Road trips, as any number of Hollywood movies will tell you, are brilliant. The scenery is everchanging. The adventure comes built in. Fun just happens. But to get the full hit of the fruit, they need to be big. Really big.
If you can get from starter-gun A to chequered-flag B in, say, 12 hours – well, that’s a day trip, my friend. Good, yes. Memorable, even. But ultimately just a means to an end. In a full-blooded road trip, the journey ought to be so extravagantly long that arrival at your final destination is such a distant prospect that you consider it only in an abstract sense, like a pre-teen pondering parenthood.
England, then, will not do. Nor will Great Britain, for that matter – unless you live in Cornwall and are minded to see what the Shetlands look like. No, to properly tick a ‘things to do’ box, you need something continent-sized to tackle, which, for the majority of us, means booking a ferry or train, downloading Google Translate, packing your emptiest credit card and your biggest smile and heading for somewhere at the very edge of the Schengen Agreement. Such a journey, done in either direction, would, I promise, be unforgettable in a two-decade-old Daewoo Matiz. But because we’re dealing strictly in fantasy here, and because we’re so inclined, our starting place is Faro, Portugal – and the car in question is a hot-fromthe-launch McLaren 570S.
The premise hardly requires any more introductory sautéing, yet it inadvertently gets it in real-time when the coupé is presented to photographer Stan Papior and me in an underground car park with the clandestine flourish of a bank robber showing off his new diamond coring tool. Overhead is the Conrad Algarve, a marble-clad monstrosity aimed at pot-bellied Portuguese businessman and their Rolex-wearing English equivalents. The hotel is chilled like Sauvignon Blanc, but in our darkened, deserted corner of the basement, abandoned by McLaren’s techies only 24 hours earlier, it’s hotter than Hades.
Hunkered down in gloomy solitary, the 570S couldn’t be more Steve McQueen if it were bouncing a baseball off the far wall. Previously, generic ‘oh look’ prettiness has been McLaren’s speciality. Its middleweight, though, is a megawattage, stand-back bombshell. So charismatic is it, in fact, that we opt to shed no more light on the situation at all and, in the sweaty gloom, slowly circle the serpentine projectile until Stan finds the ideal angle from which to stuff it into his viewfinder.
To get in, you pop an unseen button under the sinew of bodywork that runs up the car’s flank. Dihedral doors up, ambient light spilling from within, it gets, if anything, even better looking. The Luxury-spec cabin is bound in caramel leather like a first edition and, in the preheist dark, seals heftily shut with the bang of a pistol shot. The innards are compact, yet there remains plenty of room in McLaren’s 80mm-lower carbonfibre tub for two – and even space on the shelf behind to stow Stan’s tripod bag. The nose swallows the remaining luggage whole.
As it does outside, the 570S’s interior realigns some of Woking’s standard fixtures and fittings. The centre console’s previously single slender continent is split asunder, revealing space behind for cupholders that don’t hold cups and leaving the lower edge of the infotainment screen to occasionally catch against my left knee. But those lessons are to come. In the sub-surface murk, I learn only that the scuttle is exceptionally low, the seat controls are incomprehensible, its two solid metal scaffold planks of pedals are offset too far to the left and, when fired into life via its starter button, the Ricardo turbocharged V8 still sounds about as melodic as a scuttled tugboat.
The next day, we begin proper. The plan is for a straight sprint out of Portugal into neighbouring Spain, hang a left at Seville, north to Salamanca and then right a bit until we hit Pamplona. Google Maps says it’s about 1100km and 10 hours’ work. Stan says it’s madness. The 570S, for a good while, says nothing – because, to the uninitiated, the updated sat-nav remains crummy. Spend the next 20 excruciating minutes impatiently initiating yourself with the new shortcut buttons and it’s still crummy. Slow, dumb, ugly, wrong.
Everything the car around it isn’t. The point of the 570S, in case you’ve been asleep since the autumn, is to deliver McLaren the bigger volume of the super-sports car market. Thus the 3.8-litre mid-mounted engine spits out a more modest 562bhp, the bodywork is mostly aluminium and the suspension loses some of its trick cross-link cleverness. If that subtraction of technical sophistication has you worried about the ride quality, let me put that thought to bed early; the comfort levels, driven up Spain’s admittedly pristine spine, are phenomenal. It would be a mighty compliment to say the McLaren fondles at the E803 with Lotus levels of care but, in truth, the 570S hardly rides like a sports car at all. In its default setting, it beds down like an air-sprung saloon – except there’s no remoteness or float to it, just a perfect, fat, grippy mould to whatever terrain arrives under the contact patches.
