by Ben Barry
In many ways, the new McLaren GT is not a familiar kind of McLaren. It busts out of the British company's Sports/Super/Ultimate Series filing system and has grand tourers like the Aston Martin DB11 and Ferrari Portofino on its hit list. It's an all-new car in an all-new segment, says McLaren – more comfort, more luxury, more usability, but still with trademark McLaren dynamic excellence.
And also still with essentially the same engineering toolkit seen in every McLaren since the MP4-12C of 2011, with a carbon-fiber tub, two-seat cabin, dihedral doors, mid-mounted twin-turbo V8, seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, and rear-wheel drive. There are some important alterations, which we'll get to, but fundamentally we're dealing with the tried and tested here.
The company's own 570GT – a slightly softer, more practical Sports Series with a side-opening rear hatch – remains in production, but insiders are realistic that the new McLaren GT will likely cannibalize sales. Pricing of $210,000 is comparable to a McLaren 570S Spider.
4.0-liter Twin-Turbo V8 Gas
620 hp @ 7500 rpm
At the core of the McLaren GT is essentially the same MonoCell II carbon-fiber tub you'll find under the 570S, but here it's dubbed MonoCell II-T, thanks to a new rear upper 'Touring' structure that's key to the 420-liter rear load area. This unique load area is presumably why a convertible isn't in the product plan, much as one would suit the target market. The tub is clothed in mostly aluminum bodywork, with a little composite here and there.
The 4.0-liter M840TE engine essentially carries over from the 720S, but it's significantly detuned and revised. Hardware and calibration changes include new turbochargers to reduce lag, a flatter torque curve from 2,500-7,000 rpm, higher compression ratio and gear shifts with the more visceral edges rounded off. All of it's aimed at making the GT more driveable day-to-day. Performance is rated at 612 hp and 465 lb-ft of torque, which is still sufficient to hit 60 mph from rest in 3.1 seconds, crack 0-124 mph in nine dead, and achieve 203 mph flat out.
The suspension is based around the Sports Series models but borrows Proactive adaptive damping from the 720S, which effectively learns from previous scenarios to predict what the damping will need to deal with next and adjusts to suit.
The focus on comfort and refinement extends to extra soundproofing, thicker laminated glass, and softer engine mounts to help damp down frequencies that might buzz through the carbon-fiber structure. Even the 20-inch front and 21-inch rear P Zero tires have been developed for a little extra squish in the sidewalls and reduced road noise.
But despite the focus on refinement and luxury, and this being longer than any other Sports or Super Series McLaren, the 3,384-lb GT is only around 70-lb heavier than its 570GT predecessor, which was 5.9 inches shorter.
McLaren often says its designs adhere to a form-follows-function philosophy, and that's certainly the case with the curious-looking GT: requirements for extra luggage space and ground clearance give it a more upright, bulkier and horizontal side profile, with highly pronounced overhangs front and rear. Dark colors soften the appearance and help legitimize the GT as a more sophisticated kind of McLaren, but it's a stretch to call it elegant or beautiful.
If the form part of the design is questionable, the function side is more successful, if imperfect. The raised front end induces less fear when you drive over a speed bump (the 10-degree approach angle can be increased to 13 degrees with the optional nose lift – a DB11 compares with 11 degrees) and gives you a deep frontal luggage area of 150 liters.
McLaren has reduced the height of the mid-mounted engine to create more luggage space, gone to great lengths to reduce heat soak, and attractively trimmed the rear luggage bay in either SuperFabric trim or leather. In practice, though, this is an awkward cargo area that's possibly best filled by emptying a suitcase of clothes evenly over it.
The interior architecture is clearly derived from Sports Series models with its floating center console, but there's some successful GT garnish to help differentiation, including beautiful machined aluminum paddle shifters and rotary controls, and deeper padding for the sports seats too. These are still positioned right down on the floor and offer strong support under heavier cornering, but the extra squish in the headrests and seat squab in particular offer welcome extra comfort.
Also new is the infotainment, never previously a McLaren strength. It's said to be five times faster than the previous system and features HERE mapping and real-time traffic information. It's certainly an improvement and perfectly usable, if inferior to mainstream systems from the likes of BMW.
Our test car had a painted composite roof, but we also jumped in one with the optional electrochromic glass roof, which darkened at the touch of a button and added to the light, airy feel of a cabin that's already high on visibility.
We tested the McLaren GT on suitably dreamy roads around St Tropez and Nice in France, including the iconic Route Napoleon and some urban routes that helped sense-check the GT's usability.
As might be expected, the McLaren GT brings some unique attributes to the GT market, for good and for bad. Versus the front-engined competition, the GT provides excellent forward visibility and a much sportier feeling seating position. It feels unusually light, low and agile, and its ride quality is mostly superb, though mid-corner bumps can still occasionally thwack through the carbon-fiber structure. A drastic reduction in road noise and resonance versus the 570S also brings it into line with expectations at this end of the market. But the gravelly, agitated growl of its flat-plane crank V8 is incongruous when the rich, sophisticated bass of an Aston V8 or V12 would seem far more appropriate. Nonetheless, you could certainly enjoy a long journey in a good amount of comfort from this driving seat.
As McLaren promises, the GT can still step up to the plate when you work it hard over a great road. It rides uneven tarmac with swan-like composure, and though there is more body roll than a 570S, the GT contains its mass well and turns in, grips and pivots around your hips with a balance and purity only a car with mid-engined supercar ingredients could deliver. But there's always the nagging feeling that the same-price 570S Spider is sharper, more incisive and more feelsome still: its steering has a far more vivacious crackle of feedback, its turn-in is keener and the balance is simply purer and more interactive.
One element that remains familiar is the engine. Despite its revisions, the 4.0-liter engine still suffers from too much lag and a soggy throttle (and triggers the traction control too readily when the boost does kick), but there's no mistaking its energy and hunger to rev right out to 7,500rpm when fully lit, at which point the GT is explosively rapid. There's also no mistaking the industrial noise (even with our car's sports exhaust), the delivery and the punch of the gear shifts very much betray the supercar origins too.
That McLaren has attempted to expand into the grand-tourer market is perfectly logical. The problem is having to magic the GT out of essentially the same components as some of the best-driving sports and supercars of the last decade. As a result, there's something of the unsatisfying compromise of the Mercedes-McLaren SLR to the McLaren GT. It's neither as intimate and involving to drive as a McLaren 570S Spider, and neither can it compete with the attractive design or cultured powertrain of an Aston Martin DB11.
The McLaren GT is not a bad car, but the double-headed question is do enough grand-tourer buyers desire a mid-engined sports car, and do enough mid-engined sports car buyers prioritize comfort and load capacity so much that they'll sacrifice looks and dynamics? My instinct is no and that to crack this market McLaren sorely needs a fresh set of components, but only the market can be the litmus test.