First Drive: 2021 McLaren Elva Review
I expect to readers of this that the name ‘Elva’ is best known as the company that produced a string of quite successful road and racing cars for a dozen years or so from 1955, including the Courier which found favour among many drivers, not least Mark Donohue who enjoyed some of his earliest successes behind the wheel of one. But it’s being used again because it’s also the company to which McLaren outsourced the construction of its customer sports racers in the mid-1960s. So there could be no more appropriate name to attach to this, undoubtedly the most extreme, uncompromising machine offered for sale by the modern McLaren Automotive since its inception in 2010.
More extreme than a Senna? Well at least in a Senna you get a roof, and while a windscreen is available for the Elva, it is an option, albeit at no additional cost. Talking of cost, it’s also a lot more expensive than a Senna. Costing £1.45 million, it is trumped only by the three-seat Speedtail both in price (£2.1 million), and exclusivity. While 106 Speedtails have been built, Elvas are common as muck by comparison with 149 due to be constructed this year. A total of 500 standard street Sennas were made.
The Elva is the latest from McLaren’s ‘Ultimate’ series of limited edition cars, previous examples thereof being not just the Senna and Speedtail, but also the P1. Many years prior to that and, indeed, the adoption of that nomenclature, came the F1 in 1994, which is the true source of inspiration for all these cars, Elva included.
- One of the fastest road cars ever created
- Incredible balance and poise
- A great, in the right conditions
We don't like
- Active Air Management system reduces but does not eliminate buffeting
- Expensive at £1.45m
- No heated seats
To some extent the Elva is very familiar. Like every McLaren – ‘Ultimate’ or otherwise – produced since the launch of the 12C a decade ago, it is a mid-engined sportscar with a carbon tub, and a twin-turbo V8 driving the rear wheels alone through a seven-speed double-clutch gearbox. And McLaren’s critics will say the Elva is really little more than one final stir of this now over-familiar soup before the launch of the Artura in the autumn, which is new from the ground up. But it is fairly certain those making such observations have not driven the Elva. To do so is to discover a McLaren quite unlike any other made to date, of which more in a minute.
In the meantime and like previous Ultimate Series cars, the Elva has not just that carbon tub, but is also clothed entirely in bespoke carbon-fibre clothing. Comments on the car’s appearance come from all points on the spectrum from love to hate, but there is no questioning the sense of purpose that pours from its lines.
With or without the screen (and cars with screens will be among the last to be built), the car has no roof and while the interior has been thoroughly doused in testing to make sure it all still functions if caught out in a rainstorm, those owners who choose to use their Elva (and plenty won’t) will either be living in a desert or taking a long hard look at the weather forecast before setting out. McLaren describe it as an ‘A to A’ car, where the journey both begins and ends at home, the car driven in between for pleasure alone.
To make that journey more comfortable screenless Elvas come with a duct in the nose to help direct the airflow over the car, rather than into the occupants’ faces. Its operation is explained in the technology section.
But the most important thing to understand for now are the numbers which equate to 815PS (608kW) from a 4.0-litre engine and a kerb weight of just 1,269kg. To put this into perspective, some might consider the Aston Martin Speedster this car’s closest rival, but in performance terms it is nowhere near: the Elva has not only over 100 additional horsepower but also weighs almost exactly half a tonne (an entire Caterham in other words) less.
Performance and Handling
This is a car that deploys almost 650 horsepower for every tonne of weight. You might look at that 2.8-second 0-62mph time and conclude it’s not that much faster than a conventional supercar. But that’s only because with just two driven wheels traction limitations mean only a small amount of that potential can be used at low speed. The 0-124mph time of 6.8 seconds provides a greater insight. That’s just 0.3 seconds slower than Bugatti Chiron despite the latter’s enormous traction advantage. It really is one of the fastest road cars ever created.
Which of course means opportunities to use that power on the public road are not merely few and far between but vanishingly rare. Squeeze too hard for a second or more and you’re putting first your licence and, very shortly thereafter, your liberty right on the line.
