McLaren 540C Review - Why wouldn't you?

McLaren 540C Review - Why wouldn't you?
McLaren 540C

I have a vague memory of the launch of the 540C. For some reason, I remember other motoring media being a bit condescending about it. The C stood for China, they claimed (the subtext being “nobody there can drive”), which seemed dumb to me because wealthy Chinese are quite happy to spend big bucks. Generally speaking, the Chinese market isn’t interested in “entry level” or cut-price supercars.

Anyway, because I’m an idiot, I’d sort of resisted the idea of driving one. I don’t know why. I briefly drove it after my CarsGuide colleague James Cleary very kindly threw me the keys for a lap of a well-known spot free of cops and other idiots.

I liked it a lot, but just wanted to drive the 570S. What a fool I’ve been.

McLaren 540C Drivetrain

As the name suggests, the 540C is less powerful than the 570S. Power from the 3.8-litre twin-turbo McLaren V8 is still a hefty 397 kW (540PS) and 540 Nm. Which is a lot of power.

Everything else is pretty much the same, including the seven-speed twin-clutch transmission.

Mounted behind the driver, the V8 propels the entry-level 540C from 0-200km/h (124mph) in 10.5 seconds. 0-100km/h (0-62mph) arrives in 3.5 seconds. That is not messing about.

Its low mounting is helped by the dry sump and when you can hear it (tunnels are awesome), the flat-plane crank sound is unmistakable.

While it’s good for sound (and bad for vibration), it also reduces inertia, meaning the M838TE can spin to 8500rpm. And still push two turbos. Nice.

McLaren 540C Chassis and aero

McLaren MonoCell

Of course, the chassis is the same as the 570S in that it’s built around the carbon fibre Monocell II. As we already know, it weighs about 80kg and forms the core of every McLaren on sale. Except maybe the Speedtail.

The Monocell is insanely stiff and loses nothing when the roof comes off, as it does in the 570S Spyder. Such a stiff, light structure also means that McLaren’s engineers have plenty of scope to play with. The total dry weight is just over 1315kg, which isn’t much at all.

Front and rear suspension are both double wishbone setups with plenty of weight-saving aluminium. McLaren’s Active Dynamic Control system adds dynamic damping to the mix, and just like the 570S, it’s amazing.

McLaren 540C

The steel brakes are perhaps the biggest difference between the 540C and 570S. On the road, they’re just not a problem.

The 540C’s bodywork is ever-so-slightly different to the 570S, but they’re very difficult to tell apart. So, uh, the question has to be, “Why?”


McLaren 540C

From the get-go, the 540C feels just like the 570S. The cabin is virtually identical, including McLaren’s wrong-way IRIS system with the hopeless sat-nav and terrible (now replaced) reversing camera.

As in the 570, you sit low in the chassis – I reckon few road cars could boast such a low hip point. Those lovely doors make getting in and out easy, the memories of the 12C’s high and wide sills now banished.

McLaren 540C
McLaren 540C
McLaren 540C
McLaren 540C
McLaren 540C

The brake pedal has that same centimetre (or what feels like that much) of play at the top of its travel. The throttle is just the right weight and the same switches set up the drivetrain and chassis. Confusingly you have to press Active before the switches have any effect. I’ve never really worked out why.

What always amazes me is the way McLarens ride. They’re so smooth. My wife, who is generally not a fan of these sorts of cars, always concedes they’re super-comfortable to ride in.

I can’t get my head around it. Anyway. I know I go on about it, but it’s extraordinary.

Oh, the speed.

I really can’t think of a good reason not to buy 540C. It’s incredible. The 3.8-litre might be a little down on power compared to the 570s but it just doesn’t matter. The way this car grips and goes is nothing short of astonishing.

When you turn off a boring road an on to a good one, it’s hard to believe this is the same car. Flick those weird toggle switches to Track, warm up your left-foot braking technique, and the 540C comes to you quickly and effortlessly.

It’s like an excitable puppy, it runs up to you and then leads you down to where something amazing is happening. Follow its lead, fix your eyes ahead and wind down the windows.

The electro-hydraulic steering communicates everything you need to know and nothing you don’t. The brakes perform time and again, hauling you down from crazy speeds. Its seamless power is always there and always ready to hurl you to the horizon.

I can’t really work out why a sane human would insist on a much more expensive 488 and the hassle the badge brings with it. The only car that comes close to it for involvement is the Audi R8 RWS. And forget about the Huracan rear-wheel drive – it’s not as comfortable or (gasp!) practical.

McLaren 540C

I don’t understand why the 540C isn’t loved and adored the world over. I don’t understand why it isn’t sold in the US. Perhaps it’s too close to the 570S?

And that really is the point. It’s so good that unless you need the extra 30 horses or the bragging rights. McLaren isn’t about that prancing horse carry-on. It’s about technical brilliance.

Like the photos? They were all taken by the amazing Rhys Vandersyde from

Watch our McLaren 570S review: