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Driving: McLaren GT – supercar or grand tourer?

26 April 2021
Destinations: Oman – Sahab and Dunes
20 April 2021
Driving: Morgan Plus 8 Special Edition
11 May 2021

Grand tour de force?

The new McLaren GT seeks to redefine the boundaries of grand touring. Is it a success or is it just a reimagined supercar? Five days and a thousand miles should give me a clearer idea.

A ccording to various mapping technologies, it’s 300 miles from my front door to Woking, the home of McLaren. That’s over five hours by the most optimistic of assessments and, given the miles I’ve spent lollopping around Britain’s highways and byways over the years, I tend to find myself somewhat cynical when confronted by that projected timeframe. This is particularly true now that the driving public is emerging, blinkingly, onto the post-COVID road network and dust is being blown from the crank cases of various engines after twelve months of inactivity.

A common refrain I hear is ‘I’d love your job’ and, it’s true, I do get some very special experiences. However, my free seat in all manner of expensive cars comes with a significant downside – the need for detachment. When you have a six-figure sum to throw at a car you get the luxury of weighing your options, maybe driving a marque or two, and allowing your heart to open your wallet for you. Not so for me.

For me the emotion and ardour, the pride, satisfaction and, whisper it, smugness, that comes with a purchase, are all absent. And so they should be if I am to produce an objective assessment of a vehicle. But this does lend a paucity to the overall experience as I can’t imagine I would ever have enough of the folding stuff to be ‘an owner’.

For the latest in my revolving driveway of expensive cars I find myself in McLaren’s attempt at moving beyond the supercars they have become known for and into new territory. The GT that has come out of the Woking factory is aimed, fairly obviously, at the Aston Martins and Bentleys of the world to transport the uber-wealthy, via tarmac, from Godalming to Gstaad and is, according to the media information supplied by the company, a ‘unique new car for a new McLaren audience’.

When you have a six-figure sum to throw at a car you get the luxury of weighing your options

A GT is, in common understanding, a four-seater, front-engined, continent muncher and, while this McLaren is certainly the latter, it’s neither of the first two. But you know what? That’s okay. Because paradigms aren’t absolute; they are there to be created and changed.

Once upon a time Stephenson’s Rocket was the pinnacle of rail transport and we’re now in a world of bullet trains and MagLev. So why shouldn’t this car be considered a GT? Answer: no reason. The only truly defining characteristics a GT needs is the aforementioned capacity to devour the miles and the ability for the driver not to feel like a clanking bag of spanners at journey’s end.

With this offering, McLaren have done away with the pretence of the second bank of seats that come with traditional GTs. All they ever offered in my eyes was the ability to hold a sports bag for additional underwear or sunglasses as you wound your way to the Riviera so this is a good thing. There was never the legroom for an actual third or even fourth passenger in the back so to see these seats dispensed with is a welcome step forward.

Doing so has allowed the company to stick with their design modelling and site the 4-litre, twin-turbo V8 engine behind you and thus maximise storage capacity. The engine bay itself is covered to allow for some baggage but the nose now opens up decent space for accoutrements. To put this in context Aston Martin’s DB11 comes with 270 litres of storage which means that if you plonk your partner in the passenger seat for your foreign foray you’d better hope they travel light. Just a toothbrush and a change of socks will be their allowance given the paucity of room.

The McLaren meanwhile makes a whopping 570 litres available to you. This, in real world terms, meant that I was able to get my golf clubs in the back on top of the engine cover and my golf trolley in the front (with the wheels dismantled). The rear storage does come with a warning though: with it being directly above the snarling (and rather loud) beast you need to be judicious about what you place there given the emanating heat. I took the GT to the supermarket (because, why not?) but, if you do this, do make sure that your chilled goods go in the front storage compartment; if you use the rear one then, by the time you get home, your milk will be cheese and your cheese will be fondue.

