2018 McLaren 540C Test Drive Review: Road Trip To The Goodwood Festival Of Speed

Test Drive

We joined a McLaren convoy that braved narrow English roads and bad drivers to trek to the greatest car show in the world.

This whole thing could have been a potential disaster of epic proportions, not to mention the permanent damage to my ego. It’s not that I was nervous about getting behind the wheel of a McLaren 540C, but I was a bit nervous about getting behind the wheel of this particular 540C. Why? Because it was a right-hand drive model. Being the American I am, I’m naturally accustomed to left-hand drive vehicles. Okay, so having the driver’s seat on the opposite side is a bit strange but doable. Did I also mention that you drive on the wrong side of the road in England!? Well, you do and combined with the also wrong-sided steering wheel I was slightly uneasy.

I had never driven in the UK before, let alone a right-hand drive car, which in this case happens to be a $165,000 (£126,000) supercar with over 500 hp. But no matter. I had to act cool because I was part of a stunning convoy of McLarens making its way from the company’s headquarters in Woking, England to the 2018 Goodwood Festival of Speed. This would typically be only an hour’s drive, but the good people at McLaren wanted us to enjoy the cars and take our time. Bless them. All of the cars’ GPS systems were pre-programmed for the scenic route.

I’ll get back to what became an equally funny and frustrating journey shortly; you need to know more about the McLaren 540C first and foremost. More specifically, how does it differ from its 570S Sport Series sibling?

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The simple and short answer is… not much. It’s even hard to see the exterior differences. Each car has its own unique alloy wheel designs and, uh, that’s about it. No joke. The 540C's staggered wheels, 19-inch front and 20 at the rear, are also found on the 570S.

I stared at both the 540C and a 570S Spider parked side by side for several minutes and failed to identify anything that sets them visually apart (though the 540C is coupe only). Underneath that slick body, they share the same carbon fiber MonoCell II chassis, brake-steer system, and suspension with front and rear anti-roll bars. But surely the interiors will at least be kind of different. Again, nope.

Aside from buyers tacking on option packages, the 540C’s driver-focused cabin is exactly what you’ll find in the 570S, and that’s by no means a bad thing. It’s a simple yet elegant design that still looks great more than three years after the Sports Series was revealed. The seven-inch touchscreen is ideally placed for drivers and handles many functions, like the radio and stereo, and GPS system.

My 540C was equipped with optional lightweight seats which at first felt way too hard when I plopped by bum down. I was certain I’d feel some discomfort eventually but it never happened. As with any high-performance sports or supercar, you sit low to the ground but it’s an easy adjustment. By now you’re rightly wondering whether there are really any differences at all between the two vehicles. There are, but do they matter?

Although both are powered by the same 3.8-liter twin-turbo V8 paired to a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, the 540C offers 533 hp and 398 lb-ft of torque versus 570S’s 562 hp and 443 lb-ft. That power loss is barely felt, but does make a slight difference when it comes to performance specs. The 540C sprints from 0-62 mph in 3.5 seconds while the 570S achieves that in 3.2 seconds. Top speed? 199 mph and 204 mph, respectively.

The 540C has an impressive power-to-weight ratio of 415 hp per ton and has a dry weight of only 2,890 lbs. The adaptive dampers, however, have softer settings optimized for improved road usage over serious track duty. So why does the 540C exist at all?

Because China. You see, the Chinese government imposes additional taxes on imported supercars, but by de-tuning the 570S ever so slightly the 540C avoids those taxes. It costs a bit less too, which is helpful when priced against one of its main rivals, the Porsche 911 Turbo. The 540C is not sold in the US because it doesn’t need to be; the 570S coupe, 570S Spider, and 570GT complete the Sports Series lineup splendidly.

Back to the drive down to Goodwood: You know, it’s a strange thing driving on the wrong side of the car on the wrong side of the road. Everything is the mirror opposite.

For example, when entering a roundabout you yield to the cars coming from your right, not left. I found this a bit tricky at first, but I still kept the 540C in Sport mode anyway. Having fun is a must. You also pass the highway slow pokes in the right lane, which I did as often as possible. No speeding tickets have been sent my way. So far.

Looking at the RPM indicator, I noticed I was barely using half of the 540C’s total horsepower on most roads, including the highway. Speed cameras are everywhere in the UK. Point being is that with any high-performance machine, chances are you’ll use maybe half, at best, of its total output during casual driving.

The pre-programmed GPS system had me exit the highway (‘motorway’ in British) a few times as part of the scenic route. Entering small towns forced me to drive slowly, though not entirely due to increased traffic but because of the insanely narrow roads. I mean, they’re really freaking narrow. So narrow the side mirror of an incoming large lorry (that’s ‘truck’ in British) could easily strike the 540C’s driver side, aka me. This could have resulted in said side mirror slamming into my face. My natural survival instinct was to aim the wide 540C a bit more towards the curb as opposed to the lorry.

Problem doing such a maneuver increases the chances of a curb impact, another no-no. My McLaren hosts gave fair warning that some English drivers aren’t very polite behind the wheel. I can attest to that now, especially one specific lorry driver who doesn’t particularly like guys like me in cars like this one.

We were also warned of potholes and I can confirm there were several throughout the journey, but I managed to avoid them all. Now, none of these “complaints” has anything to do with the brilliant 540C. I loved it, especially this one’s stunning blue exterior paint job.

But I do have one quibble: the GPS system. Did it work? Yes. Did I make it to Goodwood? Yes. However, because of the pre-programmed route, I had to reach specific checkpoints. If I skipped one, even though I knew where I was going, the system wouldn’t let me continue the trip unless I made a U-turn back to that checkpoint. It took me and my driving partner 20 minutes of driving around in circles to figure that out. We somehow ended up on a small dirt road next to a farmer’s field. Perfect time for a bathroom break.

Thing is, it’s moments like these, crazy mad lorry drivers and confused GPS systems and all, that make a road trip to one of the world’s greatest outdoor car shows in an incredible McLaren 540C all the more memorable. You can’t beat that.

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