The mid-engine McLaren GT is a bold attempt to re-write the gran turismo rulebook. To find out whether it succeeds, Jon Wall takes a drive.
There’s a purity about the cockpit of a McLaren that reduces the concept of “driver focussed” almost to the bare essentials. You sit low to the ground, wielding a small steering wheel of handlebar simplicity, one that’s devoid of buttons and switches. You briefly glance through the wheel at a compact instrument display then return the attention to where it should be, the road ahead, which rushes relentlessly towards you through a vast expanse of glass. Three simple buttons control the transmission’s basic functions, an arrangement so straightforward, intuitive and uncluttered that even a child could understand it. Everything feels immediate, unmediated and exhilarating; everything unnecessary has been discarded.
Comfortably slotted into the McLaren GT’s driving seat, wheel in hand and ready to go, it all seems so familiar that I’m wondering how this car – which, we’re told, takes the British supercar manufacturer into what is, for it, largely unexplored territory – is significantly different from any other of the company’s machines. Grand tourers are customarily large, luxurious and rather heavy, with an engine at the front and sometimes room for as many as four passengers, whereas McLarens aren’t any of those things – and nor, with its mid-mounted engine, two-seat carbon-fibre monocell, scissor doors and a weight that only slightly exceeds a tonne-and-a-half, is this one. Is this really a GT, or is it a supercar in disguise?
Unveiled in the summer of 2019 but still rare on the highway, the McLaren GT follows on from the lovely if short-lived 570GT, the latter a slightly more spacious and refined version of the entry-level 570S. Although a step in the right direction, that early attempt at a more liveable, practical and daily-driving Macca – one that could also handle longer journeys with ease – evidently didn’t go far enough in fulfilling the brief. So back to the drawing board went design director Rob Melville who, after reworking the basics that have gone into every one of the company’s vehicles during the past decade (namely a mid- mounted twin-turbo V8, a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox and the aforementioned carbon tub), came up with a more fully realised interpretation of what a long-legged tourer bearing the McLaren logo should look like.
Given the underpinnings, it’s no great surprise that the GT is instantly recognisable as a McLaren – and especially so when viewed from the rear – though to achieve a more classic and graceful demeanour, Melville’s team softened and relaxed the corporate design language, adding a few centimetres in length and an integrated rear spoiler. Ground clearance was raised, not solely for aesthetic purposes but also to clear ramps and speed bumps (there’s an electro-mechanical lift, too, which can elevate the nose), the car rides on elegant 15-spoke alloys, and a large rear radiator intake on each flank replaces the more usual profusion of scoops and vents. The result of their efforts is really rather gorgeous.
Locating the engine behind the seats does not, of course, do wonders for an automobile’s luggage-carrying capacity, though it should be said that the front boot of even the most hardcore McLaren is large enough to accommodate a medium-size suitcase. However, by mounting the power unit and gearbox lower in the chassis, the designers freed up sufficient room on the rear deck to carry a couple of decent-sized bags, as well as the set of golf clubs considered de rigueur for any self- respecting GT. All told, there’s about 570 litres of usable storage space in the car, which compares favourably with some compact hatchbacks and should be sufficient to transport a couple’s belongings for journeys of at least a few days’ duration (if working out how and where to store what proves too much of a headache, McLaren can also supply a matched set of cases that should help solve the problem). It’s a shame, though, that there’s almost nowhere to stash oddments in the cabin.
Indeed, when compared with many of its rivals the McLaren’s interior would be best described as “intimate”, though with light streaming through the steeply raked windscreen and tailgate, as well as upper-door glass panels that form much of the car’s roof, it certainly feels airy and spacious. Although the interior design is restrained and contemporary, eschewing the old-school wood veneers favoured by so many of its rivals, fittings and finish are more sumptuous than on any other McLaren I’ve driven. Trim and material options range from a choice of leathers to Alcantara, a hard-wearing “next-generation” luggage-bay lining that goes under the name SuperFabric, and even softly tactile cashmere.
On my test car, top-quality hide covers many of the surfaces, with beautiful stitching, bespoke knurled-metal switchgear and brushed- aluminium speaker grilles on the B&W hi-fi all adding to the luxurious ambience. The memory seats, which are set higher than on regular McLarens, provide a reasonable degree of adjustment and support; they fit me cosily but could prove narrow for the average plutocrat, who may also find entering and exiting the low cabin challenging (those trademarkscissor doors, however, look unbelievably cool even after all these years).
Grand tourers are, by definition, meant to be fast but the McLaren GT takes performance and handling into an envelope more typically occupied by supercars. Output from its 4-litre biturbo V8 may have been dialled down by around 100 horses to 612bhp, but with a 0-200km/h acceleration time of just nine seconds and a maximum speed of 326, it’s still blisteringly rapid. However, with the full whack of torque available only above 5,500rpm and a discernible degree of low-end turbo lag, you’ll occasionally find yourself resorting the gearshift paddles to keep things moving. Unless working hard, the McLaren V8 has never been the most tuneful of high-performance engines either, so the GT’s enhanced sound deadening entails few aural sacrifices; indeed, if sitting in the car for hours on end you’ll find the muted noise from the engine a blessing.
Speed aside, it’s in the areas of handling, refinement and engagement that this car really convinces, for it’s doubtful that any front-engine rival can match its honed sharpness and balance, the pin-point accuracy of its steering and, thanks to the centrally biased weight distribution, the enormous velocities it can carry into corners. Although lower geared than on “normal” McLarens, the hydraulic steering is stunningly direct and linear, transmitting minute changes of direction to the front wheels instantaneously, while telling your fingers everything they need to know about the road.
And then there’s the ride comfort, long a McLaren strength and no less evident on the GT, especially when the softest suspension setting is engaged. Although eschewing the clever hydraulic damping of the company’s supercars in favour of traditional anti-roll bars, the adaptive suspension soaks up bumps and imperfections like a limo – which is surely as key a requirement for a grand tourer as the ability to barnstorm continents. Brakes, though somewhat numb in feel and fettled with steel rather than carbon-ceramic rotors, are reliably capable of hauling off speed time and again, and all-round visibility is excellent.
If your idea of a grand tourer is loading up and disappearing across the horizon with your partner for weeks on end, you’ll be looking elsewhere – a Bentley or Aston would be the obvious choices. But if your far-flung forays are shorter and less ambitious, look no further. Although compromised in both space and practicality, the McLaren really is capable of gobbling up the miles at ridiculous speeds and in limousine refinement and comfort. Think of it less as a traditional gran turismo and more as the supercar you’d want to leap into, drive and – just as important – be able to live with day after day, and you’ve got the appeal of this deeply impressive and utterly involving automobile in a nutshell.