Drivers’ Report, Part 2: Sunset in the 2019 McLaren Senna Cleanses Souls
We cruise Los Angeles’ street of dreams in McLaren’s dream car.
It's time for Automobile's journey with the 2019 McLaren Senna to reach completion. In this final installment of coverage of "our" car, senior editor Aaron Gold and editor-in-chief Mac Morrison—mostly Gold, because he won't ever stop typing—take their spins. These are their stories.
Senior Editor Aaron Gold:
Why would I drive a million-dollar McLaren Senna—a car Automobile spec'd and ordered using McLaren's own money—the length of Los Angeles' Sunset Boulevard? It's a road where the speed limit never tops 35, and this is the same car our Andy Pilgrim used recently to set the production-car lap record at NCM Motorsports park, for goodness sake.
So, why not some twisty mountain road where I could push the Senna to the ragged edge for this test-drive review, or at least to my ragged edge? When the Senna arrived, I took it for a get-to-know-you test in the twisties, and it became instantly obvious—as it did to our other editors during their drives of the car—that probing its limits would require a closed track and a driver with more skill and less will to live in order to write this review than I. So, I decided on something completely different: An epic drive on one of Los Angeles' most epic streets, with the hope of learning something about the 2019 McLaren Senna beyond its ability to cause involuntary bladder evacuation.
2019 McLaren Senna: The Ultimate Billionaires' Play-Toy
For those unfamiliar, the 2019 McLaren Senna isn't quite a dedicated track car (that's the job of the Senna GTR), but it's as close as a billionaire can get without giving up the comforts of air conditioning and a good stereo. The ride is so hard that it makes a Veloster N feel like a Cadillac Fleetwood, and the engine so noisy that OSHA would step in if it knew I was doing this for work. It drives like a pack of angry hornets. In a twisted way, think of the Senna as the world's best racing simulator, so realistic that you can actually die in the crashes.
Sunset Boulevard, meanwhile, stretches 25 miles, following the route of an 18th century cattle trail from the Pueblo de los Angeles—the 1781 Spanish settlement that spawned our fair city—to the Pacific Ocean. My starting point is the site of the Pueblo near historic Olvera Street, where Sunset is now known as Cesar Chavez Avenue.
Right away, the Senna gives me a taste of celebrity. People stop what they're doing, whip out their phones, and start snapping pictures. When I park for a photo, strangers become instant friends, asking about horsepower (789), price ($1.1 million as equipped), and speed (beyond your imagination). One skateboarder is so grateful for the opportunity to ogle the car that he offers to repay me in "epic weed." I politely decline, assuring him that remuneration is unnecessary.
East Sunset: A 2019 McLaren Senna Out of Place
Crossing Figueroa Street, where Sunset Boulevard takes on its traditional name, I roll into Angelino Heights. It feels old, lived-in, and a little run down, and I'm instantly in love. I take a quick detour to Carroll Avenue, a magical nest of ancient Victorian houses I never expected to see outside of a movie set in quake-prone Los Angeles. Sunset, like the Senna, is full of surprises.
Sunset winds its way through Echo Park and Silver Lake, lovely old neighborhoods that are now hipster hotspots. The Senna feels ridiculously inapposite here, as would any McLaren; my beat-up '69 Dodge Polara would be a better fit. I feel conspicuous and out of place as I wind past old buildings housing shabby-chic shops and hillsides dotted with colorful apartment buildings.
And yet despite being out of its element in every possible way, the Senna is perfect for the drive, which represents a test of its own. This is no luxury ride: It pounds over every pavement irregularity, of which there are plenty. The engine's idle sounds like a demon 911, and pieces of the cabin buzz in sympathetic vibration. Above the din I can hear every single pebble plinking the Senna's carbon-fiber undersides. But the suspension sands enough of the hard edges off of every bump, and the racing-style shell seat, despite having padding of a thickness typically associated with prison mattresses, is surprisingly comfortable. It's 96 degrees outside, but the A/C blows cold and the temperature gauge stays in the green zone. Impatient as the engine sounds, I am surprised to discover it's perfectly content with a slow cruise.
As I pass the historic Vista Theater, a bright-orange single-screener that opened in 1923, Sunset angles to the left, splitting off from Hollywood Boulevard. With the massive Children's Hospital as a border, Sunset's character changes instantly. The curves stop and Sunset runs arrow-straight through Hollywood, L.A. 's factory town.
