At the heart of every 2nd generation McLaren super or hypercar sits the 4 liter twin turbo V8 M840 engine. To date, there have been four limited edition, 2nd generation M840 powered McLarens. I have been fortunate to both own two and have had the pleasure of driving three out of the four. The only one I haven’t spent any time behind the wheel in is the Speedtail. While all three are powered by that four liter V8 twin turbo M840, they are completely different cars to drive. While McLaren has gotten a bit of negative press about using the same base engine in a range of different models, the way the M840 is tuned makes for very different driving experiences. While many people buy Ferraris for the experience and soundtrack, people buy McLarens for performance and handling. This gives McLaren the ability to focus on maximizing the potential for each generation of the M8XX engine vs. having to develop a new engine for each new model. Of the 3 (765LT Spider, Senna, and Elva) that I have experienced, one is highly focused and uncompromising, one redefines cool, and one has a very broad range of talents. So how do they compare, and which would I choose if I could only have one?
Starting with the first of these three, we have owned a McLaren Senna for just over two and a half years now. Its capabilities are immense, and I feel like I have yet to get anywhere near its limits. If there is one word to sum up the Senna it is focus. Driving a Senna is intense, there is nothing relaxing about it. The Senna piles on speed unlike any other car we have owned with the possible exception of the McLaren P1. While you felt like the P1 was rearranging your brain cells at full throttle, the Senna just throws the speedometer north almost violently. If you are not right on top of it, that needle goes a lot further to the right than you intend. Turbo lag is nearly imperceivably. When you first begin to move forward, there is this very brief moment when acceleration feels normal and then the Senna squats slightly and just hurdles forward madly at the horizon. It’s a wondrous sound hearing the turbos spin up behind your head. The gearbox, even in comfort mode, is quick and the cogs change almost instantly when you pull the paddles. Do this when pushing a bit and you get a nice bang out the back with every tug. Fortunately, the brakes are as good as the power delivery. What the Senna does not do is shrink around you at speed. The long nose, fairly low seating position, and massive rear wing are probably the key contributors to this. The seats in the Senna are easily the most comfortable carbon fiber racing buckets I have ever sat in. Given the thin pads, high tight seat sides, and hard carbon fiber shell, the level of comfort defies logic. The only challenge is getting in and out of the seats gracefully given the high sides. If driving the Senna brings out your inner child, exiting the Senna brings out the harsh reality of aging.
Just walking around the Senna you know it will be great on a track. The question is can it handle roads that aren’t perfect with corners that are random and irregular? A good long back country road is actually a great place to challenge a Senna’s real world capabilities. My experience so far has been the Senna certainly can, but you need to adjust your driving style to fully respect the Senna’s capabilities and uncompromised focus on performance. For normal road driving, I tend to set the traction control to comfort and gearbox to sport. The ride is fairly hard and setting the traction control to anything but comfort on normal roads will rattle you brains pretty thoroughly. Sound damping is also minimal so what is going on right behind your head is never a mystery. While an hour or two spent in the Senna is fine, it’s not a car I would want to spend multiple days in on a cross country road trip.
Given the Sennas track first focus, luggage space is extremely limited and two very small duffle bags fit on the shelf behind the seats. This is probably the Senna’s biggest limitation in terms of different possible uses, as a single overnight road trip is probably the most you can do in the car if one is fond of clean clothes very day.
If the Senna is focused and uncompromising, then the Elva is cool and wonderfully impractical. While I have had years to get to know the Senna, my 1st hand experience with both versions of the Elva (“standard” completely open cockpit and “optional” with a windshield) can be measured in hours. If the Senna is designed to be the ultimate road legal track car, the Elva is the ultimate sunny day indulgence. The Elva has both more bhp and is lighter than the Senna so it’s actually quicker on road.
The seats are unique to the Elva, quite comfortable, and similar in feel to the P1 seats. You sit quite low and feel a bit cocooned with first the seat and then the car wrapped around you. The controls are all very familiar with the only major change being the traction and transmission settings are now on rocker switches above and behind the gearshift paddles as in the new McLaren Artura. Upon first dropping down into the Elva, a couple of things I immediately noticed, the windowless door on the Elva comes up higher alongside you and the nose does not disappear in front of you the same way it does on most McLarens. In the Elva, because of the higher nose needed for the Active Air Management System, the front of the car feels like it is more distant than it really is. The Active Air Management System is quite clever, but you do need to be moving at some speed for it to work.
