1. I’ve named this car Imogene. It’s a she, though I’m not sure why. She’s English, and does not believe in making a fuss about even extraordinary things. She is a 2016 McLaren 570S, has 562 horsepower and creeps down the 101 towards Santa Clara agreeably enough for something capable of going 100 mph in 6.2 seconds. Imogene, like other cars that cost as much as a house, clearly feels slightly off going 25 miles per hour behind this Nissan Rogue with a kid turning around to take a picture of you out the back window.
There’s only one thing to betray impatience at the traffic: a slight nudge in the back of the head when the engine unspools into second gear, and then has to downshift into first. The car will hold itself back -- but it will also gently let you know that you, the stupid-ass driver, are holding back an avalanche of power with one unsteady foot. It's a gentle, almost affectionate kick in the skull.
2. Imogene is a McLaren 570S, a car that I should not be driving because it is a $189,000 automobile that I do not own. She speaks three languages fluently, two at intermediate level, and has a masters in applied mathematics from Cal Tech by way of a philosophy degree from Cambridge. This car is smarter and better than I am and that is something I will just have to accept.
3. People will stop you in this car. Not in the hateful way, but in the way someone will inevitably want to stop and talk if you walk out the door wearing a Daft Punk helmet. Most of the things you read about McLarens talk about their relative simplicity, a measure made mostly against Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Paganis, or whatever other supercar class machine you want to reference. It doesn’t shoot flames from its tailpipe, or have custom camel skin buttock leather sewn onto the seats by Giorgio himself over a sacred stump in an Italian auto-monastery.
Calling it simple is not totally inaccurate. Neither is me saying that even the budget McLaren I drove -- again, the budget for this car starts at $189,000 -- is styled like British sci-fi architecture from the late 70s. It’s all swoops and curves and McLaren vortice logos written into the car’s body, right down to the little self-referencing headlights that at night make the car look like a very interested listener. Not a concerned, empathetic listener, but one that is quietly wondering what your skull looks like under all that skin.
It draws old men and young women, and old women and young men. I parked it by the seawall at Golden Gate park and a dad walked up and exclaimed "EL SUENO DEL LOS CHICOS!" A couple in a green Miata asked me the specs through a window in Haight-Ashbury. If a politician wants to tell you the Bay Area is stocked with self-loathing millionaire socialists who despise wealth and the successful, tell them I told you that random people of all races and ages will see you in traffic and give you the thumbs up simply for driving this car. Haters appear to be drastically overestimated as a force in American society.
4. A kid in a Mustang dropped his jaw -- like, put his head over his own steering wheel and dropped his mouth to a full gape -- when I was pulling out of the In-N-Out in Sausalito. I really hope he didn’t hear me bottom out the front of the car just seconds later, because the face you make thumping the chin of a $189,000 car that you do not own on the ground is the literal sound of aerated terror.
You will have conversations with people, and not always truthful ones. Coming out of the hotel, a Dutch tourist saw the car parked out front and asked what it was. Then he asked me what my job was. I told him, "cocaine." He nodded, and walked briskly off into the night before I could tell him I was joking. I hope this guy goes back to the Netherlands, and tells people solemnly about what great cars cocaine dealers in America drive.
5. That's part of driving in the car. Half of the experience is having an electric green Tardis done up with a micropixel sparkly bass boat finish, and an engine incapable of whispering at anything less than 50 decibels -- and having people stare at it.
Driving the McLaren 570S in Bay Area traffic, though, is a very stupid way to try and figure out the basic McLaren-ness of the car. You get some of that sprinting between clumps of traffic on the 101, sure. The engine note is as subdued as you could expect a McLaren V8 to be. At idle, it sounds like a dragon trying to quietly whisper his order at a restaurant without getting too excited and incinerating the waiter with hellfire.* It's extremely fun to sprint around in between crawls at 15 miles an hour, yes. But in traffic, the 570S becomes another well-behaved expensive car -- albeit one that gets attention even in a city full of stupidly expensive cars.
*One passenger compared it to Chris Berman announcing the Home Run Derby. Despite this comparison, it’s still a beautiful noise for a car to make.
6. This is the access McLaren, a mere $189,000 freebie and gateway to the harder stuff down the line. (Like the P1, the $1.3 million Star Destroyer people sometimes confused the 570S for. I never corrected them when they did.) The central tub is carbon fiber, but parts of the frame are aluminum to keep costs down. There’s no automatic spoiler, and there’s some plastic that might or might not be there in the more expensive models.
Not that anyone who gets behind the wheel of one will notice. I read that there’s a lull low in the power band when you accelerate. Maybe there is. I missed it completely, because if it’s at 40 miles per hour, then you’ll miss it completely every time hurtling past it. Questlove said he put missed beats in intentionally on "Voodoo" by D’Angelo, and that’s how I prefer to think of any of the McLaren 570S’ acceleration issues: an intentional quirk obliterated by sheer power and skill. There are no acceleration issues, unless you’re an acceleration size queen of the highest degree and are the kind of person who drives these kinds of cars all the time.
