"Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, only a signal shown...then darkness again and a silence." That's the line from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem and the famous metaphor that sums up the McLaren GT and me. I've seen it from a distance, been caught in the light from its headlamps on occasion, yet never met it, sat in it or driven it. I've read about it and heard that it's a car that perhaps doesn't quite know where it fits in - so an invitation to try out the revised version seemed like the perfect opportunity to acquaint myself, finally, with this until-now mythical Macca.
It wasn't really a launch as such, because the revisions, it turns out, aren't momentous. After a chat with the guys at McLaren, the upshot is there's been a spec uplift - more baubles for your buck, basically - and a revised brake booster. The GT was previously criticised for its brake pedal being under-servoed, so it's gained a bit more assistance. And because the pep talk was brief, it wasn't long before I was in the driving seat, which seemed very McLaren to me, and by and large that's a good thing.
I like the DNA of the McLaren driving position: legs outstretched, arms bent, brake pedal set perfectly for the left foot and a thin steering wheel, bereft of buttons. The quality is also proper, with most elements wrapped in supple leather that fills the cabin with its opulent perfume. It's all very appropriate for what is an opulent, £160,000 car, although McLaren states the GT's all about ease of use and it's still not the easiest car to get into. The sills may be thinner and lower than other models, but they still rise sharply alongside the seats and the position of the A-pillars makes the door apertures tight; you need more swivelling and knee bending that your typical GT, that's for sure. Thankfully, I'm not so old and arthritic (yet) to class this as a problem.
The 'launch' was at Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire, and the first port of call was the Hill Route. This is a place I know well, having lapped it countless times, so I know it'll bite hard if you take liberties. It's not a racetrack, it's a handling circuit. It was designed by GM as place to push its cars dynamically and expose any weaknesses, not flatter them. It's a tight and twisty Tarmac ribbon with destabilising undulations, negative cambers, and a general lack of run-off. When you make a mistake, you will be punished for it. And today felt like the day when trouble would find to me, because the ambient temperature was not far above freezing, the tyres were cold, the surface was damp and the GT has 620hp and 465lb ft. It was like the spectre of doom was there with me in the passenger seat.
Needless to say, it was tricky. Even thinking about the throttle had the amber light blinking (this really wasn't the day for ESP-off heroics, even if I'd been given the choice) and the only option that made any sense was leaving the suspension soft and forgiving and the engine mapping the same. To be honest, I didn't learn much, so when I was offered a trip out on the surrounding roads, which I know as well as the circuit, I took it gratefully. It's a GT car after all, so roads are its natural habitat. But the first few miles were spent accelerating and braking hard, just to get the tyre temperature readings to a vaguely sensible 30 degrees, and then, finally, I could use the throttle with some intent. Now, the GT might have a wider power band than the 720 S but I have never yet driven anything with the M840T 4.0 V8 bolted in that doesn't feel frenetic, and the GT hasn't changed my opinion.
It's still an engine that I respect rather than love, and that starts with the noise. This car had the sports exhaust fitted but it's boomy rather than soulful. And when you turn it off what's left is just a bit flat-plane bland, so in the GT market, for noise, I'd take a DB11 or Continental GT V8 any day, which also have a much more GT-like power delivery. Up to 3,000rpm in the McLaren GT there's not a lot of get-up-and-go. It's very old-school turbo in that respect, but just before you get there, there's a warning that something's about to kick off with the pressuring hiss in its induction pipes. This prelude is like the wick burning down on a Catherine wheel, because once it's reached its tipping point, the switch from inaction to action is instant. Bang...and with a kick in the kidneys you're whizzed off to reap the whirlwind.
Thank Christ there was some traction at last, so it's manageable - once you've retuned your senses - and you can start to enjoying the GT's qualities. It might not be refined like a Bentley, but it is comparatively tiny. This makes it supremely threadable, so tall hedges and high kerbs stones don't hem you in like they would in a DB11 or Continental GT. These days that's a rare treat and, at 1530kg, it is much lighter than either of those two Brits, which is plain as day from the McLaren's apparent lack of inertia and far greater willingness to change direction. Even if the Aston and Bentley were able to match it for grip, which they may well do with their fat tyres and big contact patches, that's like blacksmith working iron while the GT is a silversmith. It's all in the detail.
And that's what comes through the GT's steering. It makes you aware of every surface change and altered camber, and it's light, delicate, and deadly accurate. Now, many people put these attributes down to its hydraulic, rather than electric, assistance. McLaren isn't shy of pointing out this rarity as well, so I asked the guys from Woking why they feel like it is the only way to go? After all, the game's moved on from the days of dull-old EPAS systems and just a quick drive of the 992 GT3 will show you that now they can be just as talkative. Moreover, not all feedback is good feedback, as proved by the harsh kickback through the GT's column over sharper ridges. That's something you can tune out with a good EPAS system, while still letting the important messages filter though. We chatted this over at length and I was waiting for the clincher that told me what I was missing, but, on this occasion, I am not sure I heard it.
The pros and cons of hydraulic versus electric steering aside, the kickback isn't what you expect from a grand tourer. For me this was the stitch that started unravelling the thread of GT's purpose. The brakes might be slightly easier to use now but everything else about it still screams supercar: the ferocious power delivery, the boominess of the engine, the openness of its carbon tub, which is noisy at speed, and the firmness of its ride. Sure, the chassis' capacity for never jarring its occupants is admirable - but much the same could be said of the 720S.
Moreover, if you're willing to accept the GT's manifest supercar qualities as advantages - and, granted, they are what separate it from a Bentley or an Aston - well, then you're left with the nagging suspicion that it is not quite the supercar it could be. Which means that when you drive it back-to-back with the 720S, which I did, you tend to intepret each dialed back facet as more curse than blessing. If you're buying a supercar, surely what you want is purity, excitement and the knowledge that your dream car is the best that it can be?The GT doesn't feel like that - and yet it doesn't feel like a grand tourer, either. Yes, it has a rear hatch, beneath which is space for a golf bag, but the Bentley has space for two of those and you don't have to warm its tyres up en route to the clubhouse. And if you want something similar, yet still spry, a Ferrari Roma is arguably better equipped to cover all the bases. Or, better yet, instead of trading off any driving thrill, just pack light and get the 720S - a McLaren which makes zero compromises, and is all the better for it.
SPECIFICATION | 2021 MCLAREN GT
Engine: 3,994cc, twin-turbocharged, V8
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 620 @ 7,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 465 @ 5,500-6,500rpm
Top speed: 203mph
Weight: 1,530kg (DIN)
1 / 9