What Car? says...
Technically, the 540C is McLaren’s entry-level car, although that classification seems more than a little unfair. While it’s certainly the cheapest car the company offers, it still gets a 3.8-litre twin-turbocharged V8 like almost every other McLaren currently on sale.
In the 540C, it develops a mighty 533bhp – enough for a 0-62mph time of just 3.5sec and a top speed of 199mph. They may sound like supercar numbers, but McLaren classifies this as part of its Sports Series, which includes the 570S and 570GT.
The 540C certainly goes up against cars that many think are super – the Audi R8 and Porsche 911 Turbo. Like those cars, it’s designed to be usable on a daily basis rather than as a weekend-only adrenaline pump.
Over the next few pages, we'll tell you how it matches up to those rivals, how practical it is and even what it’ll cost to run. More importantly, we'll tell you just how much fun it is, too.
Performance & drive
What it’s like to drive, and how quiet it is
Mid-engined, rear-wheel drive cars, especially ones with more than 500bhp, might have a reputation for being scary, but the 540C is astonishingly easy to jump into and drive. With a dual-clutch automatic gearbox, you can just slot it into Drive mode and smoothly pull away.
Even pottering around an urban environment can be done without too much stress. The accelerator isn’t too sensitive and the car creeps forward like a regular automatic. This makes hill starts and parking relatively simple. The steering, meanwhile, is heavier than many will be used to and is always wriggling in your palms. This isn’t a criticism; rather, it reminds you of this car’s true purpose and helps involve you in the process of driving, regardless of speed.
The 540C may lack the clever hydraulic suspension components of the 650S and P1, but it’s still surprisingly comfortable, even on a scruffy B-road. Put simply, it rides better than many executive saloons we’ve tried.
Start using more of the accelerator’s travel and you soon find it has the kind of performance that can be accessed only briefly on the road. Put your foot down for more than a couple of seconds and you’ll comfortably break any speed limits before you know it. Our only complaint is that it doesn’t sound quite as good as the Audi R8’s sonorous V10.
You might expect all that power to make the 540C intimidating, but a well-sorted chassis and plenty of electronic help mean you can use an awful lot of the performance, should conditions allow.
Unbelievably, it isn’t the power that impresses most. The way the car responds to steering and accelerator inputs and then communicates back to you could shame many a ‘pure’ sports car. Sure, an R8 or Porsche 911 might be quicker down a wet road, but it’s the McLaren driver who would be having the most fun.
The interior layout, fit and finish
Finding a driving position that suits you is very easy because you get lots of adjustment in the seat and steering column. The two seats are very supportive, even under hard cornering, and are comfortable for long-distance drives, too. In front of you is a configurable TFT display that replaces conventional dials. This proves clear to read and easy on the eye.
From the driver’s seat it's relatively easy to see forwards out of the 540C. Reversing is a bit tricky, though, so you might want to add rear parking sensors and a rear-view camera, both of which feature on its extensive options list.
McLaren uses its own portrait orientation infotainment system, called IRIS, located in the centre of the dash. The menus are easy enough to navigate but it is mounted a little low. It can also be slow to respond and some icons are hard to hit accurately on the move. The spec of the standard stereo is a little below par - you get just four-speakers - and upgrades don't come cheap.
As you’d hope given the high purchase price, everything feels well screwed together. From the quality of the plastics to stitching on the seats to how the buttons operate, you won’t feel short-changed.
Passenger & boot space
How it copes with people and clutter
Like the Audi R8 and Porsche 911 Turbo, the 540C is supposed to be a usable supercar. That means that, although it’s the cheapest car in McLaren’s range, the 540C is actually fractionally larger than its siblings. The carbon tub has also been modified to lower the height of the sill, while the doors open wider. This makes the car much easier to clamber inside than a 650S. Head room is good despite the low roof and the interior is wide enough to prevent clashed elbows with your passenger.
Practicality may not be the main reason for buying one of these, but there is still a surprising amount of stowage space. Up front is a good-sized boot (bigger than that in the R8 or 911) and you can get a bag of golf clubs behind the seats. Inside, there’s an array of cubbyholes and a reasonably sized glovebox.
Buying & owning
Everyday costs, plus how reliable and safe it is
If we’re being sensible, no one needs to spend as much money on a two-seater as this car costs. You do, however, get a bit of kit for your cash, including climate control, leather seats and a touchscreen infotainment system with sat-nav and Bluetooth connectivity. However, very few people will be able to resist at least some of the numerous options available, but be warned: get trigger happy with your mouse when using the McLaren configurator and things will get decidedly expensive with just a few simple clicks.
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