Cars have become expensive rolling gadgets, full of screens, speakers, and sensors — but are they actually good gadgets? In our series, ScreenDrive, we review cars just like any other device, starting with the basics of what they’re like to use.
When you think of a McLaren supercar, the first words that probably pop into your head are “incredibly fast,” “very expensive,” “uniquely designed,” and possibly “silly doors.” I very much doubt that “sophisticated touchscreen interface” is on your list. And with good reason: you don’t buy a McLaren for the technology you can see and touch; you buy it for the technology you can’t.
If you’re fortunate enough to stumble upon $208,800 when you’re rummaging around down the back of the couch, you may want to consider purchasing the McLaren 570S Spider which, along with the 570S Coupé and the GT, is classed as one of the most reasonably(!) priced in the range. In supercar terms, it is almost a bargain.
0f course I don’t have a spare $200K+ to drop on a supercar and so I was a deliriously excited when McLaren offered to lend me a 570S Spider for a long weekend. Their only conditions were that I brought it back fully fueled and I didn’t drive it more than 300 miles. I didn’t see anything specific in the small print about taking it easy or not crashing it, but I rather took that as a given.
Once the paperwork was signed, I become the proud owner (albeit for only four days) of arguably one of the finest British sports supercars available today. Even though this is an entry level McLaren (the on-the-road cost of the model I drove was $244,370), the 570S is still ludicrously quick. The 3.8-liter twin-turbocharged V8 engine produces 562hp with 443 lb ft of torque, which is sent to the rear wheels via a seven-speed, seamless-shift gearbox propelling the car to 60 mph in 3.1 seconds and a top speed of 204 mph (196 mph with the roof down). Clearly “Entry level” is very much a relative term here.
The 570S’s V8 engine and interior are cocooned by an extremely light and aerodynamically swoopy body which is unashamedly McLaren by design. Yet, the car looks much smaller and far less radical in real life than it does in photographs. It is compact, svelte and almost restrained — though the fact that the 570S I was driving was onyx black and not McLaren orange, mantis green, or lantana purple was probably a significant factor in not making me feel crushingly self conscious driving it.
The interior is minimal and, in contrast with the car, feels much bigger than it looks. But getting in and out of it is a bit of a challenge. Once you have effortlessly raised the wonderfully balanced dihedral door, you are presented with the task of awkwardly sliding yourself into the form fitting driver’s seat. Fortunately this process requires far less contortion if you lower the roof first which may be one of the best reasons to choose the Spider over the Coupé. Roof up or down, there is also the option to engage the “comfort entry” which automatically pushes the driver’s seat back and pulls the flat-bottomed steering wheel into the dashboard making your life even easier.
Once seated, the interior seems to expand and wrap around you. Though fairly light on creature comforts and sophisticated infotainment systems, the interior of the 570S is heavy on bespoke dashboard tailoring with very functional and beautifully crafted instrumentation. The design is more Soho House than Claridges: minimalist, modern, cutting-edge British styling fusing alcantara, aluminium, and if you are prepared to spend an additional $6,680, carbon fiber. Eschewing even the merest whiff of mahogany veneer or slightest hint of shag pile carpeting, the result is remarkably understated and very “new” England.
DRIVING MODES: NORMAL
Nestled cosily between the driver and passenger seats is a center console which houses the main drive settings. Amongst the various controls is a big, bold engine start / stop button and two reassuringly chunky dials, both elegantly ringed in aluminium, that change the handling (H) and powertrain (P) from “normal” to “sport” or “track” respectively. During my long weekend with the 570S I found myself regularly switching between “normal” and “sport” depending on whether I simply needed to get from A to B (“normal”) or wanted to experience the thrill of driving this bonkers car as it was clearly intended (“sport”). It goes without saying that I left the “track” settings well alone.
I predictably selected “normal” for my first drive of the McLaren and headed out of New York City in Friday afternoon rush hour towards Connecticut. Because the car is so low to the ground, the surrounding traffic seemed to loom over me on all sides making me feel rather small and vulnerable. It doesn’t help that with the roof up the 570S seems to have a surfeit of blind spots making changing lanes less a traffic maneuver and more a leap of faith.