As you sink into it, its virtue sinks into you – and for the next 10 hours it is the priceless succour to the sting of many, many featureless miles. Before we hit Salamanca, the motorway slips into the hills. Three months ago the peaks were scorched by the sun. Now, nearly 1000 metres up, the scrabbly, multi-coloured bush is sugared with the candyfloss of low cloud. At this point, to Stan’s incredulity, I ditch my shoes. The heavy-set pedals, it turns out, are so minutely accurate that my fat-soled gym trainers aren’t up to the task of translation. I prod away happily in cotton socks, my toes frequently curled around the polished accelerator like baby fingers on a formula bottle.
This proximity is important, because without dabbling with the 570S’s Active mode – and the sportier drive settings contained within – the throttle and sevenspeed dual-clutch automatic gearbox are tuned to encourage parsimony from the V8. Unexpectedly, a moderately serious stab is required to make the transmission automatically downshift, meaning that overtaking manoeuvres attempted without resorting to the paddle shifters occasionally leave Stan and me floundering in the outside lane like a tiny, terrifically fetching HGV while the turbos think about spooling.
Somewhere beyond Salamanca, on the E80, Spain’s hilly rump flattens. The road offers huge vistas of sky and farmland that would be reminiscent of Norfolk if the colours in play weren’t ochre, yellow, brown and orange. Periodically, at Stan’s request, we slip from the motorway’s orbit and slice into Spain’s underbelly, searching – fruitlessly, as it happens – for a background charming enough to catch the fancy of his 1000-yard stare. Not for beauty does it lack, the vast sky brimmed with sunset and rainbows, framed by the ancient churn of stone beneath, yet this countryside is too big, too native. It rolls and sweats like New Mexico, built for stitching together in an iPhone, not magazine pages.
The side effect of all this timewasting (work, Stan calls it) is a mounting restlessness to make the hotel as the light fades around us. There’s no need to drop the 570S’s colossal hammer for that. But it is an opportunity to splice some of the car’s enormous potential into its gentle pillow fight with the road surface. Like every McLaren, its powertrain and chassis can be tweaked separately from one another. Nudging the chassis into Sport trims out some of the body’s accommodating travel and suckers it into a feelsome sort of steadfast. You want this, because Spanish motorways at night are as dark as black magic and hugging the white lines at ludicrous speeds requires nerve – or else a nerveless car.
The 570S barely breaks a sweat transitioning into one. No anaesthetised effect at the deadahead or twangy self-centring is required to convey stability. Instead, the steering moves between totally straight and not quite with seamless precision, trusting you to keep it true and supplying the tools – the feedback, the friction, the kickback and the speed – to ensure you do. We hit the hotel in time for a late supper.
On the second day, we’re straight down to business. The N240 starts not far east of Pamplona, and for more than 300km it snakes its way through the Pyrenees. It’s a biker’s paradise but, more important, it sends Stan into paroxysms of delight, and for the first hour or two we proceed at a start-stop crawl next to the shallow lakes and statuesque rock formations. Initially, the road straddles a much newer motorway, but it is nothing like one, choosing to snake around the landscape rather than plough through it. It’s an outrageous montage of generally deserted, mostly sighted corners, to which the McLaren applies itself with hardly a drop in the pace we rubbed along at the day before.
If anything, it’s almost too capable and I start to worry that for all the suave, implacable, inclusive talent it exudes, maybe the 570S’s limits are so distant as to be essentially untouchable at B-road speeds – an affliction not uncommon in modern supercars, and not unknown among McLarens.
Stan isn’t entirely happy, either. He bemoans the corners that are not sharp enough and the mountains that are not tall enough. We argue about the route until I get my way – insisting that the Millau Viaduct must be at journey’s end, necessitating an immediate swing north up the A138 toward France, where I blindly suggest the summits will become snowcapped.
