Whatever happened to the GT? That's GT as in glorious and fast touring coupé like the original Ferrari GTO which served as inspiration for McLaren's latest sports car – the aptly named McLaren GT. Or is it?
In another time, GTs used to be sleek and slick 2+2-seaters with plenty of space in the back for two little horrors but definitely not enough room for their grandparents. A classic GT typically had its engine in the front, the transmission sat somewhere between the axles, and the comparatively cavernous boot would hold four made-to-measure leather suitcases - think Bentley Continental T, Facel Vega HK500, Maserati 5000GT, Ferrari GTC4 or BMW M8 Gran Coupé.
According to McLaren, its GT not only belongs in this elite group of mighty V8-engined maulers, it allegedly even sets new standards in terms of coolness, packaging and vehicle dynamics. But although the Big Mac exceeds the Jaguar XE in overall length, the latest creation from Woking seats only two, which sums up its dilemma and its charm.
When they set out to develop a new type of fast, comfortable, light and involving sports car for long journeys, the McLaren product planners did their best to eclipse competitors like the Aston Martin DB11 or the Mercedes-AMG GT R.
Sexy looks were absolutely essential, and the design team delivered exactly that. Stunning proportions and sensuous contours, a low-flung silhouette sporting a tight-fitting yet airy arc-shaped greenhouse, a ground-hugging stance which peaks at a ducked 1213mm (a 911 is 87mm taller), not to mention the highly efficient aero kit conceived to blend maximum downforce with minimum drag.
What makes the sum of these individual talents truly special is the kerb weight of only 1530kg which undercuts the aforementioned Porsche by 60kg - not bad at all for a fully loaded coupé equipped with fat 20 and 21-inch wheels with matching XXL brakes. Key to the slim and trim physique is of course the modified trademark carbon-fibre core dubbed MonoCell II-T. The T is specific to the GT, and it stands for, well, you know what it stands for.
Based on the original MonoCell launched exactly ten years ago, the monocoque still deserves full marks for supreme rigidity and crash performance. On the debit side, the obvious deficits of the once pace-setting architecture are poor space utilisation and insufficient scalability. For a start, the super-heavy doors swing open in an extrovert fashion which requires ample lateral clearance and, ideally, a roofless carport.
The next obstacle to be tamed upon entry is the wide, tall inboard door sill which, together with the unnecessarily bulky transmission tunnel, compromises legroom in the narrow footwell. The GT seats are more comfortable than the usual racing buckets, but tall people could still do with longer runners which would of course instantly collide with the rear firewall. Although carving out two snug-fitting semicircular cocoons for driver and passenger was per se a neat idea, sacrificing cabin space for style was not.
While we're at it, allow us to add a couple of penalty points for the clumsy concealed seat adjustment, the irritating reflections in the windscreen and the rear window, the absence of a head-up display and the unimproved satnav which still trails real-time traffic by about 300 yards.
Passenger space may be scant, but the combined luggage space of 570 litres (no typo) easily matches any full-size saloon. The nose cone which holds the usual 150 litres of carry-on case plus coat is complemented by a deckchair-like rear cargo bay capable of accommodating a whopping 420 litres. That's the good news.
The bad news is that any belongings unfortunate enough to be stowed there are grilled from above through the panoramic top-hinged pop-up backlight while at the same time being fried by the drivetrain underneath. Thanks to some clever space-age insulation material developed by NASA, McLaren promises the contents of this sunbed-cum-oven compartment never to get hotter than 45 degrees Celsius, but my shaving foam disagreed.
In contrast to the size of the boot, the 72 litre tank was not big enough for the taxing five-hour loop on and off the famous Route Napoleon. Instead of the promised 670km range, our test car ran dry after only 377km, averaging a hefty 16.5 L/100km which was nonetheless acceptable in view of an average speed the publisher's legal advisor did not want to see in print.
As far as the ergonomic layout is concerned, the GT still uses certain elements of the original MP4-12C. One point in case is the active control knob in the centre stack which needs to be pushed before you can tweak the drivetrain and chassis settings in three steps labelled Comfort, Sport and Track via two separate rotary knobs. The same knobs will deactivate ESP and switch the gearbox action from auto to manual.
As expected, the combination of Comfort and auto is a sleeping pill on wheels which blends low revs and tall ratios to profound frustration. Sport and auto is okay as long as radar traps and heavy traffic prevail, but as soon as the first decent B-road opens up, Track and manual is mandatory to make this car shine. With over 7500rpm to play with, the close-ratio 7-speed DCT does a splendid job whipping the 456kW and 630Nm through the fast-forward action process.
In launch control mode, the McLaren GT will accelerate to 100km/h from a standstill in 3.2sec. A mere 5.8sec later, the coupé goes supersonic at 200km/h. Thanks to the slippery shape and the relatively small frontal area, the top speed works out at a remarkable 327km/h, which is about three and a half times the limit on any French route nationale...
