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The Great Compromise: McLaren 600LT vs. GT

Can McLaren stretch its supercar parts kit into a grand tourer?

© Anton Watts - Car and Driver   Can McLaren stretch its racing lineage and supercar parts kit to build a proper grand tourer? We chase the answer in the knife-edge 600LT and the genteel GT.

By John Pearley Huffman, Car and Driver

It's a dilemma. The truly desirable McLaren is the M8B that Bruce McLaren himself used in 1969 to slaughter that year's Can-Am season. Or it's the MP4/4 in which Ayrton Senna earned his first Formula 1 Championship, in 1988.

Maybe you'd argue for the F1, the street-legal V-12-powered beast of the 1990s that anyone with more than a quarter brain knows is the best road car ever built. And incidentally, in GTR form, the F1 took first overall in the 1995 24 Hours of Le Mans. Problem is, even you, a mere millionaire, can't afford any of those masterpieces.

© Anton Watts - Car and Driver   2019 McLaren 600LT and 2020 McLaren GT

Nope, you're left picking from McLaren's current lineup, although that doesn't make the dilemma much easier to sort. McLaren is a small enterprise, so its roadgoing gene pool is shallow. Every car it's built since 2011—19 different models—can be described as a sports car, supercar, or hypercar. Track capability is a given. And with just one transmission, one engine family, and a few variations on its carbon-fiber tub, McLaren has produced a clan of near identical siblings. Even the spec sheets look similar between the $195,00 570S and the $1.7 million Elva.

As quiet acknowledgment that they can build only so many performance cars, the Brits in Woking have broken form with their new GT. Those two letters tell the story. This grand tourer is meant to be a softer, more livable McLaren. Its sleek, slightly antiseptic styling suggests that sometimes it's enough to speak confidently rather than shout. To see if this highly technical, racing-obsessed brand could successfully transition to something more mellow, we took the GT for a test drive with one of the company's hardcore LT track cars in tow.

The 600LT, all crazy wing and flamboyant aero foils, shares a lot of its DNA with the GT. The same control-arm suspension geometry is used on both vehicles. The windshield and the thick A-pillars are common, too. The door skins are different, but the doors open with the same reach-for-the-sky ostentatiousness. Inside each car, you'll find a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic that doesn't have a P on the push-button shifter. And both are rear-drive, because all-wheel drive is for those timid dilettantes who buy Lamborghinis and Audis.

© Anton Watts - Car and Driver   2019 McLaren 600LT and 2020 McLaren GT

Also, these two McLarens are priced within a Honda Accord EX-L of each other. The 2019 600LT coupe starts at $242,500 and the 2020 GT, at $213,195. Extravagant options, including $18,310 in carbon-fiber trim on the 600LT and a $6000 electrochromic glass roof on the GT, pushed our as-driven prices to $279,270 and $256,125.

Here's where things get a little sticky. The 600LT that joined a select group of Car and Driver hangers-on for this fiesta in Palm Springs, California, was a 2019 coupe. We enjoyed driving it, but we couldn't test it. So we're using the numbers we generated in the roughly 100-pound heavier Spider we drove last year. Blame the logistics. We tested the 2020 GT this time.

© Anton Watts - Car and Driver   2019 McLaren 600LT


McLaren 600LT

Highs: Makes every curve and corner interesting, shoots flames.

Lows: Wound a bit too tight for street use, unforgiving seats.

Verdict: A fire-breathing beast that really deserves to be on a track.

There's nothing civilized about the 600LT. It doesn't so much start as erupt. The exhaust exits from the top of the engine cover in front of the fixed wing and is hot enough to create visible distortion waves in the air. It's as if the car were powered by an active volcano.

The boiling magma of this strained metaphor is produced in the 600LT's twin-turbocharged DOHC 3.8-liter V-8. Spewing 592 horsepower, this engine is Mount St. Helens peaky. The maximum 457 pound-feet of torque is achieved at 5500 rpm; the curve's climb to that point is steep. This isn't a loafing turbo V-8 like in a Mercedes SUV, but a pure sports-car engine. It's hardly alive until it's being thrashed. Then it lunges for its 8500-rpm redline.

© Anton Watts - Car and Driver   2019 McLaren 600LT

Though the 600LT's exhaust outlets are at the driver's ear, the turbos muffle the idle. But it has a flat-plane crank, and the engine is bolted to the chassis using stiff mounts; there's a shudder in the car even before you touch the accelerator.

There's not much in the way of seat padding. In fact, there's not much in the way of seats. The 600LT's buckets are narrow and hardly upholstered. Welterweight deputy editor Tony Quiroga didn't find them snug. Contributor Scott Oldham fit into them like a urethane tie-rod bushing. Me, your fake-humble narrator? My hind end is built for the bench seat of a pickup. I sat atop the 600LT's seat. Who knew that a torture chamber could feature so much Alcantara?

