Driving McLaren’s plug-in hybrid supercar, the Artura

Since the launch of its unfortunately named MP4-12C sports car in 2011, McLaren Automotive has built every vehicle using a version of the same carbon fiber chassis and V8 engine. A decade later, McLaren launches version 2.0 of the company’s product line, with a new hybrid-electric V6 powertrain bolted into an all-new carbon fiber chassis.

The vehicle that embodies this change is called the Artura. It is McLaren’s first production hybrid and signals the direction for the rest of the company’s products. Their very first hybrid was the limited-production P1 hypercar, and Artura shows how this technology has trickled down to several mass-produced models.

Artura shreds the curves and slings down the straights on the infield at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, $289,000 (as tested; base price is $233,000) Artura convincingly upholds the legends of Mika Hakkinen, Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Emerson Fittipaldi and other famous drivers who has driven McLaren Formula 1 cars to world championships.

The howling turbocharged V6 engine would have been right at home in Prost and Senna’s 80s turbo-era McLarens, although the Artura’s 3.0-litre engine is twice the power plants of the old race cars. Senna would have envied the crispness of Artura’s shifts compared to the H-pattern transmission of his F1 car at the time.

Impressively, despite the major change in hardware, McLaren has managed to preserve the feeling that the Artura is still a McLaren. The body is born from the same family as existing models such as the 720S, the cockpit feels similar, and the driving dynamics put me right into a McLaren mood.

Like Legos

This new carbon fiber platform is even stiffer and lighter than the one the company has previously used in vehicles like the 600LT or 720S, thanks to an extra decade of know-how. More importantly, it is made from 72 pre-formed parts of carbon fiber instead of the 500 separate parts previously used by technicians. This reduces variation and accelerates the production process. “We’ve had a big reduction in the hours needed to do it,” reports Chief Engineer Geoff Grose. “It’s a more consistent process than with human intervention.”

Artura’s new M360 engine is a V6 arranged with 120 degrees between the two sides of three cylinders. Sixty degrees is the norm for clean-sheet V6s. (V6s made by cutting two cylinders off a V8 are 90-degree engines, but they require balance shafts to offset their inherent imbalance.) For the next generation of engines, McLaren has gone to a much flatter 120-degree V shape which mounts the turbochargers inside the shallow valley on top of the engine rather than on the outside as is common practice. This contributes to a lower center of gravity for the Artura, which allows the car to change direction more easily.

This engine is made as small as possible by using 3D printing to create the sand cores used to cast the block and heads. The features inside this engine are too small to create with conventional techniques, according to Grose. “It gives the shortest possible space between the cylinder bores, just 2 mm,” he says. “It’s a very dense, thin core. This 3D printing technology is very good at enabling that.”

McLaren Artura
McLaren Artura in “Ember Orange”. Dan Carney

It is electric

Computer optimization modeling apparently points to this 120-degree turbo V6 engine layout, as it’s the same arrangement Ferrari reached for the 296GTB, the company’s Artura analogue. This internal combustion engine produces 577 horsepower and 431 lb.ft. of torque.

But wait, there’s more! The Artura also includes a compact, lightweight electric motor bolted between the M360 engine and Artura’s new dual-clutch transmission.

[Related: Why plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles are worth a look right now]

This electric motor produces 94 horsepower and 166 lb.-ft. of torque, with the e-motor’s torque contribution coming at the lower end of the combustion torque curve. The result is a peak of 671 hp and 531 lb.-ft. in combined production. More importantly, the duo’s combined torque delivery is almost constant from low revs, so the Artura accelerates out of corners more like an electric car.

Together, the electric and gas motors push the Artura to 60 mph in 3.0 seconds and through the quarter mile in 10.7 seconds. The EPA Miles Per Gallon Equivalent rating is 39 MPGe, thanks to the plug-in hybrid’s battery. That big improvement over the Artura’s 18 mpg when running on gas just illustrates how the plug-in system not only bolsters low-speed power for acceleration, but also provides fuel-sipping efficiency.

Get into gear

The Artura clicks up through the gears seamlessly thanks to its eight-speed dual-clutch gearbox. The computer can do these shifts for you, or you can click the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. Ferrari and Lamborghini attach the paddles to the steering column so they are always where the driver expects them. In McLarens, they turn the steering wheel, as they do in racing cars.

