absorbing car to drive. It’s very cohesive – the power and handling are well matched, there’s enough urge to stretch the chassis without intimidating the driver. It demands a bit of you and won’t relax as happily as an R8 or 911 Turbo. So as a daily it’s a bit harder work, but the highs are higher when you go looking for them.

But how is it to live with day to day compared to, say, an R8?

There’s more road noise, it’s a slightly tenser experience. The speedo is about 8km/h out. The turning circle isn’t very good. It’ll scrape speedbumps that the Audi will clear comfortably. The quality of the materials and design isn’t as good. The infotainment is less comprehensive and intuitive.

The rear parcel shelf is broad, though, and you can get a surprising amount in the front boot. Also, if you wear polarised sunglasses they stop you seeing the centre screen properly.

So 540C or 570S?

I’d need to drive them both back-to-back to be sure, but potentially the 570S. It’s marginally sharper on the road and has that extra mid-range shove. And if you’re going to have a McLaren Sports Series car and the (slight) compromises it brings compared to an Audi R8 or Porsche 911 Turbo, you might as well have the feistier one. Or the GT with its extra load space. But that’s another matter…

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