Things got marginally better once I was out of the city traffic and onto the open (ish) freeway. I pootled along at between 55 mph and 65 mph while the V8 burbled away gently (and surprisingly quietly) behind me at a very relaxed 1500-1700 revs ― which for this engine is barely a tick above a standstill. However, whenever I pushed the throttle even a smidgen to overtake, the car would wake from its stupor and I would find myself almost instantaneously traveling at speeds which require me at this point to plead the Fifth and move on.
My drive up to Connecticut gave me ample time to familiarize myself with the nicely designed climate control interface (it was an unseasonably cold Fall day) and fiddle with the electric seat controls to try to make myself more comfortable. That latter part was a big mistake. I would recommend that if you ever find yourself in the envious position of collecting a brand new 570S from your local McLaren dealer, I strongly suggest that you build in extra time for the customer service rep to “fit” you into the driver’s seat and lock the settings into the memory. Never touch the controls yourself. I cannot emphasize this enough. They are literally impossible to see; have to be navigated purely by touch; and are laid out in such a way as to defy all known laws of logic in this universe or any other.
By contrast to the maddeningly stupid controls for the seats, the optional Bowers & Wilkins 12 Speaker Audio System (which come with the “By McLaren Designer Interior” package, a mere snip at $3,110) was exquisite perfection. I selected calming wonderful music with powerful bass and soaring melody to help me escape my rage at the nonsensical seat controls and move on.
DRIVING MODES: SPORT
After an hour or so of freeway driving my initial nerves of unfamiliarity with the car had subsided somewhat. I began to become very comfortable and in fact, I found the car remarkably pliant and surprisingly easy to drive. But then again, I wasn’t really driving it.
Passing through the New England town of New Milford, I turned right onto the 69, a twisting, sweeping country road that heads east towards Roxbury and the rolling hills of Litchfield County. The sun was just starting to dip below the horizon when I switched the settings for powertrain and suspension from “normal” to “sport” and pushed the “active” button in the central control cluster. The amber ring light immediately lit up to warn me that I was now in control and responsible for my own actions… or at least as far as my gear shifts were concerned. Up to this point I’d been leaving those decisions to the car, which in turn had chosen to constantly shift the seven-speed box to keep the revs of the engine down to a very quiet minimum.
Once I had cleared the town limits, I checked the rear view mirrors, scanned the road ahead for approaching cars (the road was surprising devoid of traffic), and slowed the McLaren down to a crawl before burying the accelerator pedal into the floor. The 570S instantaneously leapt forward, the revs climbing insanely quickly. I tapped the right (+) paddle to change gear each time the rev counter hit 5000 rpm. The shifts were indeed almost seamless apart from the engine emitting a satisfactory “pap” from the optional sports exhaust ($4,090) to mark each change. After only three or four shifts I found myself traveling at ...(speed redacted here, pleading the Fifth once again)... and so I firmly pressed on the brake pedal while simultaneously hitting the downshift (-) left paddle in the process.
It was like hitting a wall. The revs plummeted as rapidly as they had climbed and after what only seemed like a second or so, the carbon-ceramic brakes had brought the car down to around to a crawling 20mph — which felt practically the same as being stationary. I repeated this process over the next ten miles or so: checking for traffic, slowing to a crawl, then accelerating and decelerating hard. I gained in confidence with the car each time and really started to enjoy myself. Sometimes it was on a long straight; other times it was through sweeping s-curves which allowed me to take advantage of the astonishing amount of grip from the wide Pirelli P Zero Corsa tires, all of which were all fully up to temperature despite this cold, clear New England fall evening.
Finally being able to really drive the 570S was intoxicating, exhilarating, and innately frustrating. It was though the car was teasing me to go faster; tempting me to corner harder; and goading me to brake later. Because doing so just feels too easy, and so much fun. Driving the McLaren reminded me of riding my Ducati 748 motorcycle on a racetrack for the first time when the radical nature of a modern sports bike finally made complete sense. The same can be said of the 570S: it’s only when you speed up that the car finally starts to feel perfectly balanced, taut and fit for purpose. On a public road that feeling lasts just over three seconds before the risks outweigh the reward. Hence the frustration.
