McLaren faces the electrified and autonomous future

  • 31-Oct-2016 11:29 EDT
McLaren05-14 Flewitt CEO.jpg

McLaren Automotive CEO Mike Flewitt, shown with a 650S, says the company will remain "fiercely independent."

Pressing the engine start button of a McLaren ignites a cacophony of sound that signals its place in the vanguard of ultra-high performance supercars.

But even such an authoritative burst of decibels is not quite sufficient to drown out another cacophony—of rumors that the company has been in discussions with Apple regarding acquisition of the British sports- and race-car icon.

When Automotive Engineering recently was invited to drive two of McLaren’s products in the U.K., it was a question that still hung in the air. And to which CEO Mike Flewitt replied : “McLaren will remain fiercely independent; the company is not in talks with Apple.”

Never has been? “Such is the nature of our business we have discussions with many parties," Flewitt said. "These are confidential and must remain confidential.” So it’s neither yes nor no.

But as many experts have observed, McLaren Automotive would bring industry-leading expertise in advanced materials and lightweight construction, chassis and suspension technologies, aerodynamics and powertrain controls to any potential suitor. It is also developing a pure electric car, albeit a very, very high performance one.

Winning in electrification

Compared to the automotive giants, McLaren is relatively a minnow. It has huge technology potential, with a remarkable turnover-to-R&D-ratio enabler. Flewitt confirmed that McLaren Automotive’s Track 22 R&D business-plan spend through 2022 will be £1 billion—and entirely self-funded.

“For a small company like ourselves, that is perhaps a large sum but last year we put 30% of our turnover (£120M) into future product investment and that is how  we intend to move forward over the next six years," Flewitt explained. "In terms of our future product strategy it is quite simple: sports cars. It will be a mix of series production cars and limited production cars like the P1. But definitely no SUVs—we have no desire to make one.”

One new  model per year is the projected product cadence, with the upcoming EV “conceivably” plugged into the Ultimate Series level in its range. But again there is tantalizing haze around the project. Says Flewitt: “We have begun work on an electric vehicle. Probably you will not see it in the timeframe of the six year business plan…but you may!”

For EVs to be truly efficient in terms of range, ride and handling, they have to be lighter than their combustion-engine counterparts. Any non-automotive industrial organization considering edging into that sector knows that lightweighting is absolutely vital. And McLaren is very good indeed at shaving away the kilos.

Flewitt has a neat phrase to encapsulate this: “We are now  in a weight race, not a power race.”

At present the signs are that its electrification program will depend on batteries delivering a significantly improved energy density, for greater range. The difficult part of the “fiercely independent” McLaren, though, is its dependence on battery producers. “It is a technology beyond our control," Flewitt admits.

What of a hydrogen-based fuel cell solution? “Not in McLaren’s thoughts at this moment,” he asserted.

The auto industry has embarked on what he terms a serious journey to develop and produce battery-electric vehicles. McLaren wants to be ahead of that curve, reflecting the McLaren Technology Group’s maxim: "We exist to win in everything we do.”

There are two McLaren companies: McLaren Automotive and the Technology Group that includes Applied Technologies and Racing. McLaren Automotive builds on F1 knowledge to create very high performance sports cars; McLaren Applied Technologies brings expertise in electronic systems, modeling, simulation and design engineering, its disciplines spanning health and wellness to transport and energy. And Racing, not surprisingly, is all about Formula 1.

All aspects of the McLaren companies demand an element of somewhat esoteric “emotions.” These include that fabulous combustion sound track—but an EV''s appliance-like whirr is unlikely to prove a soul-stirring attribute, as Flewitt and his teams are well aware.

A solution will doubtless be found—"Our engineers are getting their heads around that,” Flewitt says. Meanwhile, the aural delights are certainly delivered by McLaren’s present model range that has three strata: Sports, Super and Ultimate.

Driving with 'Inertia Push'

To help understand this “emotion” and other aspects of what makes a McLaren, the author was provided with the no-frills 478-kW (641-hp) 650S (Super Series) and the new, more cosseting 419-kW (561-hp) 570GT (Sports Series). Model nomenclature refers to PS output.

Dihedral doors and a high sill make the 650S marginally more difficult to enter the cabin than some jet fighters the author has flown in but that’s all part of the image.

The car's MonoCell carbon-fiber chassis is claimed to be 25% stiffer than a comparable aluminum chassis. The 650S comes as a coupe and spider with no change in the tub's basic structure to ensure required torsional stiffness.

Unlike some supercars the 650S is driver friendly in terms of visibility (high fenders), ergonomics and driving position. Pedals and steering wheel are directly in front of the driver with no offset. Being all about performance the 650S delivers impressive figures with accompanying “emotional” noise but not to excess; it is very mature with nothing to prove.

Its 3.8-L M838T twin-turbo V8 has a claimed peak torque of 678 N·m (500 lb·ft) to complement its power output to deliver acceleration from standing start to 100 km/h (62 mph) in a claimed 3.0 s and zero to 200 km/h in 8.4 s.

McLaren explains that for maximum acceleration the car has “Inertia Push,” a control algorithm that harnesses the engine torque levels, raising the rpm at a faster rate for each gear.

Transmission is a twin-clutch 7-speed. Ceramic brakes are standard and on the latest version of the 650S, developed to be more progressive at high speed but with added predictability and modulation at low speed.

The Sports Series 570GT is the “luxury sports car” of the range, the luxury coming from a panoramic glass sunroof and a side opening rear hatch that creates access to an additional 220 L (7.7 ft3) of leather-decked luggage space, offering a maximum 370 L (13 ft3). 

The 570GT uses a carbon fiber tub that weighs 75 kg (165 lb) and provides easier occupant access via lower sills. Visibility betters that of the 650S due to the A-pillars moved further outwards and narrower B-pillars. The use of superformed aluminum body panels marks a first for McLaren.

Despite a claimed 0-100 km/h time of 3.4 s the GT is slightly less powerful than the 650S but retains the latter's muscular exhaust tone.

Driving both McLaren models on regular roads leaves lasting impressions not only of towering performance and adroit handling but also of comfort and easy, confidence generating controllability—aspects that are not always supercar plus points .

So, could all this technology and more to come, find a place in a takeover or partnership involving any company new  to the auto industry—and still manage to remain “fiercely independent?"

Only time will tell but at present, McLaren will not.

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