The GT is the cushiest McLaren yet, but is it really a cross-country champ?

McLaren GT

Some years ago, I had a colleague who decided to reward herself for her new empty-nest status by buying a sporty little convertible. She wasn’t a big enthusiast, but rather somebody who wanted something fun and relaxing to putter around in with the top down. She told me that she looked forward to visiting the Honda dealer to test drive an S2000, because Consumer Reports had named that car its top choice among sports cars available at the time.

After I spit out my drink in a puff of vapor, I collected my wits and told her that, among the cars in that category she might consider, that the S2000 was surely the least suitable for her purposes. But rather than go into detail about the car’s high-revving engine, cramped cabin or stiff ride, I simply informed her that there was no available automatic transmission and that instantly disqualified the car. As I had expected.

McLaren recognizes that its race-bred mid-engine super sports cars face some of the same challenges for prospective buyers. After all, McLaren’s cars are in general pretty extreme. In response to this reality, McLaren developed a variant on its familiar formula that is intended to be more practical everyday use than its other models. People commute in Porsche 911s, so why not a McLaren?

Obviously, the Porsche 911 is surely the world’s most capable GT car by pretty much any measure. But someone considering a McLaren GT has already decided they are looking for something with racy mid-engine looks, showy flip-up doors or an exclusive nameplate to show off. That is what frames the GT’s mission: take enough edge off a true supercar to make it tolerable in everyday life. With that as the framework, the GT succeeds mightily, even if naysayers will be sputtering “But, but, Porsche 911!” The GT has amazing specs and it delivers the exclusive intangibles that set McLaren’s cars apart from the likes of the much more pedestrian-seeming 911.

McLaren GT
McLaren/Patrick Gosling

McLaren didn’t draw any comparisons to Porsche on its own, but the company feels that there remains a place for a sport-centric car with tolerable practicality in a field of comfortable front-engine, luxury-focused competitors. Think Aston Martin DB11, Ferrari Portofino, and Mercedes-AMG GT. Though it’s on the less sporty side of the conversation, you have to consider the Bentley Continental GT as part of this conversation, too.

Those are cars that will capably swallow the Interstate miles on a coast-to-coast drive, but that fall down in the final miles of the drive after leaving the Interstate, in McLaren’s estimation. “For us, a GT is about those last 10 to 20 miles when you come off the autoroute and drive on the twisty final miles,” he said.

To prove its point, McLaren released journalists in a handful of the new cars to take the scenic route through the mountains from St. Tropez to Cannes. At no point during spirited driving on gorgeous sinuous asphalt did the GT ever feel like anything but the mid-engine McLaren sports car that lies beneath its slightly enlarged rear cargo bay.

McLaren offers carbon ceramic brakes as a $6500 option on the GT, but they are unnecessary for a car with a street-driving mission. Iron brake rotors are satisfactory everywhere outside the race track. However, the GT’s brakes require surprising pedal effort and travel to grip. It is the polar opposite of grabby Ferrari carbon ceramics, but maybe they overshot the mark on user friendliness, because the result is nearly reminiscent of non-power-assisted brakes.

McLaren GT
McLaren/Patrick Gosling

Taylor points to the original Ferrari 250 GTO as the spiritual inspiration for McLaren’s new GT: a real racecar with luggage capacity. “Over time, we feel cars in this segment have become larger and heavier, trading off agility for comfort and straight-line speed,” he said. “Our approach, we believe, goes back to the beginning of this space.”

The fundamental bits of other McLaren models all remain in place. There is the carbon-fiber monocoque tub as the car’s foundation, the innovative linked hydraulic suspension system that connects the car’s four corners in one system, and the key ingredient is the mid-mounted twin-turbocharged small-displacement V-8 that traces its roots to a design created to race at Le Mans.

At the same time, each of these basic components is tweaked and adjusted in ways meant to make the GT “the McLaren of GT cars,” said McLaren spokesman Paul Chadderton.

Chassis

McLaren GT
McLaren/Patrick Gosling

Compare the all-new MonoCell II-T (for Touring) carbon-fiber tub of the GT to McLaren’s other cars, and you’ll see that it is built taller in the rear to enclose the GT’s 420 liters of rear cargo space atop the engine bay. McLaren is proud of the fact that drivers can travel with more than an overnight bag in the GT, but the cargo space is long and thin, so it won’t fit much of your regular luggage. You can lay two pairs of skis there, but after the boots fill the front trunk, you’ll now have now space for your coats and other clothes.