But an opportunity to do a few laps of Goodwood provide a better impression of the Elva’s true potential. McLaren describes the car as ‘track capable’ rather than track tuned, but in fact it seems a more natural environment for the car than the road. Because it’s only when you exit Lavant, hit the pedal and discover you’re already about to arrive at Woodcote that you realise just what forces this car can deploy.
Yet being a McLaren it’s so much more than just a straight line missile. Two considerations inform the way it gets through corners: its weight and downforce or, in both cases, relative lack thereof.
The fact it’s so light means it feels immediate in a way heavier cars – even those capable of close to this level of performance – cannot. The way it turns in, its balance, poise and the way it avoids extravagant body movements on the limit can only be attributes of an exceptionally light car. And the same is true of the feel it provides the driver.
The downforce issue is perhaps more interesting still. Load a car with huge amounts of it – as McLaren did with the Senna – and you have no choice but to also give it commensurately stiff springs to make sure that body remains supported with all those hundreds of kilos of aerodynamically induced weight sitting on top of it at speed. The Elva does generate downforce at all speeds but not close to enough to be so affected. So it can be sprung quite softly and appropriately for such a light car, which means that, quite unlike a Senna, it rides remarkably well too.
As for the ‘Active Air Management System’ at the front, it works impressively given there is no windscreen, and you only have to raise an arm into the hurricane force winds it keeps off your face to realise it, but owners should be aware it’s not a windscreen substitute, and does not remove buffeting, but merely reduces it to more manageable levels.
Inside the sculpted, avant garde interior of the Elva you will find much that is familiar in the way the car works. You sit in a thin but comfortable carbon bucket and look out to a digital instrument display of usual McLaren logic and clarity. To the right is a tablet mounted in portrait style where lesser information regarding navigation, ventilation and entertainment reside.
Significant changes include the deletion of the button hitherto required on all McLarens to activate their chassis and powertrain modes and the promotion of the controls for this functions to rockers either side of the instrument display. Notable for its absence is any kind of heating for the seats, a curious omission for a car such as this, even given the likely hot weather locations in which most will reside. At least the air blowers have been relocated and are excellent at directing hot jets of air at your midriff and feet.
Technology and Features
In most respects, the Elva is very conventional: no all-wheel-drive, not even a hybrid system. So inevitably attention turns to that AAMs system in the nose (which is deleted if you choose to have a screen instead). The first and most important thing to understand is that contrary to appearances, it is not a deflector. Although it does indeed interrupt the airflow over the car McLaren estimates that no more than 15 per cent of its effectiveness is so derived.
What the system does instead is take in a proportion of the air hitting the front of the car and channel it through a duct where the boot would otherwise have been. Then, and this is the clever bit, it turns it through 130 degrees and ejects it behind the deflector essentially travelling in the wrong direction. This air then shoots up like a giant fist where it hits the air flowing over the upper surface of the car, punching it upwards and over your head. It is very clever and when used in conjunction with the aerodynamically sculpted helmets than also come with the car, is its remarkably effective. Even so, it is still no substitute for a pane of curved glass.
Inconceivably expensive and entirely irrelevant to almost all of us though it is, the Elva is to be admired for offering the most intoxicating driving experience yet seen from one of the world’s top supercar producers. Yes it would be far more usable had it a roof or at least some kind of hood that could be used in emergencies, and the AAMS is very clever but still far less effective than that windscreen, but let us not forget the Elva is also the lightest McLaren of the modern era and, of those without hybridisation the most powerful too. The fact it also lacks the downforce to go with that power can, on balance, be seen as good thing.
No question it is a curio, but when a company like McLaren turns its attention to such matters, greatness can still result. And in the right conditions, that is precisely what has been achieved here.
4.0-litre twin-turbocharged V8
|Power||Seven-speed double clutch, rear-wheel-drive|
|Torque||815PS (608kW) @ 7,500rpm|
|Transmission||800Nm (590lb ft) @ 5,500rpm|
Reviewed by Andrew Frankel