To bring the Elva to life you need to poke a large red start button. Once poked, the engine settles almost immediately into a low rumble. The throttle is easy to modulate, and with 804 bhp sitting behind your head, moving smartly doesn’t take much effort. Most McLarens shrink around you when you push them. The Elva comes preshrunk. The higher front wheel arches magnify this effect. Because of this it takes a bit of time to get comfortable with where the front corners are. The steering, like all McLarens, is beautifully weighted and gives great feedback. Once you have learned the front end, the Elva is easy to place on the road and carve through multiple curves fluidly. The Elva flows and changes direction effortlessly. Unlike the Senna which really isn’t happy at anything under 3500 rpms and 50 mph, the Elva, despite having 15 more bhp, will motor calmly at the lesser speeds mandated by tight very windy roads. This makes it much easier and more enjoyable to use the gearbox and just a dab of brakes to balance the car as you carve through the countryside. In areas where the road is wider and straighter, the Elva absolutely flies. In bigger, heavier high powered cars, there is always that slight lag as the turbos spin up, before the mass attached to the wheels starts moving forward. In the Elva, the lightness shines through in these situations as it just immediately takes off for the horizon and turbo lag is near imperceivable.
Despite it being 90 degrees F and quite muggy out on the day I drove the Elvas, the very efficient air-conditioning system kept me perfectly cool. The air-conditioning vents are smartly placed lower down in the cabin which allows the cool air to flow up and around you. I didn’t bother trying the stereo. The soundtrack coming from the rear of the car provided the perfect aural accompaniment. The new dashboard mounted rocker switches for the traction and transmission settings took a bit of getting used to and I’m not sure I am sold on this placement. However, with zero luggage room and no protection from the elements, real world useability is very limited. It’s not an option for road trips, it’s not a track car, it’s a point to point car with maybe lunch in-between but only if there is no rain in sight.
In conclusion, the Elva is very cool. I’m glad McLaren built it and I am absolutely delighted that I was given the opportunity to drive it. The Elva is just brilliantly engineered and wickedly quick. Somehow McLaren was able to add a few more horsepower over the Senna while making it a less highly strung and more real world friendly automobile.
If the Senna is focused and uncompromising and the Elva is cool and wonderfully impractical, then the 765LT Spider is the balanced practical option. We have had ours for just over a month now and it is fast becoming the garage favorite. It’s just a fantastic piece of engineering that does just about everything well. Unlike the Senna, the more you push the 765LT Spider, the more it shrinks around you. It just sticks to the road and the front end tracks exactly to where you point it. The steering is near perfect in terms of both weight and feedback. The balance is so good that you can use the throttle to drive out of one corner and launch towards the next. The massive ceramic brakes scrub off speed near instantly, and if you hit them hard, the rear wing flips up for added air braking. Body roll is simply nonexistent. The 765LT Spider piles on speed like a tazered animal so getting the touch right on the accelerator pedal is critical. The gearbox feels as quick as the Senna’s and when you are on it, each pull of the paddle in “Sport” or “Track” mode comes with what sounds like a high powered rifle shot coming out the back. Being able to put the roof down just adds to the drama and levels of engagement. Even with the roof up, the passenger cabin feels quite roomy and light, especially with electrochromic roof on the transparent setting. While turbo lag is minimal, you still get that feeling of power building as you surge forward at an increasing alarming rate as the tachometer swings clockwise towards the red line.
You do need to push a bit to get the 765LT Spider to come alive. 50 mph seems to be the turning point. Below that the 765LT Spider feels like it is just trundling boredly along, over that it perks right up. Even with the roof down it is still easy to have a conversation with your passenger at “autobahn” speeds. The key is to put the glass rear window up as it deflects the air flow over the cockpit. A few times we have been out with the roof down and the temperatures in the high 40’s F, with the heater on and airflow directed into the footwells, it is still quite comfortable. The P1 style seats are even better than I remember, and while snug, are nicely supportive. Even on the post winter chewed roads, the 765LT Spider absorbs the multiple imperfections and rides very comfortably. The 765LT Spider feels like it is made for quick windy back country roads as it just vacuums up the tarmac. With room for several large duffle bags in the frunk (front trunk), the 765LT Spider is an easy choice for long road trip.
In conclusion, going back to the original question, if I could only choose one, it would have to be the 765LT Spider but only because of its versatility. With the roof up, and put on a track, its 90% of the Senna. Put the roof down, find a day without a cloud in the sky, and its 90% of the Elva. Are the Senna and Elva more “special”, definitely yes. The highly focused uncompromised Senna is the closest car I have driven to being a modern Ferrari F40, and that always puts a smile on my face. If money and garage space were no object, then I would definitely own a ridiculously cool Elva for that ultimate drive on a perfect day. Fortunately, this is not choice I have to make.
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