Yet for a few of us, that 540C question continued to burn. Which £140,000 car owner cares about saving £17,000 on a car? The same sort, of course, who likes the idea of saving £9000 on a car worth £70,000. Or £1800 on a car worth £14,000. A potentially great car was being ignored for the weird reason of its affordability. We decided to borrow a 540C to discover its truths.
Before the drive, some stats. The 540C, comparatively packed with equipment in most buyers’ books, carries beneath its elegant engine cover a 533bhp twin-turbo 3.8-litre V8 closely related to that of the million-pound McLaren P1. It sits on an all-carbonfibre single-piece chassis that, if not the same, is closely related. It is a picture of efficiency and design sophistication. It also has huge performance. How much more quickly does a reasonable person want to sprint to 125mph from rest than 10 seconds? And how much faster does this owner want to go – assuming a place could be legally found – than 199mph?
What’s more, the 540C closely resembles the 570S in styling. Only experts and the car’s actual creators are likely to spot the small differences in front splitter design, especially as the 540C isn’t identified by any exterior badge. Ironically, as we were soon repeatedly to discover, a decent proportion of the people who recognised our car as a McLaren were inclined to confuse it with the P1 costing nine times more…
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%, the price difference between the 540C and 570S swells to £40,000. 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 (after a £35,000 deposit). The deal is keener than you’d get on an equivalent Audi R8, Woking’s people insist, because their cars’ residual values are well ahead of the Audi’s.
But is the 540C any good? One quick way of finding out, we decided, was to take a brisk one-day tour of well-known, inspirational roads in the lower Cotswolds, a 300-mile tour that would take in a wide variety of road types, corners and surfaces. This would be a short, enjoyable grand tour, if that term can still be used with validity away from the Haunted Fishtank.
In a car of 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 it was possible and feeling the car out on favourite corners and back roads. Down the M3 we’d go, turning north-west on rolling English roads to Marlborough, then up an unspoiled secondary route to Swindon’s outskirts, before zipping up to the east of Cirencester to visit a friend, Vic Norman, whose Breitling-sponsored biplanes can be seen at all the big airshows of the UK summer, usually with a daredevil girl on the top wing. Norman’s preference is for Porsches these days. Maybe we could change his mind.