Open the GT’s McLaren-signature flip-up dihedral doors and you’ll notice the edges of the tub have a divot carved out at each side’s door opening, letting you stand closer to the car as you step over the sill when getting into the car. This, along with the door’s cutout into the roof, minimizes the challenge of getting into a low-slung, mid-engine super sports car for a clientele that will inevitably skew to the less-flexible end of the spectrum.

Retaining rigid carbon-fiber construction and a mid-engine layout in a segment of cars with metal construction and engines mounted in the front keeps the GT light and its center of gravity in the vicinity of the driver’s hips, rather than up around the dashboard as with those competitors.

McLaren’s pursuit of lightness results in its notion of a touring car weighing in at 3373 pounds, which, by its reckoning, is 286 pounds lighter than the next-lightest competitor in the GT class. Others weigh much more. A gorgeous, posh Bentley Continental GT W12’s curb weight is listed at 4947 pounds, but a full tank of gas likely pushes it past the 5000-pound mark.

Suspension

McLaren GT
McLaren/Patrick Gosling

The McLaren’s lighter weight not only lends itself to better handling, but it also lets the GT run comparatively soft springs at the front, while front-engine cars need stiff front springs to try to get all that mass to turn crisply.

The Tenneco-supplied linked hydraulic suspension system differs from other McLarens in its response, which now leans more toward comfort than to track-ready reflexes. The reactive damping system’s computer can make adjustments in just 2 milliseconds to help smooth the ride, especially when the GT is set to Comfort mode.

The GT’s front springs are only 64 percent as stiff as those in the 720S, contributing to the car’s more placid ride. The GT’s front springs are rated at 40 Newtons/mm compared to 63 n/mm for the 720S’s springs. At the same time, the Z-bar McLaren uses to resist roll on the GT’s rear suspension is correspondingly softer to keep the car balanced in turns.

Drivetrain

McLaren GT
McLaren/Patrick Gosling

The engine in a GT car should be smooth and torquey, with linear response. To move McLaren’s race-bred twin-turbo V-8 in this direction, the team working on the GT swapped fully two-thirds of the engine’s parts for different ones. Most significantly, the pistons produce a higher compression ratio of 9.4:1. Smaller, low-inertia turbochargers provide quicker response but less boost than those on the company’s other models, and a flattened intake plenum atop the engine contributes to the cargo space in the bay beneath the rear window glass.

The M840TE version of McLaren’s engine churns out 612 horsepower and 465 lb.-ft torque. The GT is more about the experience than the numbers, of course, but it does also deliver the performance by which armies of internet car fans live and die. The GT accelerates to 62 mph in 3.2 seconds, and it can reach a top speed of 203 mph. The EPA rates the GT at 15/22 mpg city/highway, which, importantly, avoids any gas-guzzler tax.

Yes, a Tesla can out-accelerate it (once, at least), but GT drivers won’t care. The GT isn’t about drag racing, even though it is extremely quick.

The GT’s twin-turbo V-8 engine lies beneath the floor of the rear storage bay, entirely hidden from view or access. There is a filler on each side of the cargo area; one for oil and one for water. The floor is cleverly insulated from what McLaren says is a 500-degree inferno in the engine bay that is betrayed only by the heat of the aluminum filler caps for the two fluids.

McLaren GT
McLaren/Patrick Gosling

The Graziano seven-speed dual-clutch transmission is in this application programmed to grease shifts slicker than rain on a marble office lobby floor, especially when the car is set to Comfort mode. “A refined, seamless, smooth powertrain is important,” Taylor said. And McLaren’s calibration engineers successfully provided exactly that. This is a competency that has been continuously expanded since the early days of the MP4-12C, when engine and transmission calibration were both contracted out because McLaren lacked the staff and the expertise to do that work itself. 

Now, all the calibration of the car’s drivetrain systems as well as the active suspension is performed by McLaren’s own engineers, and the benefit of having everyone working together is evident in the seamlessness of the GT’s engine and transmission mapping. This is equally apparent when tearing through the Alps Maritimes as when slogging back to the Intercontinental hotel in Cannes through horrendous traffic.

McLaren says the GT will go 800 miles on a tank of gas, with expected EPA fuel economy ratings of 15 mpg city and 21 mpg on the highway. But I’d find it hard to put in a 400-mile stint in the driver’s seat, because of the footwell intrusion from the left front wheel that leaves little space for the driver’s left leg. Sure, you can slide it to the side for a while, but it will get cramped on long trips.