However, the steering wheel on racing cars never turns so far that the driver has to move his hands, so that they can always click up with the right paddle and down with the left. Street car steering wheels, on the other hand, crank through a couple of turns from one side to the other, so the driver has no idea where the gearshifts are when they turn. However, it’s unusual to make a lot of gear while turning that much, so maybe this tweak doesn’t matter.

[Related: Anyone can drive a supercar, but truly tapping its potential is another matter]

The transmission is completely new, with eight speeds instead of the previous seven. Some of the extra space for the extra gear came from the elimination of the reverse gear. Now Artura just spins the electric motor the other way to move the car backwards. The car has an electric-only top speed of 81 mph, so in theory the Artura would be able to go up through the gears to reach the same speed while going backwards, but I didn’t test this theory. The EPA says it will go 11 miles on electric power alone.

Total top speed is 205 mph, which was also untested because there is no room for such speed at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and no permit for such speed on the wide-open desert roads of Nevada where the car could actually reach terminal speed. Hunter S. Thompson probably would have pumped the Artura’s tires up to 80 psi and given it a shot (as he claimed to have done with his Cadillac in Fear and loathing in Las Vegas), but I have a stronger aversion to breaking the law than he apparently did.

McLaren engine
Artura’s V6 engine with twin turbochargers on top. McLaren Automotive

Under pressure

You’ll know all about the Artura’s tire pressure because the car’s new Pirelli P-Zero Corsa tires have pressure sensors built into the tires themselves rather than mounted on the wheel at the inflation valve. This allows for a more accurate measurement, according to McLaren, and allows the car to understand when the driver has intentionally reduced tire pressure for more grip while driving on the racetrack. This prevents the computer from giving low pressure warnings when the driver has deliberately lowered the pressure.

McLaren has retained its hydraulic power steering system for the Artura, eschewing the electric power steering others use for the superior steering feel of a hydraulic system. Because the internal combustion engine shuts down at times, the hydraulic pump is electrically driven so that the control does not care what the engine is doing.

Speaking of cornering, you’ll have to brake the Artura from time to time, and McLaren continues to set the industry standard in braking. While Lamborghini’s carbon ceramic brakes are comfortable to drive on the street, they become vague and imprecise on the track. Other brands such as Ferrari and Porsche deliver on the track, but their carbon ceramics are grippy and squeak embarrassingly in street driving.

By contrast, McLaren’s carbon ceramic is angelic on the streets and devilishly good in the brake-pedal-only cornering zones, showing exemplary behavior in everyday driving and delivering the confidence-inspiring precision and consistency needed to light up the front rotors. on my Flux Green track test car. Truly the best performance in both situations.

McLarens are also known for their ability to deliver both an unexpectedly great ride in street driving with sharp handling response in mountain switchbacks and the racetrack. That’s thanks to the company’s proactive chassis control system with cross-linked hydraulics that uses wheel movement on one side of the car to help manage what’s happening on the other side.

Instead of the proactive chassis control system, the Artura has Tenneco’s Proactive Damping Control shocks, which are like the computerized active shocks everyone else uses. The Artura is the starting point for the McLaren 2.0, so look for Proactive Chassis Control to appear on other models built on the Artura’s new chassis and powertrain in the future. The Artura’s more common shock absorbers don’t provide the world’s best experience of smooth ride and sharp handling that we’ve come to expect from other McLarens, but more expensive future variants certainly will.

While the exterior bears a family resemblance to other McLarens, the aluminum skin is “transferred” with a blast of hot air rather than stamped by conventional dies. This allows for the car’s sharp character lines and the precise body gaps. My street test car was sprayed in a striking shade called Ember Orange, which was challenging to make practical for mass production, according to head of color and materials design, Jo Lewis. It was worth the effort she put in to get Ember Orange from the computer screen to the production line.

Likewise, all of the McLaren 2.0 upgrades are clear successes. The Artura shows that it is possible to preserve continuity without being stuck in the past, as this car delivers the modern technology and performance that supercar buyers demand.

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