June 16, 2024


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2021 McLaren Elva First Drive: The Sensible Multimillion-Dollar Supercar

Let’s get right to it: The 2021 McLaren Elva is really, truly, absolutely wonderful. I’m trying to recall a time I felt this smitten after driving a car. Porsche Speedster? Yeah, that’s the most recent one, the Speedster being as close to perfection as it gets. The new 2021 McLaren Elva tickles the same spot and goes a bit deeper. It might not be closer to perfection, but it sails down a different, more elemental branch of driving. It’s more eccentric, with more whimsy, more of a wag, and more mischief, and again, it’s just plain wonderful. Yes, the Elva stickers for $1.7 million (before options), and there’s neither a windshield, a roof, or windows. Did I mention the carbon-fiber plaything makes 804 hp and is—with the exception of the F1—the lightest production McLaren ever built?

2021 McLaren Elva: The Air Out There

Since there’s no windscreen, there is McLaren’s AAMS (Active Air Management System), a pop-up vent system that sucks air through the lower fascia then bends it 130 degrees through a series of vanes before releasing it over your head. The idea is to create an air curtain that acts as a virtual windscreen. More on the efficacy of AAMS in a bit, though it’s worth pointing out now that the vent can’t be placed in the erect position while the car is parked. In fact, it won’t even deploy at all unless you press a button to the right of the steering wheel. If you’re not moving, it still doesn’t budge. Get to about 25 mph, and a hunk of gray carbon rises up from where the frunk would normally be. That’s right, there’s no cargo storage compartment. Well, there’s a spot behind the seats to store a helmet—one helmet—and that’s it. Should you need a suitcase, you must pay someone to follow you in another car. I mentioned the $1.7 million part, yeah?

2021 McLaren Elva Design Details

The Elva’s exterior looks great. Not every single angle is a “wow,” but certain points of view sure are; the front three-quarter and hard side views leap to mind. Designing a car without A-pillars must be quite the odd, if not herculean, task, yet McLaren pulled it off with aplomb.

The body features minimal cut lines, meaning the Elva is made up of just a few large carbon-fiber pieces. It’s a rather voluptuously shaped automobile—the curves are incredible—as different-looking from the gorgeous 720S it shares a carbon tub with as it is from the Senna, which is also a platform-mate. Speaking of which, Rob Melville, McLaren’s director of design, is responsible for all three of those cars. Hey, two out of three lookers ain’t bad!

I had read up on how the McLaren Elva’s exterior flows into its interior, and after driving the car I can tell you it’s not marketing baloney. The effect is very cool, maybe even beyond cool. The same exquisite paintwork on the exterior is right in front of you; reach out your hand and you can touch it. The effect is near magic, and it’s unique in the car world.

I think what I enjoy so much about the Elva is that it represents the way I’d design cars:

“Totally, we lose the windshield. But then let’s have a giant pop-up thing that flows air up and over the cabin. A virtual windshield! And instead of taillights, how about we stick a beehive on the back bumper, and then the brake pedal works a little baseball bat that whacks the hive and sends out a swarm of bees! No, murder hornets—perfect! What about rockets—we need rockets!”

Does the AAMS actually work as advertised, creating a bubble of calm between 30 and 70 mph? No, of course not. Don’t be silly. I mean, it does something; AAMS does seem able to deflect some air away from your hands (pro tip: both gloves and a helmet are essential), but that’s basically the extent of it. Don’t believe me? I was wearing a trucker’s cap, about to leave McLaren Beverly Hills in the car, when a man who shall remain nameless came running up to whisper, “Listen, you can tighten your hat, but it’s just gonna fly off.” He was hella right. This fact doesn’t bother me in the slightest, as it’s the adolescent insanity behind the Elva’s AAMS that counts.

