2020 McLaren GT First Drive: Does It Make Any Sense?
Is the GT a compromised supercar or does it elevate the breed?
ST. TROPEZ, France—You might take a first look at—or even drive or ride in—the new 2020 McLaren GT and think, "What's the point?" Fair enough, as the global market for true Grand Touring cars has retracted to the extent that we're fortunate to still see any new entrants into the category whatsoever. There's Bentley's new Continental GT, for one, and McLaren identifies Aston Martin's DB11 as the extant car which delivers the experience closest to what McLaren set out to do with its own GT. Neither of those "competitors," though, is cut from the same cloth as Surrey's latest offering.
Categorical labels aside, Porsche's 911 Turbo S is probably the more appropriate comparison if you must make one, regardless of whether or not you consider the Turbo a true GT car. "True" is relative in this context, as, really, the GT drives through its own space. For starters, its 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 is mid-mounted as in all McLarens, and also like all McLarens, the chassis—dubbed MonoCell II-T (for Touring)—is constructed from carbon fiber. Good luck finding either in another GT car. In that sense, this is an entirely new proposition for a modern member of the breed.
This approach doesn't mean McLaren believes there's a giant, starving population of potential customers drooling like Pavlov's dogs to drop $213,195 (to start) on a 600-plus-hp, extended road-tripping Clydesdale; the company only looks to sell about 1,200 examples per year. A small segment within a small segment, then, but one in which McLaren sees a gap that demands plugging.
"The market was missing something," said GT chief engineer Adam Thomson. "GTs are all different things. [But] they all carry some inherent qualities that mean they are compromised, like the Bentley Continental GT. They're refined and comfy but dynamically flawed, at least in terms of the old [Conti GT], and the same goes for the Ferrari Portofino, the DB11, etc.
"There's a hole in the space. Comfort, elegance, and a fantastically capable, dynamic car to drive [is what we are after]," he continued. "A GT tends to be front-engine, rear-cab proportion, but 40 or 50 years ago, they were light and simple and great to drive. We're not suggesting competitors [as overall cars] are inferior, but nothing in the segment drives like this. The customers we have already [for our sports cars] come back and say, 'This is something we're looking for.' "
That "something" is effectively a McLaren supercar that can carry more cargo than what those clients can squeeze into the "frunk" beneath the hood of McLaren's other models. The GT features a frunk as well, of course, and just like the similar cavity found on Porsches, it accommodates a fair amount of stuff if you have properly proportioned luggage.
The car's additional capacity comes thanks to the MonoCell II-T monocoque architecture. For this version of the chassis, the piece the windscreen sits upon derives from the 570S's, while the upper rear structure, which allows for the added cargo area behind the seats and beneath the carbon-fiber-framed hatch, is necessarily new. The occupant survival cell/tub derives from the those of the 570S and 720S, but moldings are modified for things like suspension pickup points, fascia mountings, and fuel lines.
The upshot of the new rear structure and the GT's overall dimensions—it's almost 15.4-feet long, stretched more than any model in McLaren's Super or Sports vehicle ranges—is a rear area boasting 14.8 cubic feet of cargo space. Combined with the frunk's capacity, total volume is 20.1. The rear interior's significant length allows it to ingest skis or a golf bag or fishing poles or any number of long-ish items you might desire to transport.
Some buyers (a majority at this price point?) will surely invest in the available custom-fitted luggage (garment case, weekend bag, cabin bag, and golf bag), as the GT's descending roofline and shallow-in-places stowage space mean it is not a given you can shoehorn-in your existing suitcases and bags. A more economical alternative is to figure out your own combination of various-sized cheaper luggage, as the garment case, weekend bag, and cabin bag alone ring up at a combined total price of $8,600. But McLaren will make them to match your car in appearance, so there's that.
Beneath the luggage zone is a new version of the company's 4.0-liter, twin-turbo V-8. It uses the block and head from the engine of the same displacement employed in the 720S, with the same valves and cams, but with new piston crowns, turbos, manifolds, pipes, and muffler. Ignition timing, a higher compression ratio, and valve-opening points differ as well. The resulting output is 612 horsepower at 7,500 rpm, and 465 lb-ft from 5,500 to 6,500 rpm; notably, an impressive 95 percent of that torque is uncorked from 3,000 to 7,250 rpm.
The first several miles behind the wheel are…interesting. Going into the drive, we'd heard so much from McLaren about this being a different, softer, less frantic type of car, we wondered: Would it be dumbed down compared to the full-blown sports-car offerings, somewhat defeating the purpose of a McLaren-built GT car right off the bat? Or would the differences be so subtle as to render it simply what we've experienced previously from the marque, with the additional ability to haul a few more bags—which might make it less true GT car and more a super sports car masquerading as something else?
The latter suspicion was the frontrunner out of the gate as we hit amazing mountain passes in the south of France, not far from the likewise challenging routes that comprise the Monte Carlo Rally and the Tour de France. "Er, yeah, feels like a McLaren," we thought. But soon a different picture appeared.
With purposeful attention paid to sound and load paths, the car is remarkably quiet; 20 minutes into our route, traveling at leisurely speeds, we realized we had been conversing casually with our driving partner at tempered decibels and not giving it a second thought—we could have been in a Mercedes-Benz C-class or any number and manner of cars, for all the lack of drama.
