McLaren Elva 2022 review – British rival to the topless Ferrari Monza

The McLaren Elva is ascending into a cloudless sky for mile after mile through a never-ending sequence of long, third-gear corners. At times the gradient is steep as a curve opens out and the road climbs rapidly to the next long hairpin. Interspersed are flatter, meandering sections that follow spectacular ridgelines before the tarmac coils back in on itself and the climb resumes. The Elva doesn’t notice. Whether its nose is pointing upwards or shovelling low along one of the flat sections, the acceleration is akin to freefall. My stomach is three corners back. Every time I pin the throttle to its stop it’s like the moment a rollercoaster hurtles over the big, heart-stopping drop. But there’s nothing to catch you at the bottom, so you just keep falling and falling until you run out of road or bravery. The Elva is stupidly, wonderfully, shockingly fast. The sort of fast to which your body can’t acclimatise. It never gets old.

The Elva is also, let’s face it, a very silly car indeed. Certain things about it are very easy to get on board with. For example, it’s McLaren Automotive’s lightest ever car, at 1148kg dry or 1269kg with fluids. The familiar 4-litre twin-turbocharged V8 has never been more powerful, either. With 804bhp at 7500rpm and 590lb ft at 5500rpm, the Elva has a power-to-weight ratio of 644bhp per ton, which puts it ahead of the P1, the Senna and even the F1, the featherweight OG. McLaren claims the Elva can reach 62mph in 2.8 seconds, 124mph in 6.8 seconds and go on to hit a presumably rather breezy 203mph. Good stuff.

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The bad stuff? Well, there’s no escaping that it’s a car that has no windscreen. And not in an Ariel Atom or Caterham sort of way. It’s not an intrinsic part of a back-to-basics sports car – the Elva is spun from a platform that has spawned many coupes and spiders – rather it’s one of those ‘collector’ models with no windscreen that are meant to be more visceral and exciting but can’t help feeling contrived and a bit naff. The Elva, like Ferrari’s Monza SP1 and SP2 and Aston Martin’s V12 Speedster, is created for those so rich, so bored and so ludicrously in need of attention that they’ll happily put up with being pelted by gravel because, well, they’re the lucky ones who can afford it. Just 149 Elvas will be produced at a price starting at £1.4million each.

Perhaps you can tell I’m a little bit cynical about these sorts of cars. Even so, I’ll admit that when I started to delve into the story of the Elva it was more interesting from a technical and engineering point of view than I’d imagined. The name is inspired by Bruce McLaren’s Group 7 sportscars of the 1960s. Those lightweight, powerful prototypes with Oldsmobile V8 engines were basically forerunners to the Can-Am monsters to come, and production of customer cars was outsourced to Elva Cars of Sussex. Light, open-topped (with tiny aeroscreens) and featuring a massive power-to-weight ratio, the M1A, M1B and M1C were successful and wonderfully fit for purpose.

McLaren isn’t messing around trying to honor those thunderous yet delicate racers with the Elva. Take the lightweighting, for example. The entire body is made from three main carbonfibre panels. The front clamshell is just 1.2mm thick and the side panels, which sweep all the way back to the active rear spoiler, are over three meters in length. Sintered carbon-ceramic brake discs (as on the Senna) have higher thermal conductivity and hence the physical size can be reduced. Even so they measure 390mm and are gripped by all-new and lighter titanium calipers.

The extra power is liberated mostly by the fitment of a new four-outlet exhaust system shaped from Inconel and titanium and fitted with 3D-printed titanium finishers. It’s a real work of art and reduces back pressure, which in combination with improved low-temperature radiator function and hence lower charge-air temperatures sees power jump from the Senna’s 789bhp to 804bhp. McLaren has also worked hard on the noise generated and the four-outlet solution was employed to get sufficient bass from the widely spaced lower exits, whilst the narrow, top-exit pipes create a high-rev shriek complex befitting a car with over 800bhp and capable of 8000rpm.

> McLaren Artura review

There’s plenty more: shorter and lighter seats so you can stand on the bare carbon floor to jump in and out of the car. You should not wish to use the tiny dihedral-opening doors; a simplified dash with the Active Dynamics controllers for Handling and Performance mounted on the sides of the instrument pod; ‘Ultra-Lightweight’ wheels with Pirelli P Zero Corsas; and, of course, McLaren’s Active Air Management System.

The AAMS concept is to create a calm and protective bubble of air around the driver and passenger – a kind of virtual windscreen. McLaren achieves this with a complex system comprising a large inlet above the front splitter, an outlet vent in the front clamshell and a carbon deflector just ahead of the outlet that raises and lowers at different speed ranges.

AAMS is operational between 28mph and 124mph and the Elva is limited to 124mph with the system activated, but it can also be manually turned off. When AAMS is inactive, the front inlet is closed and air is instead diverted to the twin low-temperature radiators mounted ahead of the front wheels. It’s for this reason that you can’t select Track mode with AAMS active. However, this is no big sacrifice, as even McLaren’s engineers admit it’s not hugely comfortable to be in the Elva without a helmet at the sort of speeds you can achieve in Track mode.

Incidentally, a special open-face but full-length-visor helmet has been developed with Bell for Elva owners. You get two helmets and two sets of ballistic-grade sunglasses thrown in for free with the car. Generosity is not dead in Woking. You can also opt to have your Elva fitted with a large, swept-back composite structure, carbonfibre-framed and bonded to the chassis, that also protects occupants from the airstream. A windscreen is a no cost option.