Cabin

McLaren GT
McLaren/Patrick Gosling

Of course, GT cars’ signature component might be their opulently trimmed cabins, typically rich with soft leather and highlighted by stitching. McLaren’s GT is outfitted in the best British tradition, exuding the old-money ambiance expected of such cars. But that doesn’t mean the GT’s cabin is stuck in the past. Indeed, “modern luxury is about technical and innovative finishes,” explained design director Rob Melville. “For us it is a different approach than the rest of the segment.”

The includes examples like SuperFabric, a technical lightweight woven fabric alternative to traditional wool carpeting in the GT. In addition to the standard interior, McLaren offers the $9500 Pioneer Pack or our tested Luxe Pack interior trim (also $9500) to dial up still more opulence, with power adjustable heated seats, power adjustable steering column, soft-grain aniline leather headliner and door sill trim, and color-selectable ambient lighting.

Forget the torturous one-piece carbon-fiber racing seats inflicted on drivers of track-centric models from McLaren and its competitors. In its place, the GT’s Luxe pack seat adjusts in every possible direction, making it possible to find the setting for perfect long-term comfort.

It doesn’t, however, make it easy to find that setting, as the controls are mounted low on the inside, center console-facing part of the seat. And while their layout is somewhat pictographic in the manner familiar to Mercedes-Benz owners, the controls are hard to use because they are entirely out of sight. With some fumbling, it is possible to sort it out, but this is far from an ideal human-machine interface.

McLaren GT
McLaren GT
McLaren GT
McLaren/Patrick Gosling

Further, the seats’ heater controls are on-screen only, with no dedicated physical buttons on the dash for quick access on cold mornings. And while the sumptuous leather upholstery is abundantly perforated, the Brits seem to have forgotten that a good many of their customers drive the cars where the sun shines quite intensely, and there is no seat cooler available at all. Which seems a surprising oversight in a quarter-million dollar grand touring car.

Our test car further included the $5500 Premium Pack, which includes the front-end lift for driving over speed bumps, power folding mirrors, power opening and closing rear hatch and the 12-speaker, 1200-watt Bowers & Wilkins audio system.

The GT’s cockpit is more serene because of more thorough application of noise and vibration damping measures. McLaren’s press release describes “extensive use of lightweight NVH materials,” which seems like an impossibility to those of us who are familiar with heavy sound-deadening mastics. 

“That is true for low frequencies,” explained chief engineer Adam Thomson. “But for high frequencies, rigidity is more important and you can increase that by adding ribs to parts,” he continued. Such reinforcement strengthens parts in the areas subjected to high-frequency noise and vibration, such as the doors and wheel liners, adds virtually no weight, but contributes to a more placid cabin.

McLaren GT
McLaren/Patrick Gosling

In total, the effect is impressively decadent. “It gives a real sense of occasion to spend time in the GT,” Melville noted. Indeed, it does.

McLaren has featured a compact vertically oriented center display screen since the MP4-12C, which looks a bit like an embedded iPad Mini. The GT marks the debut of new, higher-performance hardware and all-new software for McLaren’s infotainment interface. “Infotainment is a step change in the GT,” Melville said. 

That new hardware is five times faster than before thanks to a 10-core processor. The interface includes simplified menus that reduce the number of steps needed for common actions and the navigation system changes to the HERE network with real time traffic navigation. In a day’s worth opportunity, the system does seem to deliver on its promise of being more intuitively easy to use and faster in its responses that the older system in other McLaren models.

Bottom line

McLaren GT
McLaren/Patrick Gosling

My test car was finished in stunning Namaka Blue, a $4500 Elite Paint option. Along with the other included options, the $210,000 base price climbed to $233,500. It did not have the available $60 cigarette lighter, but a day spent sharing the road with French drivers served to remind us why that is still an option.

McLaren has indeed delivered on its promise of a “McLaren of GT cars.” If someone who really wants to live with a mid-engine super sports car on a daily basis, the GT is surely that car, thanks to the amenities it boasts that take the edge off the usual hassles of driving a McLaren or something like it.

Still, if the goal is a comfortable stylish GT in the usual tradition, the GT’s track pedigree is probably a little too authentic. Sharing footwell space with the front wheels is just not a recipe for coast-to-coast cushiness. As I did with my S2000-intending colleague, I’d steer someone elsewhere from the idea that the GT a faster, better-handling DB11 or Portofino that doesn’t compromise on luxury or comfort. 

That said, test drives have revealed those cars to be skewed too far to the luxury end of the spectrum for your tastes, or if you’re just looking for the McLaren exoticism with a bit more livability, then the GT is your chariot. Just don’t skimp on the fitted luggage if you want to bring your desired range of outfit options.