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2020 McLaren GT first drive review: Supercar heart, grand tourer finesse

Powerful, fast, comfortable and, yes, practical -- this is truly the McLaren of exotic grand tourers.

The McLaren GT might have the most straightforward name of all time, perhaps only behind the Renault Le Car.

McLaren

The latest trend for manufacturers of fun, fast or luxurious cars is to branch out and expand into the lucrative SUV market. But not at McLaren. Instead, the people in charge of McLaren Automotive have decided that what their customers want, in addition to their lineup of street- and track-focused supercars, is a grand tourer -- a true McLaren GT.

McLaren has dabbled in GTs before: The 570GT was a supercar with some token of practicality and the older Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren was a fever dream of a bygone era. Yet the automaker says the aptly named McLaren GT is its first proper grand tourer.

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While McLaren initially set its sights on challenging manufacturers such as Ferrari and Lamborghini with its supercars, the GT takes aim at fellow Brits Aston Martin and Bentley. Both make cars that adhere to the list of requirements of a grand tourer: powerful, fast, comfortable, luxurious and with a certain degree of practicality and ease of use. The Aston Martin DB11 AMR and Bentley Continental GT tick all of those boxes and are certainly the sort of cars that come to mind when you picture a new grand tourer: engine in front, rear-wheel drive, two-plus-two layout, semipractical trunk.

McLaren disagrees. The GT sticks to the company's tried-and-tested formula: There's a carbon tub chassis, two seats and a mid-engine layout... just like every other McLaren. The GT has a twin-turbocharged, 4.0-liter V8 good for 612 horsepower, 465 pounds-feet of torque and a 0-to-60 mile-per-hour time of 3.1 seconds. That all sounds familiar.

On paper, the stats put the GT right in the heart of the current stable of McLaren supercars. And while the GT's styling is more understated than the 570S or 720S, lacking some of the bolder design features that those cars have in favor of clean lines and an elegant silhouette, it's still recognizable as a McLaren.

McLaren disagrees. The GT sticks to the company's tried-and-tested formula: There's a carbon tub chassis, two seats and a mid-engine The question begs then, what does it do differently? As it turns out, the answer is quite a lot.

The engine may have started life destined to be a supercar, but it's been substantially modified to suit a different kind of driving. New pistons, manifold and smaller turbos smooth out the power delivery. Torque is now available sooner and for longer periods of time, giving you fewer surprises as the tachometer needle turns to the right.

The engine's sound is actually a benefit of the McLaren GT's packaging. The longer body has lengthened the exhaust which, in turn, gives out a lower, richer note. For a twin-turbocharged engine, it sounds closer to an old-fashioned V8 than anything else with a McLaren badge.

But it's not just the engine that's been meddled with. The brakes and steering are dialed in to be stable and comfortable at speed rather than sharp and responsive. There's a hefty weight to the wheel, throttle and brake, all of which can surprise you if you've hopped in the GT expecting it to drive like the 570S. You might need to put a little bit more pressure on the GT's middle pedal to scrub off any real speed, but the advantage is that you can be ultra precise.

Steep cliffs provide a great point of reflection for that sweet exhaust note.

McLaren

Rather than being able to stop the car dead in its tracks with just a slight push of the brakes, the GT makes even the most haphazard of driving inputs feel smooth and measured. Similarly, the steering requires more effort, but in turn gives the car more poise and stability at speed.

Although the throttle response can be adjusted across the various driving modes -- Comfort, Sport and Track -- it feels radically different from similar settings in other McLarens. If you want, the car can still perform like a supercar, launching off the line and gathering a lot of speed in very little time. The difference here is that you have to specifically ask for it.

All modern supercars are more approachable than the numbers on a spec sheet might suggest, making them easy to drive around town without feeling like you're just the slightest mispress of a pedal away from spinning off the road. But the McLaren GT takes it a step further, making it just as easy to drive at speed. What you lack in the ability to hit every apex and maximize your cornering speed has been replaced by the ability to enjoy speed in a more relaxed fashion. The McLaren GT is forgiving and predictable no matter how fast you're going.

The ride is still engaging, but it's not as hardcore as other McLarens.