Okay, then, let's open the throttle and…yeeeeeesh. Look. Out. The GT transforms immediately into an Earth-bound escape pod, punching down the road with the same hyperspeed ability of its stable mates, reminding you what a truly fast car feels like. McLaren cites a 3.1-second zero-to-60-mph time, and a 203-mph top speed, and the GT feels easily capable of achieving those numbers. Hard onto the brakes for the next corner, and pulling big lateral grip through it, we were thankful for the luggage restraint system, which held down our computer bags and prevented them from becoming occupant-injuring escape pods of their own. For the first time, giggles filled the cockpit.
Despite its more-than-adequate top speed and nuclear acceleration, the main difference you feel through your backside and your right foot when you blitz the GT's throttle is that, indeed, the engine is tuned more for torque than the surreal top-end histrionics typical in McLarens. This is one factor that sells you on the car's GT-ness, making it feel less high-strung underfoot. Not surprisingly for where it's positioned in the overall lineup, it falls somewhere between the 570S and the 720S in this regard.
The more we pushed the car, the more we found the same goes for the suspension, which is comprised of aluminum control arms, hydraulic dampers, and a new control unit and software; the system is now called Proactive Damping Control. Without having driven another McLaren for a while, and without a back-to-back test with one during this launch event, the GT initially felt surprisingly familiar for all of McLaren's talk about softening it and making it multiple-mission focused. After not too long, though, and as we cycled through its three suspension settings, we detected a notable difference in this car's compliance. Comfort mode can even, depending on road conditions, feel rather coddling for a mid-engine performance car, and we dismissed it quickly as not for us.
The next step up, Sport mode, remains a long way from uncomfortable as it removes some of the bobble-headedness from the ride, and even the top setting—Track mode—was easily pleasant enough in its spring and damper rates to allow us to use it comfortably for the majority of conditions we encountered. We weren't offered the opportunity to test the car on a racetrack, but we suspect that if you do drive the GT on a closed circuit, you might find yourself wishing for an even firmer, more aggressive suspension option. We'll likely have to wait for this year's edition of Automobile's annual All-Stars event to find out for sure. But we can already confirm fun slides are on the menu, though you'll want to at the very least dial back the ESC/traction control if not defeat it entirely, as its baseline behavior is rather conservative and tends to kill any at-speed cornering fun.
None of this means the GT is anything approaching a soft car. It's an utter scream to chuck into corners—it's 3,384-pound curb weight is on a different, lighter planet than something like the DB11 or Continental GT (for grins, it's also 151 pounds lighter than the 2020 Chevrolet C8 Corvette), and it has a significantly lower center of gravity than traditional Grand Tourers. Meanwhile, its blistering straight-line speed makes it an absolute open-road terror.
The softer suspension in the front end makes the hydraulic steering feel and respond less sharp than it does in its McLaren forbears, but it's still lively and provides clear, sporty feedback about what the bespoke noise-reducing performance tires (20-inch Pirellis up front, 21s—a first and largest for McLaren—in back) are doing without being tiring or annoying after hours behind the wheel. That's a Grand Tourer hallmark, and McLaren seems to have the balance right for its intended purpose.
If there's a potential dynamic soft spot for hard-core drivers, it's the standard cast-iron brakes that can fade when charging hard on mountain roads such as the ones we drove the car over. At this price point, carbon-ceramic stoppers (optional for $6,500) should be standard, though McLaren chose to go this route in an attempt to make the brakes more progressive, and easy to apply and modulate smoothly. Brake-pedal action itself is a bit long for our taste in the travel department, but several others who drove the cars said they prefer it that way; it's simply a matter of preference, but there's no arguing the setup is in line with the more "subdued" Grand Touring objective.
Other Grand Touring-oriented specs include a range of up to 400 miles or so and ground clearance of 4.3 inches, or a C-class-matching 5.1 with the vehicle-lift engaged. The ride height takes some getting used to visually, as you don't expect to see a car of this shape sitting so high off the ground. In practice, it's a welcome reprieve from the constant worry of giving your traditional supercar driveway or speed-bump rhinoplasty. If you're committed to taking the GT on racetracks and wonder about aerodynamic performance to help you through the corners, the front end is neutral with zero lift at 150 mph while the rear makes 220 pounds of downforce.
By drive's end, and some days later as we looked back, a few head scratches remained regarding whether the 2020 McLaren GT makes complete sense. Super sports car owners, McLaren or otherwise, own other cars. Why not just take one of them on your next extended jaunt? But there are plenty of well-heeled buyers who like to take their performance cars out for more than just weekend fun runs, and we also remembered Thomson's words about existing McLaren customers who have asked for such a machine.
No doubt the GT is more livable and more practical than its siblings, without leaving you feeling at all cheated by the actual driving experience: whatever its purpose, this McLaren provides exhilarating drives. We expect the target market, however small, to find it more than satisfying and perhaps exactly what it requested. With this as a first such effort—and with McLaren hinting "GT" will eventually form a new range of models alongside the manufacturer's Sports, Super, and Ultimate Series cars—we're intrigued to see what's next.
2020 McLaren GT Specifications
|ON SALE||Now (deliveries in October)|
|ENGINE||4.0L DOHC 32-valve twin-turbo V-8/612 hp @ 7,500 rpm, 465 lb-ft @ 5,500-6,500 rpm|
|TRANSMISSION||7-speed dual-clutch automatic|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 2-passenger, mid-engine, RWD coupe|
|EPA MILEAGE||15/22 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||184.4 x 82.5 x 47.8 in|
|0-60 MPH||3.1 sec|
|TOP SPEED||203 mph|