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Why McLaren is our carmaker of the year

For a young company, McLaren's had a vintage year, launching three world-beating cars

  • When we tested the McLaren 570S against its rivals, the Audi R8 and Porsche 911 Turbo S, something struck me about the newest, most junior McLaren.

    When the first MP4-12C arrived, some five years earlier, it hadn’t just been the convoluted name that was somehow off-kilter. It was certainly a bold, high-tech offering, a car that took the fight to the heart of Ferrari, but the execution was that of a company that was finding its feet. Hardly surprising, maybe. But well documented issues with the IRIS infotainment and, more pertinently, an absence of charisma, made the MP4 feel like a product that hadn’t had enough love lavished on it.

    Photography: Lee Brimble

    This feature was originally published in the May 2016 issue of Top Gear Magazine.

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  • But the 570S, from the first moment I drove it, seemed different. Same 3.8-litre twin turbo V8 engine, essentially the same carbon tub, still with the portrait-screen satnav, but now with a new attitude. Confident. Very, very confident.

    Confidence is a tricky thing for a car company to attain, especially one so young. It comes not from the products, but the people who create them. Those people were sure, even after a slightly shaky start, of what they were doing and where they were heading. Consider the pressures that must have been on them from investors and customers alike, from dealers and the press, from rival marques and suppliers, yet McLaren was able to keep a clear vision of where it was headed and what it needed to do to get there. That’s impressive.

  • That’s what F1 has done for McLaren’s road car programme. Forget the technology – the whole F1-to-road-car crossover is essentially poppycock – it’s the clear, level determination, the clarity of thought and focus on process that’s so much part of the culture at McLaren. The ability to think things through, keep eyes on the prize. Because at it’s heart, F1 isn’t about technology, it’s about raw, steely competition.

    How often have we heard of ideas being watered down, of compromises being made? During 2015, McLaren Automotive, a firm with only six years experience of building road cars, gave us the 570S, the 675LT and the P1 GTR. Drive any of them, and you won’t get the impression that compromise was a part of their make-up.

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  • In the last 12 months, I’ve driven them all, and now here they are lined up together for the first time, at Dunsfold on an unexpectedly gorgeous February day. I’d forgotten how compact and low the GTR is. I know it looks vast in pictures, but that’s because we take the shots from low down to make the rear wing look even madder than it actually is.

    In reality, the doors are at knee level, and your arse is on the floor. The cockpit is pure Le Mans, the steering wheel is based on Lewis Hamilton’s 2008 F1 rim and my right foot opens the taps on 1,000PS.

  • Sounds better than 986bhp, split 789 to 197 in favour of internal combustion over electric motor. At its core, though, the same V8 twin turbo and carbon MonoCell tub as you’ll find in both other cars here. The price is stratospheric, of course, but so is the experience.

    The straight-line speed isn’t what’s preposterous about the GTR. Everything is what’s preposterous about it. The acceleration is no more ridiculous than the grip, which is no more unhinged than the brakes, which are no more insane than the traction, which is no less barmy than the noise. And as a result, and quite unlike the P1 road car, where power triumphs readily over grip (with potentially alarming consequences), the GTR is massively cohesive. A precision instrument channelling the power of a whirlwind.

  • And because it’s so precise and accurate, because the lines of communication back to the driver are so clear, because the whole package is so balanced and biddable, you quickly have confidence in it. Now there’s a surprise – a confident car from a confident company is confidence-inspiring to drive.

    So you can go quickly in it. And quickly in a P1 GTR means 2.4 lateral g and facial muscles that fail to hold your features in place. It is a force of nature, the P1 GTR – simple as that. That McLaren has been able to not only contain this much energy inside a car, but also deploy it with such accuracy, subtlety and controllability is a real achievement.

  • The thing is, they’ve been doing it time and time again. Take the 675LT. It’s easy to view it as a mildly uprated 650S – it still has the same engine, gearbox, carbon structure, etc., but as a pure driver’s car, it’s transformed. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what areas have been improved, because in truth they all have. It’s a no-stone-unturned approach, where absolutely everything has been examined, found slightly wanting, and adjusted accordingly. The result, as simply as I can put it, is a more athletic car.

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  • I’ll let you in on a little secret. When Jason Barlow drove it for the first time last summer, he wrote “We’re going to cut to the chase – the 675LT is the best McLaren road car since the original F1.” And you know what I did on the printouts I was reading? I circled it heavily, and added a bunch of question marks. I doubted my own colleague, thought hyperbole might have got the better of him. So I called him and he was emphatic about it. “Better than the P1?” I asked. “Absolutely,” came the reply.

    And then I drove it. And Jason was spot-on.

  • This would appear to all be leading to the conclusion that the 570S is the weakest link in McLaren’s chain, where in fact I think it might actually be the strongest – and certainly the most important in terms of the firm’s long-term sales and income. This, together with the recently announced GT version, is the volume seller, the car that really has to battle for its place in supercar society.

    That it romped to victory over the Audi R8 V10 Plus and Porsche 911 Turbo S is an indication of how highly we rate it. It’s the best to drive, although didn’t have everything its own way. The 570S is less practical than those cars, not as easy to live with daily. Maybe that’s the thinking behind the new GT, with its hatchback and more relaxed demeanour. We haven’t driven that car yet, but given McLaren’s recent run of form, we have a feeling it’s unlikely to be a duffer.

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  • Manufacturer of the year. It feels like team of the year, doesn’t it? They might not necessarily be the strongest individuals, but the way they play together…

    This isn’t that. We’re not evaluating them as a product line-up, but assessing each in its own competitive environment. All of them are exceptional, arguably the very best in their class. That McLaren has got to this stage in such a short time frame speaks volumes for the company. Confidence, see. It rubs off.

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