Fly into London Heathrow, cruise over to McLaren HQ in Woking, get a tour of, then join a McLaren convoy from there to Geneva across the beautiful European continent. It certainly sounded like a dream, but after my sixth hour in the saddle of a bright orange 570S on the very first day -- this following a redeye traverse of the Atlantic -- I was beginning to wonder whether it was all such a good idea after all.
But then I'm getting ahead of myself. I've been fascinated by thesince I got a quick go in one at Pebble Beach last year. After about 15 minutes of canyon carving in the low, lithe but comfortable bit of exotica, I was smitten, and eager to get some more time in the surprisingly comfortable driver's seat.
And so the opportunity of a trans-European road trip in that car, plus its stablemate the, presented a compelling tease. The differences between the two cars are quite subtle, and there's no better way to feel out those changes than by spending a lot of time in each, back-to-back. A lot of time, as it would turn out.
First, though, it was that factory tour at Woking. Sadly no photos were allowed of the place (though my colleague Andy Hoyle managed to persuade the company to, if you're curious). This is, you see, not only the global HQ of McLaren Automotive, it's also the place where all the Formula One cars are built. And, since every wall is made of glass, the chance of spying something I shouldn't was high.
Suffice to say the building houses an amazing collection of amazing cars, particularly for we Ayrton Senna fans. Remember that qualifying lap at Monaco? That car is sitting in the lobby. Or, the time he blitzed the field at Donnington? That car sits just a few steps away, looking ready to race.
But I wasn't there to ogle the many race cars, nor the pair of green McLaren F1 road-cars hiding demurely off to the side. I was there to drive, and the journey started in that orange 570S with a quick blast down to the Channel Tunnel -- on the wrong side of the road, of course.
Introduced last year, the McLaren 570S can be thought of as a down-sized-- not physically, as the two cars are nearly the same size, but with about 80 fewer horsepower from the twin-turbocharged, 3.8-liter V8, it's definitely the less perky of the two. Still, a 0-60 sprint in 3.2 seconds and a top speed of 204 mph show this car is not lacking in speed.
It is, however, far more attainable. The 650S will set you back a minimum of $265,000. The 570S? A mere $188,600 -- a steal by comparison. You are of course giving up more than just power, with the 570 series making do with a far more conventional suspension system and lacking the trick active aerodynamics of its big brother. But I'd personally find a lot of comfort in the nearly $80,000 saved, probably by using it to buy a small cottage in the woods on the far end of a twisty mountain road.
What's more important is what you don't give up with the 570S. You still get that enviable carbon fiber construction, you still get those billionaire doors and you still get a car that looks absolutely, positively gorgeous.
Think of the 570GT as a 570S with its edges polished just a bit further. Suspension is a smidge softer front and rear, such that a GT in its stiffest Track setting is roughly on par with an S set one mode softer, to Sport. The steering is ever so slightly slower but the interior better appointed. Gone is the racy Alcantara covering inside the 570S by default, replaced by leather on the dash and headliner.
A panoramic glass roof adds a huge amount of natural light to the proceedings, while a glass hatch covering the engine compartment creates a slender luggage area behind the rear seats. You won't be fitting anything much bigger than a backpack on there, at least not without eliminating rear visibility, but from the outside at least the effect does create a cleaner, somewhat less aggressive machine. You will pay for the extras, though, with a starting price of $198,850. That's about $10k more than the S, but if you were to add all the same interior trimmings onto a base 570S the two cars would wind up about the same.
Day 1: Woking, England to Chateau de Namur, Belgium
It always takes at least a few minutes to get used to driving on the wrong side of the road, and when your internal clock is off by 5 hours and you're operating on less than half the recommended daily allowance of sleep, let's just say it can take even longer. Thankfully it was mostly highway driving down to the entrance to the Chunnel and, after traversing a dizzying series of access roads, we were aboard one of the trains that would pull us underneath the English Channel and into France.
There was enough time to get out of the cars and stretch our legs, and enough time for a gaggle of French kids on a school trip to find their way back to the Technicolor collection of exotics that made up our convoy. So many of them wanted so slip down into the cockpits of the cars we feared we'd never be able to depart.
Pulling off the train, thankful for the nose-lift functionality, it was back on the motorway and back on the right side of the road and time to start digging through the car's menus to switch from miles to kilometers. The French, you see, are increasingly strict in their enforcement of speed limits, and booking along at 110 mph in a 110 kph zone would have surely meant a very expensive ticket. Perhaps worse.