© Anton Watts - Car and Driver   2019 McLaren 600LT

The GT's V-8 has the same architecture as the 600LT's, but while it retains the 93.0-mm cylinder bores, the engine stroke grows from 69.9 to 73.5 millimeters. McLaren equips this 4.0-liter with low-inertia turbos; when combined with its higher compression ratio (compared with other 4.0-liters), it produces a more tractable driving experience.

That in mind, this is still a relatively short-stroke engine built around a flat crank. While it's not as perilously peaky as the 600LT's powerplant, the GT's V-8 is still plenty racy, with 612 horsepower at 7500 rpm and 465 pound-feet of torque cresting at 5500 rpm.

© Anton Watts - Car and Driver   2020 McLaren GT


McLaren GT

Highs: Capable without being punishing, just as quick as the 600LT.

Lows: Kind of looks like a $59,995 Corvette.

Verdict: McLaren successfully softens its approach without diluting its brand.

The GT's exhaust system exits at the back of the car and therefore lacks the thermal spectacle of the 600LT's. The payoff is that it's significantly quieter getting to 8500 rpm and has a mellower tone during cruises.

Like all modern transmissions, the seven-speed in both cars aims to keep engine speeds down during around-town and highway journeys. The GT's extra displacement and less stressed turbos give it a noticeable edge over its brother during part-throttle operation. And the V-8 doesn't handicap the GT at the track, either.

"It's so quick, it almost hurts," Quiroga reported back after acceleration runs in the GT. With launch control engaged, the technique for getting the best times is to let the logic circuits channel Don Garlits.

© Anton Watts - Car and Driver   2020 McLaren GT

While the GT has 20 more horsepower than the 600LT, it weighs 3464 pounds, 332 more than the tested Spider. So the GT's power-to-weight ratio is a bit worse than its brother's. But yeow. The GT knocks itself to 60 mph in a ridiculous 2.8 seconds and gets through the quarter-mile in 10.7 seconds at 133 mph. That's right on top of the 600LT Spider's performance, the sole difference being the GT's 1-mph-faster trap speed, which can be credited to the small power advantage.

"This car barks its tires shifting into second," Oldham gushed. "That's so awesome. It's not something you get with an all-wheel-drive car like the Lamborghini Huracán Evo." For context, the 631-hp $331,469 Huracán Evo coupe we tested last year made it to 60 in 2.5 seconds and consumed the quarter-mile in 10.4 seconds at 135 mph. The Lambo may not spin its tires going into second, but its V-10 engine sings with the clear tenor of Luciano Pavarotti.

© Anton Watts - Car and Driver   2020 McLaren GT

The 600LT's initial bite into a corner is astonishing. The Alcantara-covered steering wheel broadcasts high-definition feedback. It feels so natural, it could trigger an existential breakdown for a Porsche chassis engineer. The GT can't quite match that sensation, but it's close. And amazingly, the GT shadowed the 600LT on the skidpad, pulling 1.01 g's to its Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R–shod brother's 1.11 g's.

Both cars wear carbon-ceramic brake rotors (standard on the 600LT and optional on the GT), but the difference between the two is tangible. The GT's brakes are easier to modulate and offer superior pedal feel.

Design-wise, the GT is restrained. There's some C8 Corvette in its face and side scoops. But it attracted more attention than the 600LT. It's prettier, less intimidating, and less cartoonish.

© Anton Watts - Car and Driver   2020 McLaren GT

Inside, the GT's seats accommodate anyone, and the appointments are sophisticated, up to the polished finish of the paddle shifters. Relaxed engine mounts mean the GT doesn't suffer the 600LT's shimmy, either. It would be a reach to call it luxurious; it is still loud, but it isn't punishing.

McLaren divides its offerings into three series—Sports, Super, and Ultimate— with the new GT set to the side as sort of a civilized compromise. It's not. But McLaren is small enough that it will satisfy the whims of anyone with the wherewithal to back them up. A 600LT with the GT's interior? It probably wouldn't take much (but a lot of coin) to talk McLaren into that.

If your lifestyle includes easy access to a racetrack and driving habits that require high-downforce aerodynamics, go for the 600LT. Or the 720S. Or the upcoming 765LT. But the GT is the closest thing McLaren makes to a daily driver. To get beyond the compromise mindset, think of it this way: It has a V-8 in the middle, just like the M8B. It's turbocharged, just like the MP4/4. And you can actually get a license plate for it without bribing anyone at the DMV, just like the F1. In that light, it represents everything McLaren has been and is now.

See more at: Car and Driver

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The Great Compromise: McLaren 600LT vs. GT
Can McLaren stretch its supercar parts kit into a grand tourer?
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