Between mouthfuls of ravioli, Geoff Grose speaks animatedly about his career in the automotive industry. The McLaren 570S is the reason we are sitting in this Michelin-star restaurant in the Algarve, Portugal, because Grose is the chief engineer of the automaker’s new “entry-level” Sports Series range. But right now I am far more intrigued by the man’s history.
Grose’s portfolio includes a slew of models from Lotus — and he started his career at Rolls-Royce, before it was taken over by BMW. He candidly shares insights that would otherwise be lost in the arcane corridors of manufacturers’ archives. Take the Lotus Europa for example. It was meant to be a product wearing the Proton badge; a much-needed halo car for the Malaysian parastatal automaker.
Grose talks about the Lotus Exige and the decision to use a power unit developed by Toyota and Yamaha. It was, according to Grose, a move inspired primarily by the fact that the team which produced that specific engine consisted of true motoring enthusiasts. Ah, yes. That word. Enthusiasts. It denotes a higher form of appreciation, a more receptive palate to the nuances of what makes a car more than the sum of its parts; a term that might sound a tad elitist to those who see motoring as the perfunctory progress from A to B.
But then, the new 570S promises to blur the line between traditional sports car and city cruiser. It was designed to pander to the authentic performance connoisseur as well as to the well-heeled Sandton poseur who could not give a Cartier bracelet about jargon like yaw control and throttle-off oversteer. So let us first weigh in on the aspects that make the car a viable daily commuter. For starters, it lays claim to being the first McLaren equipped with an interior vanity mirror. The sills of the 570S’s lightweight carbon-fibre tub were trimmed down, to make getting in and out while wearing a tailored suit (or skirt) more dignified. The trademark dihedral doors (they open upwards, in other words) have a wider aperture compared with its stablemates.
The front trunk boasts a storage capacity of 150 litres — which might sound paltry, but at least offers enough space for a briefcase or two, or luggage for a weekend away… if you pack light. But as much as McLaren is billing this as an everyday performance machine and the most accessible model in its line-up, it remains an authentic racer. On paper it makes the more expensive 650S seem redundant. Even though the manufacturer implies that the bigger sibling is the superior beast, the disparity in performance seems negligible. Power comes from a revised version of the 3.8-litre, twin-turbocharged engine employed in other McLaren models. This is good for a quoted output of 570 PS (enthusiasts will remind those poseurs that pferdestärke is the German translation for horsepower) a number that suitably reflects the name of this so-called “starter” McLaren.
Converted into the correct measurement unit — kilowatts — the model produces 419kW. It has 600Nm of torque, which is plenty of might in a car that weighs about as much as a medium-sized hatchback. In fact, McLaren says the 570S is 150kg lighter than its closest competitor. No prizes for guessing which part of Germany that rival hails from. Anyway, this grunt and low mass culminates in acceleration that shreds the paving of any swanky boulevard. The sprint takes 3.2 seconds, which is 0.2 of a second faster than what its grandfather, the McLaren F1, managed way back in 1992.
That number sounded astonishing when I heard it from Dave Eden, the global PR manager at McLaren, who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Rick Astley. But navigating through the country roads of Portugal put it into perspective. I took the helm after switching places with my colleague, Lerato Matebese of Business Day Motor News. The passenger seat had already given me a view of the blurry impressionist painting one can expect when the right pedal gets planted. Hit the power button. Sounds like a gang of enraged bees trapped in the exhaust system are collectively buzzing to break free. Drive is selected by pressing a perfectly square button on the minimalist control panel. Here we go. I ease my foot in, first with restraint. The digital tachometer climbs… and an LSD trip begins at 4 000rpm.
Our Vermillion Red 570S rockets forward, throttle now fully open, the car allows me to smooch the red line without intervention. What a pleasant surprise when I grab the next cog; no abruptness, just a buttery smooth shift and back onto the manic wave of power. All this is done in fewer milliseconds than my mind can fathom. In my stupor I see the speedometer indicating some truly ungodly numbers and back off. Better wait for our planned track session, I decide. And, anyway, the heavens open at this point, allowing us to sample the McLaren in the rain, not just the idyllic settings seen in the brochure. And the 570S is agreeable in inclement weather. Usually, a high-performance, rear-wheel drive car in the wet causes certain parts of the anatomy to clench. Not so here. The car feels grafted to the ground. Stable. The cabin is pretty luxurious too. There is leather everywhere — even on the head liner. You can also have a more sporting theme, complete with racing seats. The particular shade of red worn by our test car, coupled with the cream interior, was especially attractive.
But there were a number of niggles that were not so endearing. This included a whistling noise (a window seal was the ostensible culprit) as well as faulty electric seat controls. To be fair, this could be due to the fact that these were early production models. But tell that to the man or woman who has just bought a 570S and see what happens. As mentioned earlier, even though McLaren bills this as the model from the lower rungs of its hierarchy, the car’s sports performance credentials remain untouched. That is why, on a sunny Wednesday morning, we found ourselves at the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve in Portimão. The circuit, approved by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), is a real challenge. With reference points such as Kyalami, Zwartkops, Dezzi Raceway and Phakisa, I imagined the Portimão track would be fairly simple. Oh no. The circuit is armed with an arsenal of tricks to humble folks who think they could be the next Lewis Hamilton. The elevations could see you airborne. A right-hander following a steep hill sneaks up and catches you unawares. Unsettling mid-corner bumps are a true test of vehicle stability. The mere fact that a McLaren test driver described the circuit as a baptism of fire said it all.
This time round, the 570S’s Track mode is selected and the Dynamic setting of the electronic stability control is engaged. That latter bit ensures you look like a driving god (or goddess), giving just the right amount of leeway for theatrics before safely reining things in. Tucking into the second corner of the circuit, on my first lap, the merits of that electro-hydraulic power steering system shone. McLaren could have joined the ubiquitous practice of full electric assistance at the expense of feedback, but opted to keep things traditional. The accuracy and confidence imparted allows a klutz like me to slice within inches of the humps on the outer edges of the track’s rumble strips. When I get to the third corner, it offers room to try and kick that tail out a bit. So I floor it and the McLaren’s rump gradually slides wide — giving me time to salvage things. That is the beauty of the 570S. It works with you, rather than sinking its teeth into your backside if you stray over your limits.
McLaren test drivers say they hit 275km/h on the final straight. I crack a respectable 230km/h before running out of courage. At that speed, with all the aerodynamic aids serving their purpose, the car is firmly stuck to the track. And although my palms are sweaty, the balaclava beneath my helmet conceals a fat smile. Modern technology and astute engineering have made performance thrills accessible to all. According to the marketing folk, more than a thousand orders for the 570S have been placed worldwide, even before the hype from the fourth estate was out. I think the new model is going to make a lot of new entrants into the McLaren fold happy. And leave a number of existing 650S drivers with raised eyebrows. Although McLaren says that its new baby is not just for enthusiasts, it would be an injustice if owners did not get to experience the full extent of its capabilities in an unbridled environment at least once.
Engine: 3 799cc, eight-cylinder, turbocharged
Power: 419kW at 7400rpm
Torque: 600Nm between 5 000rpm and 6 500rpm
0-100km/h: 3.2 seconds
Top speed: 328km/h
Fuel consumption: 10.7 l/100km (claimed)
Price: From R3.3-million