Taking the 2019 McLaren Senna Where Money is Made
This is where Sunset gets down to business. I've always wondered where the money to buy million-dollar McLarens comes from, and the answer is here in front of me. I pass Sunset Bronson Studios, where The Jazz Singer, the first "talking" picture, was filmed. Sunset Gower Studios, an independent production house established in 1912, is next door. Netflix, Technicolor, CNN, and United Recording Studios all do business here—and yet there are also wandering street people arguing with voices no one else can hear. I think of Walking Down Madison by Kirsty MacColl: "From the sharks in the penthouse to the rats in the basement, it's not that far." She meant New York, but as the song says, every city and town has a Madison Avenue.
I ignore what I can't change and marvel at how lovely a cruiser this car is. The McLaren Senna projects the image of a hot-blooded racehorse, and yet I'm finding it surprisingly tractable and easy to drive. In this environment, I don't have to worry about my skills being tested as I review more practical considerations, at least as far as "practical" applies to the Senna.
The steering is quick but not twitchy. Visibility is excellent, at least forward and above, the latter courtesy of windows cut into the top of the butterfly doors. Rearward sightlines are poor, but does that matter? All it takes is a twitch of the accelerator to know what's behind you—it's whatever was just in front of you.
West of the studios is working-class Hollywood, where bright-eyed up-and-comers rent crappy apartments before either making it and moving to the Westside or giving up and moving back home. Tourist-trap Hollywood sits just to the north. I pass RDB LA, where a couple million dollars' worth of Lambos, Bentleys, and Rolls-Royces sit in the forecourt awaiting customization. I bet they'd love to get their hands on my Senna.
Sunset Strip: Where the 2019 McLaren Senna Belongs
Past Crescent Heights Boulevard, Sunset begins to curve again, and suddenly the Senna belongs. This is the legendary Sunset Strip, the cradle of American music and comedy, and the place where money comes to party. The venues I pass are legends: Whiskey a Go-Go, the Comedy Store, Roxy Theater, the Rainbow Bar & Grille, Viper Room, Chateau Martmont, and, of course, Carney's, where the stars eat their dogs. (Frankfurters, that is.) All have earned a place in history, as will the McLaren Senna.
I have never, not once, driven the Sunset Strip without seeing exotic metal, and today is no different: I pass an Aventador and a Urus, a drop-top Bentley, a couple of Rolls-Royces, and even a Karma Revero. G-Wagens and 911s old and new fade into the background like Toyotas. It's amazing to think that for the price of the Senna, I could buy several of these cars.
I pass Doheny Drive, and bam, another instant change: Buildings are replaced by well-manicured trees. We're in Beverly Hills, otherwise known as the McLaren Senna's driveway. If the Strip is where money parties, this is where it crawls home to nurse its hangover.
I take a quick turn off Sunset to cruise intersecting streets lined with rows of towering palms—you know, the ones they use in movies for establishing shots of Los Angeles. I've lived here nearly 25 years, and the magic of those palms never fades. Back in the Golden Age of Hollywood, the stars lived on these side-streets, in big but generally ordinary homes that anyone could gander at. Nowadays it's a different story: Sunset is lined by mega-mansions hidden behind towering shrubbery. Occasionally you get a glimpse of a snippet of a house; through a gap in the trees I spy an entrance hall with a chandelier the size of a Toyota Yaris. These are the homes of people who can afford a McLaren Senna, and they don't want their houses to be seen—except they want them to be seen a little.
Curves and Hills: Time to See What the Senna Can Do
I'm just now getting into the longest section of Sunset, and from a driver's perspective it's the best: Twisty and hilly and good fun in a sports car if there isn't traffic, which there usually is. It's time to unleash a little Senna. The speed limit is 35 and I dare not do more than 50 in my black/purple/gold/bewinged ticket-magnet, but I can still paddle down to second gear and let the engine scream. Sunset is four lanes throughout its length, but here the right lane is uneven and treacherous, and the bumps throw the Senna's front tires to-and-fro. I pretend it's the curbing of the Circuit de la Sarthe as I whip past Fernando Alonso in his Toyota Highlander.
I calm the Senna as we pass UCLA's campus and cross the 405 freeway. Here, Sunset briefly masquerades as an ordinary neighborhood, as if trying to prove a point: "See, I'm just like any other street in Los Angeles. I have affordable housing. I have stores." But Sunset cannot keep up the pretense for long, and soon the houses get bigger, the hedges grow higher, and we're back in the twists and turns.