We stopped for gas in Dunkirk, weaving the wide cars through the narrow streets in town before getting back on the highway. This was a good opportunity to sample the smoothness of the seven-speed transmission, which did a superb job of letting us pull away from lights and stop signs without any lurching or balking.
Back on the highway, with another few hours through the dark before we hit Belgium, it was time to sample the excellent B&W sound system. Classical probably would have been appropriate, but after a pain-free pairing of my phone from the passenger seat (even while the car was in motion!), I instead selected Metallica's "Hardwired... to Self-Destruct." And so, with doors shaking and heads banging, we made it to the foot of Spa.
Day 2: Namur, Belgium to Saarbrucken, Germany
Day two began with an early morning run to Spa-Francorchamps, my favorite race circuit on the planet. This would be a bit of a tease, as while we would be taking the cars up the famous Eau Rouge corner, it would only be at sedate speed. We snapped a few photos while I stood around soaking in the history and mystique of the place, then we headed back down the highway.
Lunch would be found in Luxembourg, at a truck stop called Truck Stop. On the roof was a pair of statues of anthropomorphic hot dogs spreading ketchup on their foreheads, each wrapped not only in buns but also in American flags. I don't think it was an attempt at a political statement, more an exercise in excessive Americana, but nevertheless the chef seemed a bit offended when one of our number did indeed ask for a hot dog. I'm told the currywurst was quite good, though.
From here I switched into a 570GT, in a lovely shade of blue, and it was time to start comparing it to the S. The first thing I noticed? The sound. The engine note is quite different on the GT. I'm guessing it has something to do with the hatch over the engine conducting a bit more of the internals to your ears, plus the extra sound deadening the GT carries, but regardless in here you can actually hear the turbos and the waste gate better than in the S.
The ride was just that little bit softer too. The 570S feels firmly sprung but properly damped, meaning you can feel every imperfection in the road but aren't bothered by most of them. With the 570GT that clean feel is still there, but it's more relaxing still. And then of course there are the nicer materials everywhere, with the leather-wrapped dash and headliner making the whole thing look that much more posh.
At the end of another day's driving we pulled into a hotel in the German town of Saarbrucken, a massive and dark storm front looming on the horizon.
Day 3: Saarbrucken, Germany to Geneva, Switzerland
The final day would prove to be the most adventurous by a wide margin. We were up and out of the hotel parking garage early and right into a cold rain that was threatening to turn to ice, a shift that the dashboard of the 570GT was kind enough to warn me about. Less than a kilometer from the hotel we passed a stunning orange 675LT headed in the opposite direction, not unlike the one I. Yes, I waved.
The cold wind outside grew stronger as we headed south, climbing on tiny, broken, treacherous mountain roads that made us very, very thankful for the equipped nose lift. The car scampered up these roads with no concern and little complaint, none the worse for wear beyond a fine coating of mud along its flanks.
We entered France again, where we stopped at another roadside bit of Americana, this one called Buffalo Grill. The mac and cheese was better than passable.
Soon we started our way up Le Noirmont mountain, detouring around a road that had been closed due to snowfall. We'd find more, plenty more as it turned out. The higher we got the whiter the surrounding terrain became, and as we passed a family snowshoeing along the side of the road I decided I was very, very thankful for the set of Pirelli Winter Sottozero tires McLaren had fitted on all the cars prior to our departure.
The tires were a bit noisy and their soft tread and sidewalls did take the edge off of the handling of these cars, but thanks to them I made it up the mountain and, importantly, back down again without incident. That's despite seeing a number of other cars spinning or losing grip on the fresh snow. The snow-white 570GT, though, never did anything worse than wag its tail a little under acceleration.
Over the course of three days I covered about 800 miles, more or less evenly split between the 570S and 570GT. Having done that, I'm frankly not sure which I'd go for were I in the lucky position to have to make the decision. Both share the same light, sharp and nimble feel that make them an absolute joy, and at no point did I feel stiff, strained or uncomfortable myself. Both cars even offer plenty of headroom for my 6-foot frame.
Were I to do this again, I'd want the 570GT for the duration. The subtly more pliant ride and more cosseting interior do make a bit of a difference. But, for me, were I to buy one for my own use, I probably would lean towards the 570S. It's just that little bit sharper, and while the $10k savings isn't huge, it would at least get me half-way towards covering the cost of the Track Pack upgrade...
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