By the time I came to my hometown of Washington, CT, I was more than happy to put the car back into the “normal” mode, raise the front of the car’s suspension (so I could turn up my steep drive without scraping the front spoiler) and park the car up for the night.
As my time with the 570S was less about hooning around the Connecticut countryside and more about writing a ScreenDrive review, I spent the following morning familiarizing myself with the two main screens in the McLaren’s interior: the 10-inch Thin Film Transfer (TFT) main instrument cluster and the 7-inch IRIS touchscreen mounted in the center of the dash.
When it comes to the UI and UE of these two screens it’s as though there were two distinct design teams at work here. In full disclosure I have absolutely no evidence for this theory but it certainly looks that way to me. The graphic style of the 10-inch TFT instrument screen has more of an illustrated, almost skeuomorphic style: a photo quality picture of the McLaren appears in the center of the screen when it first turns on; there’s a liberal use of graduated as opposed to flat colors; the background is mock “carbon fiber”; and the icons for the main menu and sub-menus looked like they were created by an ex Blackberry graphic designer ― which made me pretty much hate them from the moment I first set eyes on them. By contrast, the icons and layout of the center mounted 7-inch IRIS touchscreen are simple, clean and reminiscent of 1970s info-graphics and looked as though they were lifted straight out of the game Alien Isolation .
10-INCH (TFT) MAIN INSTRUMENT CLUSTER
The main 10-inch TFT instrument cluster displays revs, gear selected, driving mode, oil and water temperature, odometer, fuel level, and a very useful quick glance visual reference diagram for temperatures: oil, water, engine, and most importantly on this unseasonably cold fall weekend, tires. If the tires in the diagram were blue (meaning they weren’t yet up to temperature), I took things very slowly until they were lit green for go.
In addition to the standard info, on the left side of the screen is the option for the driver to cycle through a number of menus and sub-menus by using a lever on the left side of the steering wheel mount. These menus access a plethora of different settings allowing the driver to tweak such things as the interior lighting levels (including the footwell lighting) or set up comfort entry. The lever moves up or down to navigate through menus; pull the lever towards you, enter the selected sub menu; push the lever away to go back; and click “OK” button on the end of the lever to save any selection. Or at least that I think that’s how it works. I found this particular UI to be rather inconsistent and I still hadn’t completely figured it out by the time I gave the car back on Monday.
But to be fair, I didn’t really try that hard. There was nothing here I really needed to change except for one, lone and very important feature which I found quite quickly: the option to raise and lower the front ride height to clear speed bumps — or in my case, to turn into my very steep drive — without damaging the front of the car.
The entrance to my drive is pretty precipitous and so raising the front ride height of the McLaren was a must. To do so I just had to slow the car down to under 35 miles an hour, push the left lever up and hold it in position. After a few seconds, an audible “bing” would sound and the front of the car would slowly rise almost to the same height as the front of my 2013 Audi Allroad. There is the option to manually lower the car back down to the normal driving height but I never bothered: the car would take care of this for me once it reached 35 mph which was pretty much two seconds after I set off.
Apart from this one very important feature, I decided that I was perfectly happy with the level of the footwell lighting and studiously ignored the rest of this interface for the entire time I had the car.
CENTER 7-INCH IRIS TOUCHSCREEN
The same cannot be said of the center console. I found this UI to be clear, functional and pretty self explanatory. The design of the graphics are bold and easy to read as long as it’s a dull day or the roof is up. On a sunny day with the roof down, the on-screen graphics are practically invisible.