In previous iterations, the obligatory twin-turbo 4.0-litre V8 rarely received compliments for ultra-smooth running characteristics or subdued working noises. In GT configuration, however, the so-called active exhaust mode allows the user to dim the decibel pollution in Comfort and at low revs. In this mode, the two by-pass valves are kept closed for a low-noise engine start and for neighbour-friendly part-throttle manners.
Those who want to be heard loud and clear should select Track and floor the throttle for the ultimate growler effect, or specify the deafening optional sports exhaust which may well fall victim to next year's much more stringent noise regulations.
When modulating or amplifying the engine's phonetic portfolio, don't forget to check out the pedal-to-the-carbon fibre shift action which is superswift in Sport and overboost physical in Track. While upshifts are truly seamless and lightning fast, downshifts need to be executed one by one - keeping the paddle pulled does not have the desired effect. Before you ask, let me tell you that there is no AMG-style drift mode either. The only way to kick out the massive rear end is by deactivating ESP before the momentum strikes like a time-warp avalanche.
The GT is a mildly tail-heavy car which puts 57.5 per cent of its weight behind the shoulder blades of the driver. In contrast to certain rivals, the McLaren cannot be had with AWD or rear-wheel-steering, and the option list does not contain adjustable sway bars either. By and large, driver assistance systems are also conspicuous by their absence.
The prime dynamic innovation are so-called Proactive Dampers masterminded by a new software advertised as Optimal Control Theory. Lurking behind the marketing speak is an evolution of the adjustable multi-stage shock absorbers first installed in the 720S. Neither camera-based nor radar-supported, the system relies on a pack of sensors which tap vehicle movements to read the road and modify the calibration accordingly within two milliseconds. Does it work? Yes and No.
While the ride comfort and the suspension action are commendably pliant even in Sport, the stiff Pirelli P Zero tyres rumble a fair bit at low speed, and at any rate transverse ridges irrespective of height and depth are not the GT's best friends. A 911 is suppler, the AMG GT R is more uncouth, the McLaren is happy covering the middle ground.
Like all mid-engined sports cars, this one needs properly warmed up tyres before it is ready for the real test. While a couple of burnouts duly light up the rear rubbers, the footwear up front takes a lot longer before it eventually clamps like a pro. When push comes to shove, bear in mind that there is no friendly torque split to pull you out of trouble - only tenacious grip, a momentary lift-off weight transfer that might alter the balance, and the united forces of traction and stability control.
Front-end breakaway is sudden in the dry, but with a bit of luck the carriage regains its composure inches later and before the outside wheel hits the kerbside marbles. In the wet - it rained all afternoon during our test - this second chance safety margin is virtually non-existent, and despite all the electronic trickeries there is plenty of drama evolving aft of the tiny rear window once the driver kicks open the floodgates of torque.
The hydraulic steering of the McLaren GT is a haptic delight, a highly accurate line plotter and a confidence-building connector which fuses man and machine. Shame about the orbital turning circle though.
The four shield-size steel discs can decelerate this car in only 32 metres from 100km/h to a full stop. What this impressive number does not relay is the discrepancy between the inherently laid back character of a grand tourer and the inhomogeneous performance of its stopping apparatus. Hammer the pedal like a racer, and everything is fine. But when you drive like most GT owners would, it takes simply too much effort to produce that reassuring initial bite, ambitious deceleration requires seriously fit calf muscles, and in the wet the DMZ between grabbiness and ABS intervention is suspiciously narrow.
McLaren charges a fair 6000 Euro (local pricing is yet to be determined) for carbon ceramic stoppers - it's money well spent. Other extras worth having include the variable-tint panoramic glass roof and the Practicality Pack featuring front axle lift, rear view camera and parking aids. At AUD$400K, even the base model should be well equipped locally. Having said that, about 70 per cent of the customers speak to the in-house MSO personalisation specialists before completing the deal.
On paper, the GT is a great buy, especially when compared to other McLaren models. It sports the most powerful engine this side of the notably more expensive 720S, it is a touch quicker off the mark than the identically priced 570GT, and it can swallow more cubic inches of stuff than a Volvo V90 estate.
But in more ways than one, the latest addition to the range is neither fish nor fowl. The cabin isn't sufficiently spacious for a GT that aspires to be best-in-class, the ride could be more composed on rough blacktop and through high-speed twisties, the digital end of the stick has plenty of catching up to do, electrification is nowhere in sight, and when pushed it simply isn't quite as chuckable, raw and sharp-handling as the brand's thoroughbred sports cars.
When pitted against its direct rivals, the Ferrari GTC4 Lusso V8 emerges as more practical and more modern overall, the outgoing 911 turbo S is a more pragmatic option, and McLaren's own 600LT is a more compelling drive.
2020 MCLAREN GT SPECS
Engine: 3994cc V8, DOHC, 32v, twin-turbo
Power: 456kW @ 7500rpm
Torque: 630Nm @ 5500rpm
0-100km/h: 3.2sec (claimed)
Like: Clever engineering; 'low' kerb weight; bloody quick; McLaren nails the steering
Dislike: Awkward cabin space; old interfaces; cooked shaving cream; is it really a GT?
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars