There are cars that let you slip around town unnoticed. A flaming orange McLaren 570S with the optional Sport Exhaust system is not one of them. All eyes are upon you as you shriek past in this low-slung English machine. Driving the McLaren is a commitment. The doors swing upwards like a pair of dragonfly wings, forcing you to assume a just-so body angle as you fold yourself into the closely fitted cockpit. Underway, you are acutely aware of the car's raging power and its costly appurtenances – smacking that beautiful carbon nose into a parking-lot berm will set you back the price of a Toyota Corolla or so.
Never mind. With the McLaren you are buying a work of automotive art. Every component is a masterpiece, from the carbon-fiber passenger tub to the aluminum V8 motor to the rear-view mirrors, which ride on a pair of airfoil-shaped composite struts. The doors are counterbalanced on perfectly calibrated gas struts that render them weightless, as if they were filled with helium. The carbon paddle shifters could be put on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
But if you want to pop the hood and stare at the motor, you're in for disappointment: The engine lid can only be opened by a factory-authorized McLaren technician with special tools. All that's missing is an "Access Denied" sign. The McLaren isn't for drivers who are curious about machinery; it's for people who can afford to pay others to take care of things on their behalf.
Drivers who can spend a quarter of a million dollars on a two-seat car don't typically care about details like this. What they're looking for is performance, exclusivity and, most likely, some attention. On this score, the McLaren delivers in spades: It drew a crowd everywhere I went, and more than once, people actually cheered as I drove by. When I stopped outside a store, a little boy came running out to stare at the car, mesmerized.
If you enjoy the spotlight, you will love the McLaren. But driving it on public roads is an exercise in frustration. This is one of the world's great sports cars, purpose-built for a mission most drivers never encounter – carving through curves and launching down straightaways at extralegal speed.
This is the supercar conundrum. Day to day, I felt like a pilot who had strapped himself into an F22 jetfighter, only to be denied access to an airport. I taxied the streets of Toronto in my killer machine, longing for a takeoff that never came. There were brief moments when I was allowed to glimpse the promised land – I railed the McLaren through a long onramp, pulling more than a G of lateral force, and merged onto Highway 400 like a Star Trek attack pod, accelerating at warp speed. But then it was over, in a process that can only be described as the automotive equivalent of coitus interruptus. The McLaren was just getting started, but there were speed limits to respect, a driver's license to preserve and jail to avoid. I clicked on the cruise control and droned north in my magnificent orange bird, its wings clipped.
To step into a McLaren is to enter the mindset of Ron Dennis, chairman of McLaren cars. Every detail is a study in perfection. The cockpit is a symphony of suede and carbon fiber, and every stitch and weave grain has been aligned, as if the space were constructed by a team of OCD-ridden elves. The McLaren's quality runs down to the DNA level. Someone spent a long time thinking about the hierarchy of the electronics: Flick two switches, hit a button marked "Active," and the car goes through a reconfiguration as the drivetrain, suspension and exhaust toggle through a series of modes. My favorite was Track, which gave hair-trigger throttle response, a rasping exhaust note, and converted the dash into a race monitor – the speedometer disappeared, replaced by a giant tachometer display.
As I said, you are entering the mindset of Dennis, a Steve Jobs-style industrial guru who has overseen McLaren's Formula One and street car operations since the 1980s. Dennis is famous for a meticulous, unsparing approach, and the McLaren factory in Woking, England, reflects him as surely as Apple's California headquarters reflects Jobs. Partially assembled cars roll through long white halls that are so fastidiously clean that you can't imagine anything actually being built there.
I met Dennis a few years ago, and he was a McLaren rendered in flesh and blood: impeccably tailored, gym trim and laser-focused. He knew every detail of his company's cars, from the blade angle of the turbochargers to the grade of aluminum used in the milled suspension arms.
Did I love the McLaren? No. It was an incredible machine, but its capabilities were unusable in the everyday world. And it felt like a wheeled science project – fans carried away the monstrous heat of the V8 engine, air whooshed into the airplane style inlets, and the variable-geometry turbochargers spun away beneath the McLaren's sealed deck lid, producing an eerie sound that made me wonder if I was being chased by an army of alien bagpipers.
Bottom line: If you've got the money, you want a work of four-wheeled art, and you can deal with the spotlight, the McLaren might just be your car.
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