I've always wondered what it would be like to drive a Le Mans prototype on the road.
The McLaren 540C is the closest I’ve come. After you’ve awkwardly manoeuvred around the scissor doors, gotten comfortable in the tight bucket seats and familiarised yourself with the minimalist interior layout – including numerous ergonomic quirks – your first thought when driving the 540C fast is, how on earth is this the junior-burger model?
It is epically potent, something that feels like it would out-run an Enzo or a Carrera GT, not that I’ve personally driven either of those cars. But the 540C’s acceleration makes you frightened at how fast a 720S might be. At $331,500, if your sole objective in buying a car is to drop as many jaws as possible, as cheaply as possible, the 540C is your car.
Low and wide and with the engine visibly in the middle, and with those batmobile-style doors and fat 19/20-inch F/R wheels, it’s the cheapest supercar-looking car you can get (the Audi R8 V10 next at $354,325). Although that’s without options, and our 540C test car had a few of those, bringing the price to $381K.
And with things like rear vision camera and leather optional, few owners will be withdrawing just the $331K at the ATM prior to visiting their local McLaren dealer. Whatever you do end up spending, you get a car so quick it would take forever to tire of the acceleration.
Powered by a 3.8-litre twin-turbo flat-plane-crank V8 – developed in conjunction with British engineering firm Ricardo, originally for the MP4-12C – the 540C cranks out 397kW at 7500rpm and 540Nm from 3500-6500rpm. With a dry weight of 1350kg, the rear-drive 540C, with its Pirelli P-Zero 285-section rear bags, claims 0-100km/h in 3.5 seconds and 0-200km/h in 10.5 seconds.
Quicker, indeed, than an Enzo or Carrera GT. Although not as quick as a McLaren F1. The 540C uses a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox with paddle-shifters. There’s no conventional manual option. Its redline is 8250rpm and the top speed is 320km/h.
With the engine in Race mode, the digital instruments assume a MoTeC-style layout adding further to the Le Mans racer-for-the-road feel, as the engine spews out heat visible in the rear vision mirror. You sit low and reclined, like you could be on the grid at La Sarthe.
It’s the acceleration that’s the most remarkable thing about the 540C. Holy crap it’s fast. Despite an open diff – the computer simulates an LSD with the brakes, and it works – traction is strong. Although with the ESP in sport, wheelspin is possible all the way through first and, on cold tyres, at the top of second gear.
It’s very exciting. When it hooks up, it presses you against the thinly-padded seats and greedily sprints through its forward ratios. It is comically quick. The engine performance is incredible. With a big turbocharged personality, it hisses as it strains against tall gears at low revs, but bang it down a few and it delivers huge forced-fed grunt from low down right to redline.
There’s no torque holes here, or lag. It sounds angry and eager. While it’s a fast-paced note, it’s lower in pitch and doesn’t quite howl. It sounds like what it is: A turbocharged, small-capacity V8. The brakes? Epic. Handling? Precise and planted, the damping getting better the faster you go.
Sport ESP permits a bit of throttle bum wriggle out of first and second gear corners. It’s a fun car, mostly for its power and wheelspin. But trying to judge corner entry speeds, I did struggle to gel with the 540C. There’s not much steering feel and 225/285 (F/R) rubber is actually not that much; the lateral grip limits are achievable.
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Sometimes unexpectedly, as it can be hard to know what the chassis is thinking. In fairness, it does feel like this would be a new car all over again on a racetrack – for the better. While psycho fast and turning heads everywhere it goes, the 540C is, however, also a bit soulless.
It feels very much like a machine. With time I’d respect it and learn to work with it, but I’m not sure I’d ever feel affection for it.
4 stars out of 5
Likes: Crazy potent; epic brakes; aggro noise; comfy ride
Dislikes: Steering kickback; weird interior noises
2018 McLaren 540C specs:
Engine: 3799cc V8, DOHC, 32v, twin-turbo
Power: 397kW @ 7500rpm
Torque: 540Nm @ 3500-6500rpm
Weight: 1350kg (dry)
0-100km/h: 3.5sec (claimed)