REVIEW. McLaren 540C

December 28, 2016

The 540C is the second model on McLaren’s Sport Series line-up, but how does it compare with its sportier sibling, the 570S?

  • Check out the original post on crankandpiston.com HERE, and a pdf version of the evo Middle East coverage HERE

 

I’ve just stepped into the new McLaren 540C…and I have absolutely no idea if I’m actually IN the new McLaren 540C.

There are reasons for this confusion above some shadowy lighting in McLaren UAE’s parking structure and general ineptitude. As the second model on McLaren’s Sport Series line-up, the 540C shares all of its underpinnings and design with the 570S, save ‘subtly revised aerodynamics’ at the front and a bespoke wheel design. To get in, I’ve thumbed the same release catch on the floating door tendon as the 570S, opening said dihedral and stepping over the raised door sill to plonk myself in the awaiting leather sport seat. Inside there’s the same floating centre console and touchscreen infotainment system as the 570S, minimalist, entirely non-multi-function steering wheel, and – given that our test model boasts the Extended Leather package – the same well tempered upholstery. Even the Lava Orange paintwork and interior stitching are identical to the previous 570S we drove.

It’s only after a quick glance at the vehicle registration card and the ‘540C’ plaque under the dashboard that my confusion is finally put to rest in the presence of a clearly bemused McLaren showroom representative.

 

The differences then are subtle, yet significant. At $155,500, the 540C undercuts the 570S by nearly $21K, making it not only the ‘cheapest’ Sport Series model yet, but also the ‘cheapest’ McLaren yet. It shares the same 3.8-litre twin-turbocharged V8 as the rest of its Woking brethren, yet 533bhp, 398lb ft of torque and a 320kph top speed mean the 540C is also the slowest McLaren yet (the 570S one-upping little brother by 29bhp, 45lb ft and 8kph). But why? To what end?

Much like the 911-rivalling 570S when it first appeared, the 540C treads new ground for McLaren as ‘its most attainable’ model yet. The $21K difference in price may not seem like much when dealing with $150K-plus sports cars, but much like the exterior design, the expectations of the 540C have shifted too. Gone for instance is the absolute, categorical focus on performance in favour of a more budget-conscious, more daily amenable alternative to a full-spec Audi R8 V10 or Mercedes-AMG GT S. At the heart of the 540C for instance lies McLaren’s carbon fibre MonoCell II monocoque, albeit with aluminium rather than carbon fibre panelling around the outside to keep production costs down. The double wishbone suspension meanwhile is a less complex alternative to the ProActive Chassis Control found in the Super Series 675LT or 650S, the settings of which have been revised to improve ride quality over the 570S (not that the latter was notably uncomfortable). Throw in a ‘C’ in place of an ‘S’ to really hammer the point home without trampling into premium 570 ‘GT’ territory.

 

Furious fanboy assumptions that McLaren is diluting its breed though are far short of the mark: the 540C may gnaw away at the 570S’ dynamic edge for a hair more day-to-day practicality, but performance has barely suffered. Yes, the top end of the V8’s acceleration loses a modicum of energy over the more rampant 570S, but you’ll need to really cream the right pedal to notice. Acceleration from the off remains strong, linear and urgent, the true power and strength of that twin-turbocharged unit kicking up a gear around the 3500rpm with a mighty – albeit slightly mechanical – cry from the twin exhaust pipes. Shifts from the seven-speed twin-clutch gearbox are magnificently rapid yet smooth. The 540C’s steering retains the 570S’ beautifully natural rate of response, its intuitive nature allowing you to really lean on the fabulous amount of grip supplied by those Pirelli P Zeros without fear that the nose will wash wide. The body control is similarly glorious, and while the 540C does feel marginally less tied down under load than the 570S – we’re talking hair breadths here – the balance is still utterly astonishing, neutral yet playful, allowing you to place the front end with pinpoint precision whilst deftly controlling the rear with your right foot. To call the 540C any less of a McLaren than the 570S would be a great, GREAT disservice, even if the latter offers minutely more dynamic edge on the run to the limit.

There is something bothering me though, and I’ll take a step back to the parking lot. With the 540C, what you have is a slightly slower, slightly cheaper, slightly less dynamically poised alternative to the 570S that slides into the gulf alongside the 570GT. Note that word: ‘alternative’. Hitherto McLaren sport and supercars alike have retained the company’s flawless agility while simultaneously presenting their own sense of character: the 650S is a refined, stonkingly fast piece of art, the 675LT its ‘less is more’ psychotic sister and the 570S a stupidly brilliant eater of corners that teases you closer to the edge that you’d expect. But the 540C? Sure, it’s fast, agile and beautifully amenable to everyday driving, but it’s difficult to see it as anything other than a budget 570S.

 

It takes me a few days of mulling to wonder whether that’s necessarily a negative, however. After all, unless you’re in the habit of thrashing the living hell out of your twin-turbo V8 and hanging everything out on the edge into every single corner, you’re unlikely to feel the 540C’s comparative lack of finesse to the 570S. Plus, it’s still a McLaren, and thus superbly engaging to drive, absurdly fast, and offers no end of confidence at full beans thanks to that heady mix of neutral balance and front end grip. And all that for $21K less than the ‘sportier’ 570S.

For this particular writer, it’s difficult to put my skepticism fully to bed, and when dealing with $155-plus price tags either way, it’s hard not to opt for the 570S. But given what you could get for $21K less with the 540C, it’s not an easy decision to make.

*Images courtesy of Awesome Group and Harisanker.S

 

Technical specifications

Engine: V8, twin-turbo, 3799cc

Power: 533bhp @ 7500rpm

Torque: 398lb ft @ 3500-6500rpm

0-100kph: 3.5sec

Top speed: 320kph

Weight: 1311kg (407bhp/ton)

Basic price: $155,500