I fly up the hill toward Will Rogers State Historic Park, 186 acres of prime real estate granted to the state by the late actor's family with the proviso that it remain unchanged, much to the irritation of local real-estate developers. I open the Senna's half-windows, having found the roof-mounted switches by accident while trying to turn on the dome light, and the air is different—cooler, crisper, fresher. Sea air. We are close to the ocean, and I'm not ready for my drive to end.
The Inevitable End of an Epic Cruise
Neither, apparently, is Sunset Boulevard. From Will Rogers Park it makes a beeline for the water, but then turns suddenly away to the northwest, running parallel to the coastline. The effort is in vain, though, as Sunset runs headlong into Pacific Palisades, which feels like a vacation town and has traffic to match. The pavement twists and turns as if writhing in anger and frustration.
As the ocean looms large through the driver-side window, it becomes apparent that Sunset Boulevard, like all of us, must accept its inevitable end. After one last violent S-curve, it surrenders, its last exhale in the form of a straight shot down to the Pacific Coast Highway, the beach, and the ocean. I have run out of road, out of city, out of continent.
I park the Senna and shut off the engine, silencing the cacophony that has been my companion for 24.7 glorious miles. I open the big butterfly door and climb clumsily out of the constricting racing seat. Like the stereotypical Angelino I have become, I strike a pose, caressing the carbon-fiber flank of my million-dollar steed as I stare out at the Pacific, as broad and blue as it was in my childhood dreams.
When I first thought about this story, I wondered if I'd be wasting my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to drive, test, and review the 2019 McLaren Senna—but now that it's over, I know I made the right choice. Both Sunset and the Senna have shown me sides of themselves I didn't expect to see. I may never be rich enough to afford a Senna or a house on Sunset, but I am richer for this experience.
Editor-in-Chief Mac Morrison:
This is what I get for going last in our various reports of driving the Automobile 2019 McLaren Senna; my colleagues have hit top-dead-center with all of their previous points, yet the Senna is so compelling that there remain some relevant observations to present.
Never have 150 miles—the odometer limit McLaren signed-off on for each of our individual stints—gone by so quickly. Not because we were travelling constantly at 100-plus mph, but because when you know you're effectively on a countdown timer with this car, it feels a lot like waking up repeatedly in the night, looking at your bedside clock, and smiling with relief that still a few hours remain in the bank to catch some more sleep. But you can never shake the dread of time expiring.
2019 McLaren Senna: Little Quirks
Looking back in review, that was my only "negative" experience with the Senna. Oh, that and the fact I am apparently incapable of deciphering some of McLaren's onboard controls.
I've in the past wasted more than a few minutes of my life attempting to figure out the seat-adjustors in various McLarens; in the Senna, I kept getting stuck in Limp Home Mode, invariably after pulling over somewhere to take in the ocean view from atop a mountain, or to snap a few cellphone photos, or just to stretch. Next thing I knew, I was bumbling along in second gear and unable to exceed 22 mph, looking like an absolute wanker in my million-dollar megacar. I don't even want to know what was being said—but it takes zero imagination to have a good idea—in the cars I had to wave past me on the left before I could pull over again, shutoff and restart the engine, and clear the problem. Maddening.
Even more maddening was when Gold figured out during a photoshoot that I wasn't in Limp Home Mode at all. The steering-wheel stalk used to raise and lower the car's nose so you don't scrape it on inclined driveways and the like also, for some brilliant reason, sets the Senna's electronic speed-limiter. And it does so without—as far as I ever noticed, anyway—saying a peep about it on the digital dash display. Apparently, activating the limiter inadvertently is about the easiest thing you can do in the Senna, and I managed to trigger it several times after strapping back into the car and lowering the front again. I complained about this to more than one person, and I may have used more than a few expletives in my retellings. From here on out, I'm pretending this never happened.
