Sports car manufacturers often boast that they make "race cars you can drive on the street." But, if you're planning to drive your car on the street, you should probably drive something that's optimized for that. Streets are not racetracks. Streets have potholes, speed bumps and traffic jams.
This is why I love a good grand touring car. GT cars are, essentially, sports cars engineered for genuine enjoyment in the world we actually live and drive in. The best GT cars provide the excitement of a sports car on twisting roads, along with comfort and ease when the road is long and straight.
Given the inherent conflicts between performance, practicality and comfort, a good touring car can be really hard to create. The British sports car maker McLaren is the latest to try. The new McLaren GT shows just how hard it is to get this recipe right. It falls short on comfort, despite compromising on performance. Prices start at $210,000. With a host of options, including an electrochromatic glass roof that can make the view crystal clear, hazy or opaque, the price can top $250,000. For that kind of money, Aston Martin does a better job of mixing comfort and fun with its touring car, the DB11.
McLaren's roots are in racing, not cruising down the highway. For about a decade now, McLaren has been producing road-legal sports cars for the public. (That's besides the much earlier McLaren F1 of the 1990s, still regarded as one of the greatest sports cars ever made.)
Driving a car like the McLaren 570S or McLaren 720S is everything you'd imagined driving a supercar would be. They're powerful, responsive, incredibly easy and fun to drive. McLaren gets lots of power out of a relatively small V8 engine mounted right behind the two seats. Its cars boast stunning sci-fi style bodies that look like nothing else on the road.
The enjoyment is usually of limited duration, though. McLarens lack luggage space if you want to travel far from home, and driving up even a shallow curb when you cut into a parking lot can be harrowing. (There is a "nose lift" button but you'd better remember to use it.) The seats are also designed more for lightness and firm hold than long-term rump-cushioning comfort.
That's why I was excited when McLaren announced the upcoming McLaren GT. It offered the possibility of spending more time in the driver's seat of a McLaren, and possibly even taking an overnight trip, thanks to the addition of extra luggage space. The GT also rides slightly higher off the ground. It's certainly no SUV, but there's less need to worry about minor obstacles on the road.
On a damp, cool day earlier this month, I climbed into a McLaren GT near CNN's Manhattan offices and headed toward one of my usual test drive routes running up a twisting highway east of the Hudson River.
Most of it felt familar from driving other McLaren cars. The McLaren GT's doors open up and forward kind of like a beetle's wing covers. Inside, the controls for things like the radio and seat adjustments are awkward and annoying, but not deal-breaker bad. While stopped in traffic I could look up through the glass roof at a cloudy sky over the city.
The ride was comfortable as I drove north on crowded city streets on my way out of Manhattan. McLarens have a neat system for setting driving modes. There are two knobs with three settings each -- from very comfortable and laid back to aggressive and edgy. One knob controls the behavior of the engine and transmission, the other sets the suspension and steering. Then there's a button to activate those knobs. The idea is you set your preferences for how you like the car to act on twisty roads, then wait to press the button until you get to those roads.
It's true, the McLaren GT has a somewhat more comfortable ride than the auto maker's pure sports cars. But it is not extremely comfortable. A good bit of road noise from the tires intruded into the cabin and the ride was choppy. The driver's seat, although more cushioned, had my rear end aching after about an hour.
As I got further from city traffic, I pushed the button that activated the switches (which I'd set to Sport) pressed on the gas pedal and enjoyed the engine sounds, including a lovely chorus of turbocharger "whoosh." There was ample push from the engine, that can put out over 600 horsepower. I flicked through gears using the steering-wheel mounted paddles and whipped the car through some tight curves. It reminded me of what I love about driving a McLaren, but with the higher body and re-tuned suspension, some of the whip-quick edge was lost. There was more body lean. The brakes, a very important point on a sports car, also felt oddly squishy and lacking in pedal feel.
Maybe that lost edge in a curve is a price to be paid for a more comfortable supercar, but this was when the McLaren GT just stopped making sense to me. For roughly the same price, I could buy the McLaren 570S sports car and leave my luggage at home. Sans baggage, I could have just about the best sports car experience possible. If I wanted a really great touring car, on other hand, there's bound to be an Aston Martin dealer nearby who'd happily sell me a DB11.