When you can see the interface of the central console panel, it is simple and straightforward to use. The screen has settings for phone/music, navigation, and climate control. You can even read the 570S owner's manual but what you can’t do is use Apple Carplay or Android Auto. There is also an option to use a web interface but this wasn’t active on my loaner car so I can’t speak to how good it is. But I was pleasantly surprised how easy it was to sync my Pixel 2 XL to the car. Hands-free calling was crisp and the big, bold buttons on the screen made it really easy to answer handsfree calls while driving. One slight quibble while playing music from my Google Play account was that I had to select the playlist or album on my phone first, and then I could only pause, skip a track or go back using the McLaren’s touchscreen. I didn’t try any radio stations, but the touch slider on the screen to tune was a nice er… touch.
Below the touchscreen itself are nice, big, chunky shortcut buttons. On the left: back, settings, and navigation; on the right: climate, mute, and phone. And right bang in the center is the chunkiest button of them: the home button, complete with the McLaren logo etched on the front.
Apart from the issue of lack of visibility in sunshine and the dated look of the navigation maps (which seem to be running on Android Froyo), the design of both the hardware and software of the 7-inch IRIS touchscreen is really good. I love the bold simplicity and the way it meshed with the rest of the McLaren’s minimalist interior.
It may sound antithetical to rave about the sound system in a convertible supercar, but this is one optional extra I think is absolutely worth it. Both the design and sound quality of the Bowers & Wilkins 12 speaker audio system is wonderful. The elongated egg shaped tweeter mounted on the centre of the dash looks like something straight out of an industrial design museum, while the color of the large speakers in the doors is the only agreeable use of beige I think I have ever seen in my life. But it’s the sound that comes out of these speakers that made such an impact on me: deep resonate bass with clear, crisp midrange and (to paraphrase the great Douglas Adams describing Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz’s PA system) “distortion levels so low as to make a brave man weep.” All of which is even more impressive considering I was streaming the music from my phone.
Driving along with the roof up on the freeway with all of the car set to “normal,” the McLaren 570S is remarkably quiet with hardly any discernible engine noise — even with the optional sports exhaust fitted. All of which makes enjoying a wonderful sound system not just an unexpected bonus, but one that also acts as a soothing balm for driving such a uncompromisingly powerful car at compromised speeds.
WRAP UP & CONCLUSIONS
Way back in 2000, I spent a few days with Mikka Hakkinen, the 1998 and 1999 Formula One World Champion, photographing him in and around his home in Monaco. At one point I was his passenger as he drove the two of us through the town in his Mercedes SL55AMG. I was expecting an exhilarating drive through the narrow streets worthy of the film Ronin, but was sorely disappointed. Mikka had other ideas. He would floor the accelerator as soon as any traffic light we were stopped at turned green but would then throttle off seconds later after the car had reached the speed limit. During the course of our drive he never once picked up any real speed or hurled the Merc around any fast corners. When I commented on his reaction, he told me that accelerating away from the traffic light was the only fun bit.
The same could be said of the McLaren 570S. Driving the car hard for a few moments can be truly, truly exhilarating. But when you’re driving public roads, you’re never going to experience anywhere near the limits of this cars potential, so why bother taking any risks? Better to just play a little.
I’m sure the same is true if you’re brave enough (and let’s face it, rich enough) to drive a 570S on a track. Even if you do manage to scare yourself rigid, the McLaren has in all likelihood barely noticed. Metaphorically speaking, it has its wheels up on the Chesterfield nonchalantly sipping a cup of tea. The car is so good it can indulge you by letting you try to find your limits all the while keeping one eye to make sure that you don’t do anything silly. Within minutes of getting into the 570S for the first time I was struck by the realization that the vast majority of the technology packed into this car isn’t there to entertain me: it is there to keep me safe.
The TL;DR is the McLaren 570S Spider is an incredibly well-designed and beautifully made piece of British automotive engineering. It is overflowing with cutting-edge racing technology making it breathtakingly fast and agile. And yes, it comes at a reasonable price at least as far as supercars are concerned.
But regardless, even if I could afford that still hefty “entry level” price tag of $244,370 to buy the exact McLaren I drove, I still don’t think I would. It is just too... well “too” everything: it is too damn quick and too insanely impractical to ever be enjoyable for more than a few exhilarating seconds out of too many hours of frustrating driving.
Which is a shame because those few seconds are really and truly something else.
Photography by James Bareham / The Verge