Each week our team of experienced senior road testers pick out a new model from the world of innovative, premium and performance badges, and put it through its paces.
The 540C is the “baby” McLaren, the entry-level car. It’s a sign of the brand’s potency that a supercar starting at a six-figure price, and with a 0-60mph figure of 3.5 seconds, can be described as “entry level”. That’s McLaren for you. It’s serious about performance.
The 540C was launched in 2015, shortly after the 570S, its bigger sibling.
Right now, the 540C occupies the Sports Series, alongside the 570S coupe and convertible, more lifestyle-oriented 570GT and track-focused 600LT. Above the Sports Series sits the Super Series (720S – more to come this year), with the Ultimate Series (Speedtail, Senna, P1) above that.
McLaren rather knowingly describes the 540C as “for the every day”. In one sense, that’s true – it’s an entirely usable supercar, or high-performance sportscar, depending on where you draw your parameters. We lived with it for a week, taking it to the shops, refuelling, and doing the school run in it, speed humps and everything. But in another sense, of course, this is not an everyday experience for most of us. More of that below, but what makes it so usable?
It doesn’t look friendly from the outside, which is a good thing. That crazy McLaren scooped bodywork, the carbonfibre construction poking through the metalwork, the aero design… There are few styling differences between this and the 570S, which is good for those whose wallets can’t stretch to the latter.
But inside, once you lower yourself past the gullwing door, over the deep sill and into the low seats, things are friendly enough. The steering wheel has good adjustment, there are electrically adjustable seats, which for a brand that counts lightweight above all other attributes, is a strong nod towards user comfort.
The IRIS infotainment system is not bad, although we’d like a bigger screen, but presumably that would be considered a nod too far towards “lifestyle” and away from driver focus. There are even some storage cubby holes, which are welcome in this snug cabin. The boot, meanwhile, in the bonnet, has enough room for the PE kits and school bags of two kitted-out school boys.
Impressive, for the range’s “baby”. Power comes from McLaren’s well-thumbed, twin-turbo 3.8-litre V8, delivering 540PS (533bhp), hence the name, and 540Nm (398lb ft) of torque. It hasn’t got the bottom-end grunt of the 570S, but hey, that extra money has to go somewhere.
There’s an awesome seven-speed auto 'box with lightning-fast changes and the car has a kerb weight of 1.4 tonnes. Top speed is 199mph.
The way McLarens deliver their power, the characteristic that defines their dynamic nature, is hard to pin down, but it’s like a familiar scent, a perfume that takes you somewhere immediately. There’s the same heightened sense of occasion as for getting ready for a dinner party or night out. You can’t help but rub your hands in glee when the engine starts turning. It feels on the move like that McLaren DNA emanates predominantly from the steering. It’s heavy, but so precise, and so quick. It gives you an overwhelming sense of power and control, which, as we all know, equals a shedload of excitement.
At the other end of the scale, it gives just as much pleasure that one can ride over speed cushions or humps without needing to raise the suspension via the special steering-wheel stalk. That much performance doesn’t normally come with that much practicality.
You either get McLarens or you don’t. They’re most definitely not Italian, or German. There is something quintessentially Woking-ish (despite the founder’s New Zealand heritage) running through the oil. They’re more metallic than lyrical, more hardcore than clever, more focused than any other offerings out there. Our feeling is that as cars get more tricksy, and designed around connectivity, the driving purity offered by McLarens will make them a very popular, and deeply emotional, choice. For that, we love them.