The 540C is McLaren’s least expensive car. As such there’s much that’s missing.
It lacks the 650S’s Proactive Chassis Control, which replaces mechanical anti-roll bars (and their intrinsic compromise) with interlinked hydraulics for a plush ride with circuit-ready body control.
A simpler kind of McLaren
The 540C also uses iron brake discs rather than carbon-ceramics, and four-piston front calipers as opposed to the 570S’s six-piston units.
It obviously also goes without the hybrid powertrains of either the P1 or McLaren’s MP4-31 F1 car (a relief in the case of the latter), and at 533bhp, 398lb ft and 199mph is down 29bhp, 45lb ft and 5mph on the £143,250 570S.
The new McLaren 540C costs £128,550.
The link between the McLaren 540C and its more senior peers
What’s compelling though is just how much the 540C retains. McLaren’s ultra-stiff carbonfibre monocoque stays (for a piffling dry weight of 1311kg), as does a barely less potent version of Woking’s twin-turbo 3.8-litre V8, and there are three-stage adaptive dampers.
The 540C is also quite fabulous to drive.
Striking doors, an amazing drive
The elegant dihedral doors and wide sills are familiar, as is the cockpit architecture, which is either nicely snug or claustrophobic depending on your size. The driving position is nigh-on perfect, forward visibility good and the interior rife with the firm’s now trademark purity of purpose.
The chassis tune is on the firm side, even in Normal – the 540C may be the lowest rung in the Sports Series ladder but it is a sports car nonetheless. On rough roads the C never settles, jiggling endlessly.
It’s a world away from the supple, big-mile refinement of the 650S. And when you clear the corners you may even miss the greater performance of that car and the 570S, the relatively torque-light 540C requiring a semblance of the right gear ratio for a meaningful response.
But find yourself on a proper road and all reservations will likely evaporate. The generous recompense for the busy ride and steering is a fantastic sense of connection to the car, with feedback flooding in from seat and wheel (if not brake pedal which, in stark contrast to many over-servo’d set-ups, asks for a meaty, analogue shove).
Snug in your seat, machine-gunning through gears on the 540C’s nicely tactile shift paddles, you’re soon tuned into what could, given its bald figures and thick, turbocharged delivery (wet conditions demand restraint), have been a pretty intimidating tool.
Instead you find yourself ramping up the drive modes for their still-greater feedback, poise and response and probing deeper into the McLaren’s deep reserves of performance, grip and addictive togetherness.
That suspension set-up you dismissed as too harsh ten minutes ago hardwires you to the shifting loads and grip levels at each corner of the car. And de-tuned though the 540C may be, this is still a monumentally quick car (3.5sec to 62mph, 10.5sec to 124mph…), its marginally less ferocious delivery merely encouraging you to be braver with it.
In autumn 2016, the 675LT Spider – all £285,000 of it – won CAR magazine's Sports Car Giant Test. Despite its unpromising brief – ‘Make it like a 570S but cheaper!’ – the 540C is a similarly wondrous sports car.
Strength in depth indeed.
Engine: 3799cc V8 turbocharged, 533bhp @ 7500rpm, 398lb ft @ 3500rpm
Transmission: Seven-speed twin-clutch auto, rear-wheel drive
Performance: 3.5sec 0-62mph, 199mph, 26.4mpg, 249g/km CO2
Weight / material: 1311kg/carbonfibre, aluminium
Dimensions (length/width/height in mm): 4530/2095/1202