You know what? On a gloriously sunny day in La La Land, the Elva looks stunning. Viewed from the rear three-quarters in particular, it manages to convey a sense of the extreme power lurking within thanks to the open rear end and yet feels lithe and minimalist due to those almost seamless, organic forms. I particularly love the way the 305-section rear tires are so exposed beyond the deep rear diffuser. Later, when it’s hot and well exercised, every detail and shape is diffused through an intense heat haze. Vocal stuff.

First impressions are breezy but positive. The steering is light, clean and full of feel, the ride is deftly controlled even when you select Sport with the rocker switch for Handling mode, and there’s no question that the Elva feels lighter and even more alert than a 720S Spider but has none of the harshness that fizzes through the hyper-aggressive Senna. It feels road optimized. Even if it’s very obviously not speed-limit optimised. You don’t need to search for the outer reaches of the rev range to understand that this is a freakishly rapid car. It seems to accelerate without inertia and as speeds rise it doesn’t tail off. At all. The top-end delivery is simply outrageous.

The only dent to this effortlessness is manifested in the rapidly intensifying bombardment from the elements. The AAMS system works effectively up to around 60 or 70mph and manages to keep things relatively calm, but the Elva’s comfortable operating window extends a little beyond 60 or 70mph. In short, wear a helmet unless you’re pottering to the shops. Even if you live in a world where it doesn’t rain.

Like all McLaren hypercars the Elva features hydraulically linked Proactive Chassis Control dampers with no anti-roll bars, plus an open rear differential utilizing Brake Steer to mimic a limited-slip differential without the weight penalty (although the new Artura adopts an e-differential and will surely herald a similar switch for the whole range in future). It also features the superb Variable Drift Control function for the traction control. Although it may seem slightly jarring that a £1.4million special adopts exactly the same technology as a 720S, there’s no question that by so doing the Elva benefits from all the refinements and development that these basic ingredients have benefited from over the years. It makes for a beautifully proposed experience.

There are a few short, sharp corners here so the drift control function, with steps from 1 (mild) to 15 (you work it out – literally), doesn’t free you up to slide around at will. However, adjusting it towards its upper end does allow you to feel the Elva’s natural balance and the way that crazy firepower can be used to manipulate the balance. It’s fantastic to feel the Elva soak up bumps with such control, its chassis feeling every bit as structurally stiff as those of most coupes, then zipping into corners with clarity and ease bubbling through the steering. Without thinking, you load up the rear tires with torque and the balance quickly settles into a clinical angle of attack, front end nailed on course and the rear ripping into the surface. You can almost picture the outside-rear sidewall peeling away from the rim.

The brakes, too, are superbly effective, and although all McLarens tend to have a slightly longer pedal than, say, a Porsche 911, the action is really well judged for left-foot braking. The pedal spacing and position makes this entirely natural, and with the sintered discs there’s just a shade more immediacy and a shorter, precisely defined travel. More than once I’m extremely grateful for them simply because the Elva creates speed as if by magic. Or, more accurately, you tend to stay on the throttle a moment or two too long because you want to experience and save the wild top end even when you know it’s time to stop. It’s manic and laugh-out-loud funny and requires a lot of discipline to exploit.

So, the Elva is as riotous as 804bhp in little over 1200kg suggests and has a real sense of joy about it. For me it lacks the sharpness and outright control of the 765LT and the intensity of the Senna, but there’s genuine appeal in the way it combines the supple poise of a 720S with even greater agility and next-level performance. Would it be any less thrilling with a windscreen? Or even a roof? I don’t think so, but I understand that some people love the fresh-air sensations and the unique look that the Elva offers. I would like to point those people in the direction of a high-powered Ariel Atom but that’s probably missing the point.

Prices and rivals

Even putting all my prejudices about cars like the Elva to one side, there’s one feeling that won’t quite go away. It concerns the value proposition. Never mind that the Elva is £1.2million more expensive than a 720S Spider. (Think about that for a second.) It’s a special car, a collector’s item, so it doesn’t play to the same rules. But how can it be nearly twice the price of the similarly hyper and exclusive Senna? It just seems unnecessarily cynical and greedy.

Now, I accept I’m not a target customer and that ‘value’ is a different concept when you’re buying the 20th or 30th car for your collection. Equally, I understand that the Ferrari Monza SP1 and SP2 models and Aston Speedster are also priced in the stratosphere. Yet even in this rarefied and often illogical world it seems the market agrees. The initial planned run was for 399 Elvas, but the final number has now been capped at the aforementioned 149. And you can still order one today. Each and every owner will have a great deal of fun in their Elva. It’s a fantastically exciting car. Luckily, back in the almost real world, a 765LT coupe or Spider is nearly as fast and even more thrilling.

Specs

Engine V8, 3994cc, twin-turbo
Power 804bhp @ 7500rpm
Torque 590lb ft @ 5500rpm
Weight 1269kg (644bhp/ton)
0-62mph 2.8sec
Top speed 203mph
Basic price $1,425,000

This review was first published in issue 294 of evo magazine. For the latest issue, or to subscribe visit our online shop herewhere you’ll also find our exclusive evo merch.

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