But however they got here, we believe the McLaren 540C and Porsche 911 GTS are the best sports cars in the business, at least by the rules of this contest. If we’d waited a little longer, the new 911 GT3 may have made a stronger case still, and you could argue the McLaren 570S should replace with 540C because technically it just nips under the price barrier. But you’d scarcely believe how little real-world pace the 540C loses and we doubt a 570S has ever actually been bought for less than £150,000, so the 540C it is.
One more thing: the cars are competing by themselves, but for their countries. We’re here to identify the greatest sports car-producing nation of all, and these are mere representatives; the best of the best, for sure, but examples nonetheless.
For such an extraordinary device, the 540C is the invisible McLaren. It was commissioned at a time when the company was a lot less confident about its future and place in the world than it is now and was designed to ensure the company had something that could sell directly against the 911 Turbo. But it costs nearly £20,000 less than the 570S to buy, despite costing McLaren hardly anything less to build. Which is why there is no GT version of the 540, nor will there be a Spider. Given its time again but with the benefit of hindsight, doubtless McLaren would not have built it at all.
Which is exactly why it is such a bargain. The biggest difference between it and the 570S is that its engine produces 30 fewer horses, but because the 570S’s additional power is largely at the top end, you’re not going to notice what you’re missing unless you’re able to drive the wheels off both one after the other. Of course, we have done exactly this and it’s interesting to see what a difference that 30bhp makes, because even among cars with outputs in the mid-500bhp bracket, it is substantial; but unless you’re going to go redlining everywhere, the 540C does just fine.
And against the 911 GTS, where its advantage is closer to 90bhp, it offers a different category of performance. Don’t read too much into the 911’s 4.1sec 0-62mph time, because were you to equip it with a paddle-shift gearbox like the McLaren’s, that time would fall swiftly to 3.7sec, closer than you might think to the 540C’s 3.5sec sprint. But in reality, the McLaren really does feel much faster. It has more turbo lag, but when it kicks in a lower gear, it provides you with that uncomfortably hurtling feeling that is the hallmark of all exceptionally fast cars. And quick though the 911 is, it can’t quite do this.
But nor does it need to. Truth is (and we tried this, too), that so long as sane drivers are at the wheels of both cars, the GTS will sit neatly on the tail of the 540C from dawn until dusk. Sure, around a track, we’d expect the Brit to drive away from the German in short order, but in the always restrictive environment of even quiet moorland roads, both cars have potential to spare. The fact that the McLaren has rather more of it is really neither here nor there.