McLaren

McLaren says the suspension is equipped with proactive dampers, which not only ready the road as it is, but use the driver inputs to predict how to set up the car a few milliseconds early. The result is a car that you can truly mistreat. Go hard on the throttle and then hard on the brakes, combined with wild turns, and you aren't punished with any kind of roll or pitch in the car. Drive over a bump, however, and the GT soaks it up impressively.

My test route with the GT started in a small coastal town in the south of France, which allowed the car immediately to prove that more effort had gone in to making this McLaren more practical as a daily diver. The higher ride height with improved approach angle means you can take the average speed bump without having to use the nose lift. Although the steering is fairly heavy, it wasn't too obstructive to urban driving -- at least until you try to do a lot of three-point turns, at which case it can feel like you're making up for missing arm day at the gym.

Once outside of the town and with the opportunity to apply a little bit more force to the go pedal, the McLaren GT really starts to shine. Speed builds steadily, if not exactly quickly, unless you really bury your foot. You're never caught out with tremendous acceleration, but getting up to speed is effortless.

Heading up through the mountains under heavy braking and going into hairpin bends, the GT simply refuses to misbehave. Even if your driving skill leaves something to be desired, the GT deals with it. Lifting off midcorner, off-and-on-again braking, all these kinds of reckless inputs should cause a car traveling at speed to over- or understeer out of every corner. The GT, however, never really lets you get out of its control. You may feel like you're pushing hard, but short of switching everything to Track mode and disengaging as many safety systems as you're able, you're going to struggle to find the limits of the GT.

There is a surprising amount of trunk back here.

McLaren

And why would you want to? A grand tourer needs to be fast, sure, but how it delivers performance is far more important. A grand tourer isn't there to teach you how to be a better driver or to trim seconds off a lap time. It's to make hours behind the wheel seem like an occasion and not a chore.

But what about practicality? To increase luggage space to something more capable than your average supercar, the engine in the GT has been lowered with as much of the parts likely to heat up pushed out to the side. This also results in the GT's noticeable width at the haunches and explains the huge side intakes. It also gives the the GT a larger trunk than I've ever seen on a mid-engine car.

McLaren claims that the GT can hold a set of golf clubs, or two sets of skis. I didn't have either of those with me while I drove it, but I did have two people's worth of overnight luggage, a large camera bag and an even larger case that an airline would call oversized. It all fit. With room to spare. Looking at the luggage compartment, it doesn't immediately appear practical. It's deep, stretching from high behind the seats to the rear bumper, but it's also shallow, only a few inches closer to the rear. However, with the right selection of luggage and making full use of the generous front trunk, you can carry as much baggage as you can in a family hatchback.

That said, you can quickly lose visibility through the rear view mirror as soon as you load up the rear, and you'll want to make sure you secure anything you put back there, as loose items will shoot forward at head height under hard braking. Plus, even with the hottest part of the engine pushed away from the luggage area, and with layers of heat-insulating material, the luggage compartment can heat up. It's spared the worst of the intense heat from the engine, but it's not somewhere you'd want to keep ice cream for long.

Hop in.

McLaren

The GT's interior is fitted with comfortable seats, classy design touches around the cabin and a Bowers & Wilkins sound system that sounds at least as good as the engine. Even the infotainment system has been improved, with a new, 10-core processor and maps courtesy of Here, the same company that provides navigation software to BMW and Mercedes. You still can't get Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, unfortunately, but the system is a step forward from where McLaren had been. Which is to say, still not great, but easier to live with.

Still, I only have a few small gripes with this car, none of which are enough to put me off. At $210,000 to start, you're in the same ballpark as the Aston Martin DB11 AMR and the Bentley Continental GT. Considering that this is the McLaren's first true GT car, it's impressive to be considered against such heavyweights so quickly. But that's what McLaren has done from the start: entering the party and pulling up its own chair to the table.

As a grand tourer the McLaren GT delivers on practicality, handling, performance and comfort in a way that really surprised me. Rather than simply repackaging a 570S, everything that needed to be overhauled to make this a unique car has been addressed. If McLaren can do to the GT market what it has done to the supercar sector, then the competition needs to pay attention.

The GT definitely lives up to its name.

McLaren

Editors' note: Travel costs related to this feature were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. While Roadshow accepts multiday vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews, all scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms.

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