Entry-level cars. This classification doesn’t exactly sound exciting. Images of rather bland, basic-looking models with about as much visual pizzazz as a paper plate begin to circulate in the mind. A thrilling ride is the last thing you’d expect too. Hardly anything to feel enthusiastic about then — but when McLaren uses the term to describe its latest model in the Sport Series, the 540C, you can banish those notions to the hard shoulder. The latest from Woking isn’t much slower than the bad-to-the-bone 570S. It doesn’t look much different either (that’d explain the confusion at the dealership when initially presented with the latter...) but critically, the new baby of the family is cheaper and, according to McLaren, easier to live with. However, it has a carbon fibre chassis to go with a host of race-derived technologies and comes with a mid-mounted 3.8-litre twin turbocharged V8 that makes 533bhp. Hmm, does that sound civilised to you?
Well, since it also shares the DNA with other outrageous models hailing from Surrey, the short answer to that question is ‘no’. But it is, when compared to the model that precedes it, the 570S — albeit not by much. Having fallen (there’s no other way) into the cockpit and been greeted by a beautifully sculpted dash and seats — both swathed in a rich beige leather which really brought out the detail in them — I grew a little concerned that this one might be too soft. And I feared the worst when the V8 awoke following a prod of the start button with a subdued hum. I remember the highlight from my fling with the bright green 570S a few months ago being the V8 erupting to life — this one was a good few decibels down on sound. But following a blast all around the outskirts of town, the only real difference seemed to be the addition of more comfortable seats because when I began questioning the 540C’s credentials, it came back with all the right answers.
Of course, there is more to this model than just more cushioning for your derrière; the most essential change is that the madness has mellowed a little — but this one still feels as focused and thrilling to drive as the other two that sit above it in the range. Crucially, it isn’t as exhausting and, as a result, you can spend more time with it exploring the deeper end of the tachometer, whereas, after a mere few clicks in the 570S, you’d be on the phone to your chiropractor. The optional sports seats wrapped in Alcantara in that one may have done a great job in holding me in place when the roads became twisty, but they became rather tiresome. I remember back then thinking how great the 570S would be if only if it was a bit more comfortable. Now, it is. Sort of.
The 540C looks identical to the 570S and when the kind people at the McLaren showroom brought out the wrong car, I wasn’t surprised; there appears to be nothing about the exterior to help differentiate between the two as it is also sculpted from lightweight aluminium, features the same P1-style front end, those fancy dihedral doors, and at the back it packs the same thin LED strip of taillights, flying buttresses and the teardrop-shaped rear glass. But a closer inspection reveals a diffuser with six fins instead of eight and if you need a further clue, the wheels have a distinct new look and measure 19in up front and 20in out back and are wrapped with Pirelli P Zero tyres developed specifically for the Sports Series to afford higher levels of performance. What’s more, it doesn’t come with carbon ceramic brakes as standard, fewer body panels are made from carbon fibre and the soundtrack isn’t as boisterous.
Even though this one lacks a bit of power, McLaren — with over five decades of success at the track — knows what else is needed to make a proper sportscar.
But when all is said and done, the 540C isn’t a lesser 570S — at least when it comes to aesthetics. The difference with regards to the cabin is clearer as the carbon fibre tub has been tweaked to include lower sills. This helps to make ingress and egress a tad easier — but it still isn’t as easy as a conventional door. The good news is the cockpit is still driver-focused, with the only distraction being a 7.0-in touchscreen (it takes care of most of the functions), which isn’t the most intuitive, but you literally won’t be spending any time trying to figure it out — not when there’s a twin-turbo V8 to cane.
This one isn’t as potent as the 570S (or the 570 GT) but when you kick it in the guts, it delivers such an explosive burst of speed that it’s hard to tell if it actually is lacking power. You pass cars as if they’re rooted to the spot — and that’s just when you’re in Normal mode. Sport and Track blows them off the road; that 3.8-litre twin-turbo V8 has been detuned by 29bhp but it still makes 533bhp, which is more than enough to deliver the thrills, even if it is 0.3secs slower to 100kph than the 570S. But nobody is going to scrunch their nose when you tell them this one does the ton in 3.5 seconds. A road long enough will allow you to top out at 320kph.
Even though this one lacks a bit of power, McLaren — with over five decades of success at the track — knows what else is needed to make a proper sportscar. Its primary concern is that form should always follow function and the 540C doesn’t forget that. It matches
those stunning looks with astounding grip and although there are times when you think it might just skim right off the blacktop and into the dunes that line the side of Al Qudra Road because you’re going too fast into a corner, it doesn’t ever put a foot wrong and only inspires confidence to push it harder. That’s thanks to the inclusion of McLaren’s Formula One-derived Brake Steer system, meaning you can apply the anchors later into corners. It remains totally flat when you turn in and feels indisputably mid-engined. And then when the road straightens up, you have 540Nm of twist chomping at the bit and, when unleashed, they feel as if they’re ripping up the road behind you.
But unlike the 570S, which feels like it’s always pulling at the leash, the 540C is much friendlier, especially below 4,000rpm. The V8 feels a bit more refined and docile — quite handy when stuck in heavy traffic. But on the open road, the baby Macca is a blast. It manoeuvres ever so aggressively from left to right and the steering is fast and direct and offers lots of feedback.
Power is delivered to the rear wheels via a seven-speed seamless shift gearbox (with steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles) and it swaps the cogs lightning quick and overall, there isn’t much difference between the way the two drive. Their aerodynamics ensure they’re both glued to the road but the best thing about each car is the sublime chassis. It has the newly developed suspension system with Formula 1-style dual wishbones and independent adaptive dampers.
Has McLaren pegged the 540C a little too closely to the 570S for comfort? Time will tell. It is almost identical in terms of looks, handling and performance (the 570S froths at the mouth a bit more) but this is the automaker’s cheapest ever model and for that reason alone, many will be tempted — and they should be. Not for the fact they’ll be saving a few dirhams, but because this is a brilliant sportscar that packs almost an equal thrill behind the wheel as the other two in the Sport Series and it looks as good. Hard to believe that this is McLaren’s entry-level car, but call it basic at your own risk.