The Game Changer

McLaren has always been famed for producing lightweight performance cars that prize pure driving pleasure over creature comforts, but now the marque has released its first fully fledged grand tourer. Erin Baker puts the revolutionary new McLaren GT through its paces.

The sun glints off the glass roofs of the McLaren GTs, which are poised, waiting for their handful of privileged guests to set off along the roads of the French Riviera. This car may be McLaren’s entrance into the distinguished world of grand touring, but at first sight it remains unmistakably a McLaren, with its sloping silhouette, deep windscreen, glass roof and dihedral doors linking the GT to the rest of the range.

We set off just after sunrise, an early September chill settling in the hills beyond the honeycomb villages. Inside, the infotainment screen, an all-new system that will hopefully banish the satnav gremlins of old, still occupies a small area of the cabin, echoing the McLaren insistence that life is all about the drive. The only styling concession to the GT genre is the luggage space: a deep area under the bonnet, big enough for two holdalls, is matched by a rear shelf that could accommodate a set of golf clubs and a weekend bag.

McLaren bosses describe their new progeny as possessing “continent-crossing capabilities and competition levels of performance, in a lightweight body”. That’s a lot to ask from one car, and it takes a considerable amount of R&D to do justice to the twin heritages of the McLaren badge and the concept of a grand tourer car. Make a mess of either and a niche performance marque is severely compromised.

Putting the new GT to the test on the scenic mountain roads above the Côte d’Azur

 

Still, what a drive the GT provides. Anyone who imagines that this is McLaren going soft should reserve their judgement until they get behind the wheel. For starters, the 4.0-litre, turbocharged V8 engine sits in the middle of the car, below the driver’s hips, for more balanced handling, instead of under the bonnet, as is traditional for GTs. Then there’s the noise: while it’s quiet enough on the move to cover long distances without a headache, if you turn the powertrain dial to “Sport” the valves crack open and unleash the full fury of a McLaren soundtrack. Make sure you start the car in “Comfort” mode if you don’t want to annoy your neighbours.

Unleashed at speed, the acceleration is immense for a GT (620 horsepower, 0-60mph in 3.2 seconds). The steering is supercar-sensitive, the pro-active damping system works like crazy to filter out jolts while still allowing feedback and grip, and the car clicks imperceptibly through its seven gears. Strangely, you get a smoother ride in Sport mode, which is also where the noise lies, so happy days.

With its sloping silhouette and signature dihedral doors, the car is every inch a McLaren

 

The interior is sleek and luxurious but with a low-slung, sporty feel

 

The question remains: why has McLaren, that stalwart of pure driving pleasure, last bastion of the pursuit of lightweight performance – to the detriment of any traditional creature comforts – finally appeared to capitulate with the launch of a grand tourer, an automotive model which, despite its racing connections, prioritises sumptuous, heavy materials like wood, glass and leather, space and sound- deadening over spirited acceleration and agile cornering?

It was the influence in the 1950s of GT racing – essentially a competition class for cars that had two seats and a closed cockpit and therefore resembled road cars – that inspired perhaps the greatest, and most valuable, GT of all time: the Ferrari 250 GT and its many derivations. But the upper echelons of grand touring cars these days are increasingly the polar opposite of sports cars, with an emphasis on “lifestyle” – an umbrella term for softer design and engineering qualities. The power is sublime, not pushy, and the exhausts provide a distant thrum (with a loud button if you want a dash of Sport). For one does not want to tire of noise and vibration 50 miles into a 400-mile trip. This is precisely why the suave James Bond drove Aston Martin GTs, and not a shouty supercar. In other words, this territory doesn’t seem very McLaren at all – bearing in mind McLaren’s F1 pedigree and track record of producing high-octane road cars.

“It’s a natural evolution of things we’ve learned from our customer base,” says Ian Digman, who was the project boss in charge of developing the McLaren GT. “We tried it [the grand tourer form] with the 570GT, but customers told us we didn’t go far enough.”

That’s not surprising – the only nods to the spirit of grand touring in the 570GT, launched by McLaren in 2016, were a side-opening rear window for a tiny piece of luggage, a bit more leather, a glove box and – shock, horror – an actual cup holder, the kind of thing that had up until then been anathema to this uncompromising marque.

Still, the new GT is not quite the radical departure for McLaren Automotive it might at first appear. If you go back to the birth of the badge, you’ll find Bruce McLaren’s first prototype road car, the 1969 M6 GT. This was essentially a coupé version of the M6 Can-Am car, the race series in which he had been so successful. Having stuck a roof on the M6, the young entrepreneur’s next thought was that it might make a decent road car. Only three were built before he died during testing at Goodwood circuit and the vision died with him.

Fifty years later, McLaren is back in the business of sticking a GT label on a car. It is the automotive ideal that won’t die. And for good reason, for as Digman says: “People want to have fun while crossing continents.” That requires a car that’s comfortable, quick, quiet, and with a silhouette that exudes some of the fabled romance of the open road… Think stretched lines, an elongated tail and sleek nose, all of which have the practical benefit of reducing drag but also echo an existential quality: a sense of yearning for the next frontier.

The Ferrari 250 GTO is arguably the most famous – and certainly the most valuable – grand tourer; the aptly named Bentley R-Type Continental

 

Sean Connery as James Bond, with the iconic Aston Martin DB5

 

If you think I’m straining the metaphor, take a look at the pantheon of GTs inspired by an endless public appetite for the perfect combination of performance and practicality. While the 1950s really mark the start of grand touring as a strong consumer desire, with the 1957 Maserati 3500 GT, the origins stretch back to the early decades of the 20th century, with Bentley’s 3-Litre of 1921. In true GT style, the Bentley dominated endurance racing at Le Mans but transferred its triumphs to the highway, too, where Autocar magazine praised it for “combining docility in traffic with exceptional speed potentiality on the open road”.

In 1952, five years before the arrival of the seminal Maserati 3500 GT, Bentley unveiled the R-Type Continental. More than any GT produced before or since, including the Aston Martin DB5, this iteration nailed the glorious, epic sweep of trans-continental travel. The name helps, of course. But it’s the way the design embodies the ambition and optimism of travelling great distances: a distinctive power line running from the waist to wrap around the front wheel, that fastback roofline, the lifted nose to scent the horizon and a stretched rear overhang and covered rear wheel for better aerodynamics. Best of all, that distinguished Flying B mascot straining at its tether, etched with longing for the horizon.

All of which the new McLaren GT echoes, salutes and evolves. Compared with the notable grand tourers that preceded it, the McLaren, at first so subtle and simple in its styling, appears to be a bold departure from the standard, broadening the definition slightly by redirecting the gaze towards engineering standards. One senses the genre has turned the page here. And this seems fitting. Grand touring is, after all, about that next tantalising bend in the road.

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