Technically, the 540C is McLaren’s entry-level model, except for one important consideration.
When a car maker’s prices start north of £120,000, no car deserves such a humbling description, let alone a supercar with the all-round capability of this one.
The 540C was launched in summer 2015, not far behind its bigger-selling sibling, the 570S, which was later joined by the slightly softer 570GT. The similarities between the 540C and the other models are obvious: both cars use McLaren’s ultra-light one-piece carbonfibre monocoque chassis and have the same mid-mounted 3.8-litre, twin-turbo V8 driving through seven-speed paddle shift gearbox. Weights and dimensions are also very similar.
The only obvious differences are that the 540’s power is shorn of 30bhp (so it packs a mere 533bhp), that it lacks an exterior badge and that its front splitter is a bit different, though it takes a keen eye to spot that last difference.
Under the skin, the suspension is closely related to the more expensive models’ all independent set-up, but uses coil springs, adaptive dampers and good old anti-roll bars front and rear. The brakes are slightly lower-tech cast iron, too; if you want carbon rotors (noisier and marginally less capable from cold) you have to pay a fat option price.
Despite the 540C’s clear price appeal, the 570S and 570GT have so far performed better in the showroom, not least because McLaren has shown an understandable and marked preference for selling the pricier editions of its Sports Series range.
Reviewers have even tended to play into their hands by posing the somewhat fatuous question: which prospective £143,000 car owner cares about saving £17,000? The same sort, we’d suggest, who would enjoy saving £9000 on a car worth £70,000. Or £600 on a car worth £7000. A potentially great car is being overlooked for the weird reason of its affordability.
McLaren’s own purpose in launching the lower-priced car is based entirely on financial logic. In places like Singapore, where supercar taxes run at around 100 percent, the price difference between 540C and 570S swells to £40,000, a solid sum indeed.
Back in Blighty, where personal contract purchase is big business, this “most attainable” McLaren is on offer to a 10,000 miles-a-year buyer over three years for less than £1000 a month (provided said buyer parts with a £35k deposit). The deal is keener than you’d get on an equivalent Audi R8, Woking claims.
In an on-road test of a car with the 540C’s potential, full-noise driving isn’t necessary or even possible on public roads. We set out to drive the 540C as an owner would — discreetly sprinting where possible, and feeling the car out on favourite corners and back roads. The truth about the 540C is that you don’t notice its “missing” 30bhp at all. How much more quickly does a reasonable person want to sprint to 124 mph (200km/h) from rest than 10.5sec. And how much faster does this owner want to go — assuming a place could be legally found — than 199mph?
Step into a 540C and the familiarity with the company’s earlier offerings is instant, followed by the realisation a second later that everything — everything — has been developed, improved, refined or tuned. The door aperture is bigger, the doors open wider, there’s more room in the cabin and better adjustment for the steering column.
You see the instruments better. The pedal area seems roomier, too, and the infotainment system is quick acting and enormously better.
That’s just the beginning. The steering wheel turns the car more quickly and the effort is more appropriate and consistent from lock to lock. And like the 570S, the 540C surprises you with its agility in tight spaces: it feels compact and capable, and you can definitely feel that as a result of a carbon tub, alloy panels and a light powertrain, it weighs just 1311kg.
When you thumb the button the engine starts with the same neighbour-disturbing blip and settles into the same disappointingly farty idle, but when you move off, the clutch’s take-up is perfectly predictable in a way it never was.
Left to its own devices, the seven-speed paddle gearbox changes smoothly and chooses its ratios with perfect precision, but the manual ’change (one of several things selectable via till-confusing rotary switches on the lower fascia) is such superb fun that I drove most of our 300 miles changing my own gears.
The ride of this steel suspension car is flat and beautifully damped: one of my conceits on this trip was following decent cars and watching how much more their bodies were affected by dips and humps than our own. Now and again severe bumps do crash right through, however. Likewise, you occasionally hear a rumble-rattle that’s typical of cars with carbonfibre structures.
It probably depends how badly you need to save £17,000. We’ve already decided that the 570S is a superb place to put your money, and there’s precious little to criticise about the 540C that hasn’t already been said about the 570S.
Sure, the cheaper car has iron brakes, not the carbonfibre variety used on more expensive McLarens, but on the road you hardly notice the difference. And true, the 540C’s interior décor is a little less ornate than its pricier siblings, but we actually enjoyed that simplicity, especially since it did nothing to disguise the abiding impression of quality.
But if you’re a personal lease buyer — and more and more supercar owners seem to be — the 540’s extra affordability may just make the vital difference.