2019 McLaren Senna: Let's Get Real
Other than that, I'm left a bit confounded by some criticisms I've heard and read leveled at this car by others outside of the Automobile galaxy. Bitching about the ride quality, the starkness, the capacity for zero luggage or cargo, the aero-effective but far from beautiful looks … to me, it all seems a bit like radioing your crew on your second qualifying lap for the Indianapolis 500 and saying: "Hey, uhhhh, I don't know if you guys set up the car like this on purpose, but this Dallara Indy car is really stiff, man, and it's a good thing I have these earplugs in and this ridiculous helmet on, because it's really obnoxiously loud in here, and gee, this Aeroscreen is making the cockpit pretty hot, and also now that I'm really thinking about it, this car isn't as pretty as the 1990s Indy cars were, and really, why are we even doing this? I'm pitting on the next lap, tell my pilot to warm-up the helicopter." Seriously, give me a break while I roll my eyeballs out of their sockets.
2019 McLaren Senna: What Matters Most
No, what I cared most about going into this review of the Senna experience was it feel, what the overall experience is like. And I came away stunned by this car, the way it drives, the feeling of endless grip. I easily rolled through corners you'd probably take at 20 mph in a normal car at literally 58 mph without a hint of tire chirp or effort.
The twin-turbo V-8's flat notes when revved past 6,000 rpm reminded me of standing trackside at an IMSA race. The little vibrations and buzzes, felt and heard, through the steering wheel and chassis electrified my body. The carbon-fiber seats—more like a pair of carbon wheelbarrows with a few diapers stuck to them for padding—never became uncomfortable, and I delighted in being able to brace my outside shoulder against their upper support wings through corners, holding me rocksteady and making it easy to look far ahead through those corners no matter how much lateral load I subjected myself to. It's eye-opening to see and feel and be reminded of what a little detail like this does for you physically and for your concentration; in cars without it, especially supercars, you don't always realize how much energy you expend trying to support yourself in seats that are sporty but far from this hardcore.
When you need to scrub speed, I'm sure it's possible to brake later than I did, but public roads are the last place you're ever going to find out where the limit lies, unless you really are trying to crash. I regret, however, that I didn't have a pair of racing boots handy, because the brake and throttle pedals are close enough together that, when left-foot braking, I would at times hit the inside of my right foot with the inside of my left foot. It never caused a real problem, but I had to make a mental note to use the left-half of the brake pedal to avoid my sneakers colliding, or worse, not being able to brake as I planned because my feet became tangled.
2019 McLaren Senna: More Than Just a Stat Machine
All of these little things and big things make the 2019 McLaren Senna a street-going race experience—I even took to pushing-in and lifting the telescoping steering wheel to make it easier to get into and out of the car, similar to removing the wheel in a true race car—but you don't have to have racer-level talent to enjoy it.
You never get bored or especially frustrated, even though you can't get within 50 percent of the Senna's limits other than on a track. Even at 30 or 40 percent of its capability, it makes roads you know well into a whole new experience. I discovered dips and bumps and compressions and cambers and roller-coaster-level fun I never knew existed in turns I've tested with other exceptionally capable cars—turns I never gave much thought to, before siccing the Senna upon them. It reminded me of the story I once heard from a racing instructor, who had been a successful formula-car racer, about the time he tested an Indy car on a track he knew well: "Everything about that track, and everything I knew about it," he said, "from whether the corners were fast or slow, where the braking and turn-in points were, suddenly looked and felt a whole hell of a lot different from the cockpit of that Indy car than it did in my F2000 car. It's like it wasn't even the same track anymore, and I had won races on that track."
The same applies to the 2019 McLaren Senna, but perhaps its greatest accomplishment isn't setting record-shattering lap times in the hands of professionals or semi-professionals. Instead, it's how this hypercar, for all of its ludicrous, 10/10ths potential, makes anyone with any reasonable performance-driving experience and skills feel so invigorated and alive, as if anything is possible.
Maybe it's a convenient coincidence this is the car McLaren choose to name after Formula 1 deity Ayrton Senna. But part of the real Senna's legend and his popularity was and is rooted—26 years after his death—in the way he inspired those exact same feelings in his fans as he danced on the edge and out of sight over the horizon, leaving everything and everyone else trailing in his wake.
|2019 McLAREN SENNA SPECIFICATIONS|
|ON SALE||Sold out|
|PRICE||$964,966/$1,102,505 (base/as tested)|
|ENGINE||4.0L twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8/789 hp @ 7,250 rpm, 590 lb-ft @ 5,500 rpm|
|TRANSMISSION||7-speed dual-clutch automatic|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 2-passenger, mid-engine, RWD coupe|
|EPA MILEAGE||14/18 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||186.8 x 77.1 x 48.4 in|
|0-60 MPH||2.9 sec|
|TOP SPEED||195 mph|