Traditional grand tourers are old hat. Past it. Too focused on being one thing. At least, that’s what McLaren reckons. It’s entered the long-distance luxury cruiser game with, well… it’s called the GT, rather unimaginatively. But that’s about the only thing Woking has done conventionally here.
Normally, a grand tourer would have an engine in the front, leaving plenty of room at the rear for a sizeable boot and perhaps even a couple of extra seats. It should have normal doors, because you want to arrive at your weekend getaway and exit the vehicle with a certain amount of grace, don’t you?
A GT would normally have big, squashy seats, and air suspension. The finest leather is a must, and some posh wood needs to be on the options menu at the very least.
The trouble is, all of that tends to result in a car that weighs quite a bit. McLaren, on the other hand, has made what it calls a ‘superlight GT’. A car which deviates entirely from that recipe laid out in the previous paragraph, in order to let you ‘have it all’. If that’s true, it really ought to combine the best elements of a traditional grand tourer like the Bentley Continental GT - the benchmark for this kind of car - with the attitude of a supercar such as the Honda NSX.
Both of those cars are currently behind me. The Conti GT looks big and imposing on the road with its vast mesh grille taking up a lot of real estate in the McLaren’s rear-view mirror, and I can just about see the splash of orange that is the refreshed 2020 version of Honda’s supercar that’s sandwiched between the Bentley and the Audi SQ8 (our crew car for this shoot).
We’re on our way up to the North York Moors for a photocall, but for once, the trip up to the location is as important as what we’re up to upon arrival. This gives a chance to asses what the McLaren GT is like as a…you know, GT. And the news thus far isn’t good.
The ride certainly isn’t terrible, but it’s not smooth or cosseting either. Even in the Comfort setting, it doesn’t glide over imperfections as a car like this is supposed to. Noise is also an issue - both tyre roar and the boom from the 720S-derived 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 are constant and unwelcome companions at cruising speeds.
A third of the way into the journey, I’m relieved to pull into a petrol station, lift a dihedral door, clamber out in an ungainly way, and make a beeline for the Bentley. This may be easier to get in and out of than other McLaren products, but the aforementioned door and the high sill of the carbon tub mean the task is made far trickier than it is in the Continental.
In Crewe’s similarly named coupe, there’s no awkward climbing. Open the normal door, position your buttocks over the driver’s seat, and sink yourself into the fine, diamond-quilted leather. Already, this is more like it, and we haven’t even started moving yet. Right now, I’m thanking the nine cows that went into making the leather upholstery of this single car.
Unlike the McLaren, which angrily barks at you on start-up, the Bentley’s 6.0-litre W12 politely clears its throat before settling to a faint hum. Pressing the big Bentley logo on the gear selector and pulling it back, we’re in Drive and gliding back onto the dual carriageway that’ll take us to our destination.
It takes only a hundred metres to appreciate that waft-factor I’ve been missing in the McLaren. In the Continental, one floats in near silence. It’s almost spookily quiet, and the cabin is in another league. Yes, there’s quite a bit of Audi going on, but it’s well integrated. And the stuff from Bentley - like the gorgeous ‘organ stop’ vent controls - is all delicious. It’s an expensive car, but you can see exactly where your money has gone. In Woking’s GT, on the other hand, you’re presented with a 570S dash but with some - admittedly very nice - additional leather.
To explain the relativity of time, Albert Einstein once said, “When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute — and it’s longer than any hour”. You could use the McGT and the Continental GT to make a similar metaphor - my hour in the Bentley appears to pass far quicker than the 60ish minutes spent in the McLaren.
Switching to the Honda, and oh dear - I take back anything bad I said about the McLaren’s cabin. Were it not for the heavily-raked windscreen and the carbonfibre touches, you’d think you were behind the wheel of an HR-V. It is not nice in here.
"The stiffness that made the GT less comfortable than the Honda and Bentley on the way up is now paying off"
But set the rotary drive mode selector to ‘Quiet’ - ignoring the fact that the part looks like it belongs on a washing machine - and the NSX wins back points. Damningly for the McLaren, it’s noticeably more hushed in the Honda’s cabin and I reckon the NSX rides slightly better too.
After Google Maps takes our quartet of spendy cars down a hilariously tight, climbing singletrack road, the Moors unfold in front of us. Stark but beautiful, the views were worth the dull slog up the A1. There’s another car shuffle, and I’m back in the McLaren.
It’s given a second chance here - if it can blow the Bentley out of the water when it comes to driving dynamics, we can recoup some of the GT’s lost points. And hot damn, does it feel good as the roads get twistier. The hydraulic power steering gives proper feedback, the turn-in is sharp, and the body roll is barely perceptible.
The stiffness that made the GT less comfortable than the Honda and Bentley on the way up is now paying off. As is the weight figure - at 1530kg, it’s by far the least bulky car here. It’s outrageously fast on the straight bits too. So long as you switch the ESP to its less paranoid ‘Sport’ setting, that is. Even with the powertrain set to ‘Track’, stability control strips the GT of what feels like half its 612bhp output.
Switch it partially off and modulate the initial throttle application as necessary, and you’ll have no problem believing the 3.2-second 0-62mph time. It’s easily the best-sounding car, too; the scream of the flat-plane V8 as you near the 8500rpm redline is a real treat for the ears.
