In the hills above Portimão, Portugal, the autumn sun beats down on a high winding road flanked by cork oaks and cypress and eucalyptus. Cutting through the curves at 50 miles an hour, the McLaren 570S is wildly, wonderfully alive, the weight of its Alcantara-wrapped wheel a tactile delight, the crisp "click-click" of its paddle shifter as pleasurable as the rush of torque it summons, the rasping cry of its 562-horsepower, 3.8-litre twin-turbocharged V8 serenading the ears as it resonates in your bones. That a vehicle capable of supercar-grade acceleration and a top speed of 204mph can squeeze so much exhilaration into a country drive is testament to a rarefied expertise.
To understand the origins of this expertise, one need look no further than the the company's founder, Bruce McLaren. Born in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1937, McLaren began preparing his first race car — an Austin Ulster — at the age of 13, scored his first in-class win at 15, and won his first Grand Prix at 22. In 1963, he founded the Formula 1 team, Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Ltd. McLaren died in an accident while testing a car of his own design in 1970, but the team persevered, and through its technical innovations — like the first carbon-fibre Formula 1 car, the MP4/1 — and the skill of its drivers — Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, James Hunt and Niki Lauda among them — went on to become the most successful marque in the sport's history.
Between 1993 and 1998, McLaren built — in a small production run — the world's first carbon-fibre supercar, the F1, which, with a top speed in excess of 240mph, remains the fastest naturally aspirated road car ever built. With the founding of McLaren Automotive in 2009, McLaren signaled a commitment to pursuing the sports car business in earnest. Its first product was the MP4 12C, a $240,000 supercar built around a Formula 1-derived carbon fibre monocell and packed with race-derived technology like brake steer and active aerodynamics. Next, McLaren conceived what it calls the "spiritual successor" to the F1: the P1. A hybrid supercar loaded with Formula 1-derived materials and technology, the P1's specifications are starkly impressive: 900 horsepower; 0-62 in 2.8 seconds; a top speed of 217mph; and courtesy of McLaren's chief test driver Chris Goodwin, a sub-7-minute Nürburgring lap time. Then, as an improvement on the 12C, McLaren built the 650S. Last spring I had an opportunity to drive the 650S on the track at Laguna Seca and on the surrounding roads, and in retrospect, while it was an absolute rush on the closed course, it seemed rather overqualified for the exigencies of rural blacktop.
Which is where the 570S comes in. The initial brief, said Andy Palmer, head of McLaren's Sports Series, was to build "the 'McLaren of sports cars,' an engaging and agile and fun sports car that would appeal to all sorts of drivers. If they wanted to take it on the track, that's fine, but it's more geared towards road use." McLaren also had a fair bit of unused capacity on its production line. While the company expects to sell 1800 cars this year, it can build as many as 4,000 annually. If the 570S — with its everyday appeal and a price tag $80,000 less than that of the 650S — succeeds as McLaren hopes, it should set the factory, and sales, humming.
On the scenic route to Autódromo Internacional do Algarve, I was doing some humming as well, to Lykke Li's melancholy anthem, "I Follow Rivers," siphoned via a USB cable from my high-resolution FiiO music player and pumped through the 570S's bespoke 12-speaker Bowers & Wilkins audio system, whose sound quality elicited a larger-than-normal lump in the throat as the Swedish chanteuse hit the chorus. As I flipped through the powertrain settings, from Normal to Sport to Track, the 570S ripped into a chorus of its own as each mode reduces the amount of sound deadening in operation, allowing more of the mid-mounted engine's thrills to permeate the cabin. The revs and the immediacy of the throttle response jump up with each setting as well, and as Track felt like overkill — especially when driving through villages where donkeys peered with silent curiosity over stone walls, and elderly farmers walked the road's edge laden with heavy baskets of just-harvested olives — I dialed it back to Sport, where it remained for the duration.
Likewise, as much as I love the paddle shifters, I eventually delegated the matter of gear selection to the 570S. In automatic mode, its sense of timing is uncanny. Braking into the endless series of curves, it seemed as if there were a professional driver hidden away — in the 150-litre luggage bin perhaps — actuating a solenoid at precisely the right moment to fire off a single ultra-smooth downshift, or in the case of a hairpin, two or three. The more logical though no less compelling explanation is that the car's virtuosic shifting and countless other graces are in fact a manifestation of Chris Goodwin's reflexes, collected, converted into algorithms, and etched into Formula-1-grade solid-state circuits by a team of McLaren engineers.
Toggling between the suspension's three modes — likewise, Normal, Sport and Track — transformed the ride from one of grand-tourer suppleness to an ultra-firm footing for maximum handling. What was particularly striking is that while the 570S is equipped with a conventional double-wishbone suspension rather than the 650S's sophisticated and costly hydraulically-damped system, the 570S's road feel — wonderfully telegraphic yet superbly forgiving — reminded me of nothing so much as that of its supercar sibling.
But how would it fare on the track?
At the Autódromo, after an introductory lap with Daniel Buxton, a professional race car driver from Southampton, I slid behind the wheel. Buxton connected my helmet to the intercom, and we headed out of the pits. As the laps ticked by, the flow of adrenalin increased. With Buxton coaching me through every turn, I traded my trepidation for his trust in the car's capabilities. Despite the lack of active aerodynamics (which are not really called for in a road-focused car) the 570S's grip in the corners was phenomenal, its poise under hard braking unreal, even when decelerating on sections of track littered with bits of tire residue known colloquially as "marbles."
Exiting the apex of the wide right-hander that feeds into the straightaway, Buxton said, "Okay. Ease on the power. More. More." And then, with the nose pointed dead at the straightaway, "Okay. Full power." I obeyed, and good lord, the acceleration was absolutely furious. "Keep on it, keep on it," urged Buxton as the asphalt dipped down at the end of the straight. Somehow the car clung to the earth, and just as I spotted the markings on the next curb and considered the speed we needed to lose, the voice in my helmet said, "Now brake. Harder. Harder." The pedal throbbed as the car plowed through the marbles, around the 90-degree turn, and then, "Okay. Back on the power." It was a kind of nirvana, one that I wished would never end.
- Base price: $184,900 excluding destination charge
- Price as tested: N/A
- EPA fuel economy: 16mpg city; 23mpg highway; 19mpg combined
- Powertrain: mid-mounted 3.8-litre twin-turbo V8 gasoline engine (562hp, 443lb-ft), seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive
- Standard features: traction control, launch control, carbon-ceramic brakes, Pirelli P-Zero Corsa tyres,
- Major options: Carbon fibre racing seats, power adjust steering column, sports exhaust, Bowers & Wilkins 12-speaker branded audio system
The McLaren of sports cars, it seems, has arrived.
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