The only truly defining characteristics a GT needs is the aforementioned capacity to devour the miles and the ability for the driver not to feel like a clanking bag of spanners at journey’s end

In terms of build and usability it becomes a little complicated for me. Let’s start on the outside and work our way in shall we? The dihedral doors are a magnificent piece of engineering; marrying load-bearing points, fulcrums and hydraulics they are easily manoeuvrable. They’re also necessary given their size as getting in and out while in a car park would be almost impossible if they were normal side-hinged doors.

Visually this is clearly a McLaren with all the design cues from previous models but the doors, so magnificent in the engineering, don’t make for the easiest of entrances or exits. In the five days I had ‘ownership’ of the GT I failed to find a slick means of climbing aboard. Doubtless a younger, more flexible individual may well have done so but everything I tried ended up with me showing all the elegance, panache and insouciance of an octopus falling out of a tree.

Inside the cockpit is a touch too Bauhaus for my taste with a couple of design niggles that perpetuated. Personally, I want something a little less German-coffee-house and more, dare I say, louche. A bit more gentleman’s club with squashy leather armchairs redolent with the whiff of expensive cigars would have suited me.

A few more driver aid buttons and switches to augment the luxury experience wouldn’t have gone amiss either. I never thought I would bemoan the lack of steering-wheel mounted volume controls or the means to answer the phone without reaching for the touch screen.

Focussing on the negatives as a starting point may come across as slightly unfair but they are generally the ones that stick with you and the ones that will affect you most as an owner. When the overall engineering is this good it’s hard to pick holes and consequently the niggles stand out. There really are only two of any note though as I write these words a week or so after handing the car back.

While I did have to fill up before reaching home this was down to tank capacity not consumption: the GT returned a remarkable 39 miles to the gallon

The first is the seat adjustment functionality. The seats themselves aren’t the most comfortable seats I have ever spent time in but are adjustable, eventually, to accommodate even the widest of ursine backsides. The sticking point here is the actual buttons to make any necessary changes are virtually inaccessible mounted on the seat squab down near the central instrument tunnel.

There is no bodily origami you might do that will allow you to see what you’re doing so everything has to be done by feel. You will get these machinations wrong often and could end up with your nose on the steering wheel at 70mph while you try and undo your fumblings.

The second gripe for me is the siting of the rear-view camera’s picture. Given the dimensions and visibility on offer this camera is a necessity in order not to ding the Saros paintwork (a £4,000 option) every time you park. But to put the screen on the dashboard behind the steering wheel completely obscures the image just when you will most need it. There’s a perfectly good central screen on the dashboard so why this couldn’t be used is a bit of a head-scratcher.

I posed both these questions to McLaren when I handed the car back and was assured that I’m not the first to have raised them. When the next model comes out they promise they will have been addressed – I look forward to reviewing that model.

Driving this vehicle was certainly an experience. For a grand tourer it is possibly a touch hard on the suspension but this, combined with the superlight carbon fibre structure and aluminium body panels made it feel very sporty.

Keeping a close eye on the fuel gauge as I cruised my way back up north from Surrey lent the most impressive statistic I could imagine – while I did have to fill up before reaching home this was down to tank capacity not consumption: the GT returned a remarkable 39 miles to the gallon.

The opportunity to review the McLaren GT came to me in early April just as a second, hard cold snap of weather hit us. Consequently I have two gentle warnings for any prospective purchaser.

Firstly, don’t try and drive the GT with winter boots on. The pedals are mounted pretty close together and a boot just ain’t a ballet pump. You really don’t want to be accidentally hitting both pedals together with this much power available.

My second gentle warning is also regarding the aforementioned cold snap. This produced a four-inch snow drop that came over me while I happened to be in the middle of nowhere in the North Pennines. Tiptoeing my way home in a £200,000 vehicle with 620bhp going to the rear wheels was, frankly, terrifying. Looking back on it now I can smile – it will be a good tale to tell when I can sit in a pub with a pint and my friends – but it’s not an experience I would care to repeat.

Plenty of GTs are raw and raucous. The McLaren GT has both these qualities in spades as well as an almost surgical-level of sophistication. While I didn’t truly love it, I did deeply respect both it and the engineering behind it. There would be an awful lot of miles in my rear view mirror before I grew tired of it.

Words: TG

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