I absolutely bloody love mid-engined supercars. They make me deeply happy, and I honestly believe that any nagging First-World problem I may be suffering can be dispelled by having an engine behind my head and a stubby bonnet in front of my face. How’s that for a First-World solution?
Obviously, supercars are completely pointless and fail epically at the job of being a useful car. A supercar confers no special attribute on its owner or driver, and I’ve pointed out many times that no-one ever ran down the aisle of an airliner in a massive panic shouting ‘Is there anyone on board who can drive a supercar?’
In which case, I’m free to consider the supercar as an artwork (Ovid stated that one of the definitions of true art is that it has no utility) or maybe just a pleasant experience, like one of those Indian head massages or a light jazz cigarette. It’s important that they can do all that Nurburgring stuff because that gives them meaning, but they slot into my life as simply ‘nice’.
The McLaren 540C is very nice. This is the ‘budget’ McLaren (where the meaning of ‘budget’ depends on whether you scavenge for a living on a rubbish tip or you’re Jeff Bezos) and does away with some of the complex hydraulic suspension stuff of the grander versions and uses steel anti-roll bars instead. At around £130,000 it’s in the same drop zone (sorry) as Honda’s NSX, but whereas the Honda is a very clever multi-motor hybrid, the McLaren is essentially old-school.
Actually, that’s not entirely fair. Just as the Honda has brought the technology of the Porsche 918, TheFerrari and indeed McLaren’s P1 to the realm of the common supercar, McLaren has, with the 540C, popularised the exotic of 10 or so years ago: carbon-fibre tub, twin-turbo engine, adaptive and configurable suspension, and so on. All stuff that was as unattainable as the Moon not so long back. So I’ll take none of your ‘entry level’ snootiness in this tribe. This is a 533bhp supercar that’ll do 199 mister. I never once thought it a bit underpowered and I haven’t yet been round a bend and thought ‘Oh no! The suspension’s all full of steel bits!’
There are, however, a few banal things to be criticised. I find the steering a bit light and the engine note very ordinary, even with the sports exhaust fitted here. The gearshift is perfectly fine but not as crisp as the PDK job on a Porsche. My car had the optional carbon-ceramic brakes fitted, at an extra £7,290, but I’d throw those in the canal and ask for the standard clog-iron bits to be put back on, because carbon-ceramic makes a funny noise, and admitting you have opted for such a thing makes you a bit of a nob and a helmsman. I’m not interested in being a helmsman; I’m here for the art.
On the plus side, the ride has a lovely sophisticated firmness to it and the view out of the screen is fab. It’s a creak-free car (unlike some rivals I’ve driven recently) and a lot of the detailing is really tasteful: the column stalks, for example, and the instrument display.
Anyway; back to thinking about it in terms of niceness. This definitely isn’t an Italian supercar, because it just isn’t theatrical enough. Next to a 488 or Huracan it could be described, as my mother would say, as ‘very plain’, although at least the doors open in an exciting way. It definitely isn’t German, either, as it doesn’t make enough sense and it’s too mid-engined. It’s quite techy and purposeful, and the facia glows in a fascinating and enticing manner, but it doesn’t have much in the way of cultural baggage. Maybe it’s sort of Swiss.
Or maybe – here’s a thought – it’s a proper piece of Modern Britain, and what a relief that is. There are no heritage hang-ups to confuse the design, and no bling in the cabin. No suggestion of aprons, fake history or faux artisanship lurking in the background. It’s built in a modern factory in an unassuming place and feels like the work of people who are entirely focussed on automotive engineering and how it can be made to interact with your bits.
And yet… it’s still homespun enough to feel like a cottage-industry car, where the cottage is actually more like a hospital and you’re expected to wipe your feet and not make too much noise. The graphics on the central screen are a bit last-generation, there are a few mechanical clunks and whirs making their way through, and even the click in the paddle shift has a slight ‘early Amstrad’ feel to it. It’s built, rather than entirely manufactured, which makes it feel nice and personal. (It is, of course. If you order one, you can go along and watch it being built, so long as you wash your hands and don’t touch anything).
I’ve said before that some cars seem to be smiling as you drive along in them, and the 540C is one such. It’s a good-natured supercar, loved by casual onlookers and positively adored by my missus, who (if she’s honest) hates my Ferrari. The hackneyed view of McLaren is that everybody there has OCD and as a result they produce a functional but sterile car. Total bollocks, actually. A machine, as someone once said, is like a book, if you know how to read it. The 540C feels very, very special to me, a perfect blend of elemental supercar sensations with iPad-era contemporary trimmings. I’m delighted Britain can produce such a thing – not because I’m hamstrung about being British, but because I think it’s important.
You’re right, this isn’t the fastest supercar in the world. In fact, it’s the slowest supercar in Woking. But note that I haven’t bothered you too much here with stuff about performance and handling. What matters is how it makes me feel. This car poked me right in the fizz gland.
Excellent. I’m happy.
Photo credit: a reluctant Richard Hammond