As the McLaren ticks itself cool, I head for the Bentley, which is looking awfully resplendent with the Moors as a backdrop. But does it look ready to trade blows with Woking’s take on the grand tourer format? In this environment, I’m not sure.
In isolation, the Continental GT is a superb thing to drive, but after belting along in something weighing 700kg less, its limitations are going to be painfully apparent. Sure enough, through the first few corners, the Conti makes much more of a meal of proceedings. The softer setup is immediately obvious, too - after being in the McLaren, I’m noticing the pitch and roll of the air-sprung chassis in a way I never have before with this car.
But it doesn’t pitch or roll too much. And it doesn’t feel as heavy as it actually is, which is a hefty 2250kg. There’s a gap to the McLaren, certainly, but it isn’t as big as you’d think given the very different genetic make-up here. It may not have the focus of its mid-engined would-be competitor, but it still has a capacity to be hilariously entertaining in the right environment.
The engine is a big part of that. The muscular note of the unusual 6.0-litre W12 is accompanied by some surprisingly loud turbocharger noises, and the mid-range clout is obscene. With 626bhp it doesn’t have the power to make up for the extra weight it carries, but its 664lb ft of torque eclipses the 465lb ft figure the McLaren’s V8 musters.
In a straight line, I suspect it’s quicker today since all that torque is fed to the front wheels as well as the rear, but all-wheel drive doesn’t dampen the fun either; the Continental GT is happy to swing its arse under power. Good.
The final drive of the day is in the NSX, and it’s quick to make up for the woeful cabin. It feels the quickest of the three, both off the line and when you put your foot down on the move, thanks in no small part to the electric assistance. Plus, despite having the least interesting engine on paper here, it makes a better noise than the Bentley and can almost compete with the McLaren for aural drama.
Where it gets really fascinating, though, is when the twisty stuff arrives. If I hadn’t looked up the figure beforehand and was asked to guess, I’d say the NSX weighs roughly the same or perhaps a little more than the Mclaren. In reality, due to the bulk added by the batteries and the three electric motors, this is a 1780kg car. Yikes.
The hybrid stuff is worth the weight penalty, though. There’s a 48bhp motor attached to the crank to give a torque fill effect, nicely counteracting the time it takes for the 3.5-litre V6’s two turbos to spool up. A further two motors are located at the front axle - one for each wheel - bringing a combined 74bhp to the party. The torque-vectoring effect of the pair means you’ll often feel a noticeable nudge as they keep the front end in check when the envelope is being pushed.
Sometimes they act in ways you don’t expect, but the effectiveness of the setup can’t be questioned. Plus, they provide just about enough power to keep the NSX in a straight line on a greasy winter day like today, without making it seem too easy. As there’s no prop shaft, the V6’s grunt is reserved solely for the rear axle, making the NSX massively rear-biased. It’ll slide beautifully, with the front motors providing a vague safety net.
By a whisker, the McLaren is more exciting. And both are more thrilling than the Bentley, despite the Continental genuinely being a riot when driven hard. But there’s a good reason for this: the McLaren and NSX are supercars. Whatever assertions McLaren is trying to make, its newest creation is a GT in name only. Getting these three together, it’s clear the McLaren doesn’t blend the best attributes of the other two.
We shouldn’t be surprised - the clues are there in the components list. A carbonfibre tub, a mid-engined layout, a flat-plane crankshaft, dihedral doors - those aren’t the kind of ingredients that normally make up a grand tourer. You can give the best chef in the world some falafel and Maris Piper potatoes to make spaghetti Bolognese - I’m sure they’d be able to come up with something brilliant, but it ain’t gonna be spag bol.
I still wondered if McLaren could pull it off, but on the evidence of today’s drive, it hasn’t. You still have to choose - if you want a real tourer, it needs to be something like a Bentley Continental GT or an Aston Martin DB11. If you’re happy to trade waftability for focus while retaining usability, make it a daily-able supercar like the Honda NSX or the McLaren GT. Or the Audi R8. Or the Ferrari F8 Tributo.
That’s the issue with the GT - it’s not the only practical, surprisingly sensible supercar out there. We’ve come a long way from the days of cramped supercars that are unpleasant in most driving situations. The uncompromising ones are becoming quite rare.
What’s most troubling thing for the GT is that there other options in the McLaren range it has to compete with. Semi-useable extra luggage space aside (the rear ‘boot’ is a weird shape and a pain to load/unload), it doesn’t do much that the 720S nor the Sports Series can’t. Indeed, Woking has gone down this path with the 570GT, and that didn’t exactly work out - with only 62 sold in the UK, the 570S outsold it four times over.
And yet, the GT will apparently make up 25 per cent of all the cars McLaren flogs eventually. This I do get, as away from the spin, the GT is appealing. It has a far more sensible (but still thoroughly silly) power output than the 720S, and its V8 is more pleasant to use than the overly boosty 3.8 in the 570S and its siblings. It’s more conservatively styled than the 720S too, so it won’t scare potential punters off.
Just don’t call it a grand tourer. Ignore the spin, and you’ll find a solid entry to the supercar field. But with such a talented field out there right now, the GT has its work cut out.