A 3km tunnel right on the border doesn’t bode well, for the scenery or the car. Although quieter at a cruise than all the other McLarens in my memory banks, the 570S still emits a steady drone. Think of the background sound Hollywood uses when it wants to convey a propdriven aircraft of the 1940s and you’ll have it. In an enclosed space, the V8 gets jackhammer loud but no less workmanlike. And when your competitors include Audi’s spine-tingling V10 and Aston Martin’s rhythm section V12, that’s a problem.
The light at the end of the tunnel is less compromised. Against all odds, it exits at the head of a spectacular valley – more Highlands than Pyrenees in appearance, but easily bonny enough to have Stan leaping from the car to snap at it. From here, the roads get better, too, folding themselves in the sort of hillside switchbacks that fit more conveniently into a camera lens. However, they don’t really tickle our maestro’s fancy until we divert from descent to ascent and arrive among the hulks of tenantless ski resorts near Aragnouet. Come the first falls of snow, they will be packed with holidaymakers, but for now their huge car parks and maze-like approach roads are eerily empty – the perfect backdrop for our purposes.
With Stan safely deposited in a ditch and opportunities to turn around few and far between, I run up and down the same desolate mile-long stretch of hairpins for about half an hour. For the first time on the trip, the unpeopled corners ahead become a known quantity and finally fodder for the 570S’s full-blooded Track mode – a setting worthy of its name and yet, unusually for the segment, not upset or perturbed by a mottled B-road. There is, in fact, so much subtlety to the savagery that its sudden arrival seems an organic extension of its previous character rather than the flick of a switch, and the idea of the car being in any way remote peels away like onion skin as each passing run in front of the camera has me trying harder – not just to satisfy the stationary Stan but also because I absolutely can’t help myself. Properly indulged, the V8’s peak performance is colossal and, given that the 570S weighs about the same as a hot hatch, it makes the road’s notable incline seem like the drop from a cliff edge. The brakes at the other end, now properly heated, are sublime, turn-in is instantaneous and the grip, even in the wet, is utterly bankable – until such time as you don’t want it to be, and then its furious mid-engined race car impersonation gives way to the lesser g levels of adjustable reardriven liveliness.
It’s intoxicating, testing, dramatic and incredible for the fact that it’s the same car that has spent the past day and a half riding like a limo and the past five hours being marvellously obedient and easy to use at fiveeighths. Rosy-cheeked, I yammer at a retrieved Stan about its varied magnificence all the way to Millau, where I then fall silent in reverence to the immense, sky-filling viaduct. Experienced from the ground, at night, its vast pillars lit from the centre, it is so monumental as to weigh heavy not just on the valley but my imagination, too. I take the thought of its enormity to bed with me, grateful that the hotel we stay at puts it back a postcard distance.
The following day we spirit the 570S into the surrounding hills and then wait for an impenetrable billow of swirling fog to mooch past us before Stan can arrange the engineering triumphs around each other. Then we’re off, France waving us away from the border with a great, gorgeous autumnal hanky, each of its gentle hills swathed in a yellowing sea of leaves. Stan snaps this backdrop from inside the car, utterly ruining it with an ugly mug in the foreground.
Before Calais, there’s the traditional opportunity to get snarled up in Paris, which we do, thus spending two hours marvelling at a city that makes London seem like an ode to logic. The McLaren, like the viaduct, observes the chaos impassively. The vigorous click of its paddle shifters has by now become annoying and the seats’ ultimately limited cushioning is finally a bind – but otherwise the car is a clockwork pleasure: snapped endlessly by Parisians, not big enough to cause stress on tight streets and predictably adept at making the late lane changes announced by my Google Maps-toting navigator.
Beyond the city, we make a final stop for fuel – the seventh of the journey, by my count – and catapult up the A1 to make the penultimate ferry of the evening. There’s a certain kind of chap to be encountered in the queue for a late-night channel crossing, and before long Stan and I are surrounded by a goodnatured rogues’ gallery – most at the tail end of their own road trips, although none near the 3000km boast emblazoned on the 570S’s trip computer. The McLaren, of course, is the sole subject of conversation. What don’t I like? The noise, the nav, the lack of adaptive headlights and its infrequent habit of bottoming out. What do I like? The steering, the pace, the suspension, the brakes, the look, the cabin, the nose raiser, the visibility, the usability and the unforgettable thrashability. What’s it good for, then? Absolutely everything you can think of, lads. Invest your winning lottery ticket thusly. I know a hotel in Faro with a great car park...