I am not, and you probably are not, either. The acceleration was downright alarming, but always controlled. The 570S will throw you so far so fast your brain stops thinking less in terms of straight lines, and more in terms of parabolas. Congratulations! You have this car, and you’re a space program now. I found myself looking not just ahead, but 10 car lengths ahead at minimum to figure out potential threats up ahead.
7. Let’s mention all the other practicalities, in case those were things you’d even worry about when buying this car. (You wouldn't! It's a McLaren.) Let’s pretend you’d worry about it. Yes, there’s two cupholders, and a nice, demure IRIS touchscreen system where everything works really, really well except for the radio tuner. The radio tuner is a sliding dial you have to manually drag your finger across to adjust the frequency, which is a cute idea so stupid I almost have to admire its overthink.
Other than that, the displays are clean and even have a nice, almost retrofuturist font to go with them. I conducted the Yo Gotti test on them to make sure the stereo worked, and "King Sh*t" sounded magnificent on it. My iPhone synced up in around 30 seconds. There are even apps you can use with the car, which anyone who buys this car will never use because the point of the car is to get in it, find a good playlist and immediately leave a trail of burning ozone in your wake. But they’re there.
The interiors are mostly perfectly pleasant Alcantara, the racing seats are firm but not cruelly stiff and that’s about it. It’s simple, but it’s not spare or cheap at all. An elegant and extremely expensive kind of simple. I spent an entire day driving through the worst traffic the Bay Area had to offer and it wasn’t a bad place to spend eight hours or so at all. As a rental property parked on the street during Super Bowl week in the Bay Area, it'd fetch a plausible $450 a night, easy.
It has a frunk -- the front trunk -- big enough to carry one modest suitcase. It’s all you’ll need, since you’re going to leave everything you know and begin a life with a new name in a new town with the McLaren. The McLaren decided this for you. It has plans and you will obey them.
8. I may have done certain things. I may have seen a Mustang rip into traffic speeding off an onramp, and then found myself blazing past him because a voice in my head said he "needed to know what was up." I may have gone over the Golden Gate: not for the scenery, but to get a quick post-dinner bomb down the turns of the 101, then back up the hill to the Bridge and then over and through the Presidio, even though my hotel was across town, and nowhere near any of this.
I may have revved it in the Douglas MacArthur tunnel just to hear the engine noise blast back at me off the ceiling.
I may have gotten up at 5:30 a.m. to get the car out away from the city the next day, and onto the 1 in spitting rain, gloom and predawn darkness. The McLaren could be a few different cars on the highway in terms of how it behaved, but going around hairpin turns between gum trees and redwoods and up along the plunging Pacific hills, it is nothing other than itself. It never lost a step in a turn, never balked at corner and never seemed to let me make a mistake -- not because I didn’t make mistakes, because oh, I did -- but mostly because the car was so glued to the road, so balanced and so completely on point at all times that making a mistake would be impossible.
9. All I had to do was think and point. The car, as far as I know, did the rest. There is some electronic nannying, which you can turn off or adjust through three different drive modes and, sure, that had to help, especially with an idiot behind the wheel. I was planning to drive to Muir Beach and turn around, but the McLaren overruled me and drove on towards Stinson Beach. Cars pulled over in turnouts when the McLaren’s headlights pulled in behind them, and pulled over fast. (The headlights really are sort of alien-looking. Think "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" alien-looking.)
At one point, I didn’t even feel like I was using a steering wheel. There was the car, and me, and the Pacific, and OH GOD A TRUCK and no, no we’re fine and just bounding out of 90-degree turns like an X-wing rounding a gun tower on the Death Star. It’s a nice steering wheel mind you, a racing wheel with the flattened bottom and with pleasant, non-sweat lining. There’s nothing wrong with it save this: from time to time, if you get it on the right road, it disappears completely from your hands, and you find yourself driving the car with your mind.
10. A McLaren at speed is all gossamer telepathies. You pay all that money for a car that disappears, and leaves the driver with nothing but blinding speed and effortless, constant control. It’s comparatively spare for this category of car, but that isn’t the point. The point is leaving as little as possible between the driver and car, and the road. Put bluntly, that’s where the sex part is, if you’re not counting the view out the back window where you can look back and see the massive heat waves thrown off by the McLaren’s V8 engine. The McLaren’s best special effect is itself in motion and at speed. It needs to be driven and driven like you stole it. (Which is how it felt. It never felt like anything but stealing, and wouldn't, ever.)
In summary: This is the least expensive McLaren, and it gently and precisely tore my face off, and wouldn't let me crash it no matter how hard I tried. It's a caring kind of diabolical, a surgical sort of insanely consistent fun. I never got the feeling this wasn't something anyone couldn't drive, or at least, not a car you couldn't drive the way you wanted to drive it. Only that subtle little kick in the head every now and then said: Come now, you can go a bit faster, couldn't you? You always could. Imogene was never wrong.
11. I couldn’t park the thing for shit. That’s the worst thing I can say about this car. Its worst speed is somewhere between 0 and 3 mph. If you want to spend $189,000 on a car, though, you kind of want to look like you parked solely for the purpose of robbing a bank, right? Because you probably did, in some sense, rob a bank to afford it.