The 2021 McLaren Elva Makes Ridiculous Sense

So much power, so little weight, such a fabulous driving machine. I’ll admit to completely dismissing the Elva when I first saw photos of it: “Oh look, another practically useless plaything for gazillionaires. Just what the world doesn’t need at all.” All my British car friends disdain it because the car doesn’t work for their stormy home country. (I should point out, though, that they revere the even more open Ariel Atom as some sort of holy object.) Los Angeles, San Diego, Scottsdale, and the Middle East are the only types of places the Elva makes any sense at all. And yes, this McLaren’s price tag is as obnoxious as it is absurd. Then you think for a moment and you realize there are people in these places—not too many, but surely 149 wealthy souls, the same number of Elvas McLaren will build—who can afford to spend so much money on a car they’ll only ever use when the mood strikes. Flip through any watch magazine and you’ll see all sorts of six- and seven-figure watches. Watches. At least the Elva can crack 200 mph.

A McLaren With a Nice Interior!

The interior is aces, the best McLaren’s ever done. By best I mean design, materials, wow factor, and execution. Let’s be frank: McLarens have always had a whiff of kit car about them, even with Alcantara and carbon fiber covering most surfaces. There was something generic about the scattershot placement of the secondary controls and most of the buttons, and the iPad Mini-ness of the screen. The Elva changes all of that.

st of all, I can’t repeat enough how the aforementioned blur between interior and exterior is the business. The seats are covered with a new material called Ultrafabric, a synthetic, vegan “leather” that looks and feels just like cow skin but supposedly wears much better. I can tell you that even after the Elva sat in direct sunlight for a few hours during a photoshoot on an unseasonably hot January day (87 degrees, only in L.A. ), the seats didn’t burn me when it was time to get back in and drive. The Ultrafabric cooled off in record time, too. The air vents are encased in thick, honed pieces of aluminum, and they are great. Perhaps most amazing of all, both the air conditioning and the heater work, and work well.

More Elva Details

The usual McLaren carbon-fiber, wheel-mounted shift paddles have been replaced by stunning aluminum pieces, finished like the hands of a Grand Seiko Snowflake. (Look it up, speaking of fancy watches.) It’s an exquisite, sublime touch that displays a level of refinement I didn’t know the brand had in it.

Gone is McLaren’s Active Dynamics Panel that allows you to tune handling and performance characteristics. The Elva is always in Active mode, and the switches are now two chunky knobs just behind the paddles. Twist one way for Sport and Track, the other to get back to Comfort. The nav screen is radically improved, and a birdie told me it is the same screen we’ll see on the upcoming Artura hybrid.

One bad thing: The floormats are horrible and might be the worst in the whole car industry. Why? Because of the car’s high side sills, you enter the Elva like you would a Lotus Elise: stepping over the sill to put both feet on the floor, grab the wheel, and then lower yourself down. The 2021 McLaren Elva’s mats are held in place with two weak snaps, and they slide forward as you stand on them; I was sent flying several times. I’d replace them with grip tape, just like on the floor of a Lamborghini Aventador SV.

2021 McLaren Elva: One Bonkers Drive

I love the Elva. It’s insane. Marvelously, lovably, totally off-the-chain insane. There’s also nothing else like it. Well, let me rephrase that. There’s the Ferrari Monza SP1/SP2, though that thing’s based on the front-engine, V-12-powered 812 Superfast. Same goes for the front-engine Aston Martin V12 Speedster. Same is true of the front-engine Mercedes-McLaren SLR (Sir) Stirling Moss. Fine, the Lamborghini Aventador J is a windshield-free, mid-engine supercar, but only one was built, and Lamborghini never let me drive it. So ahem, there’s nothing like the Elva.

Talk about a unique driving experience. The 2021 McLaren Elva is quite a lot different than a typical convertible. First of all, you can’t hear anything. Not the fire-spitting engine (no, really), the radio, the Bluetooth phone calls, or a large percentage of the cars on the 110 freeway shouting who knows what at you. With the exception of the 2-3 gearshift (which thuds like a bomb exploding at your kidneys), you just hear the fury of wind. Especially wearing a full-face helmet.

I like to run McLaren dual-clutch transmissions in full manual, as mechanically the gearboxes are as good as anybody’s, but software-wise they’re not as slick and smart as Porsche’s PDK or whatever Ferrari calls its shift logic. Thing is, since I couldn’t hear the engine, I had to look at the tachometer to shift. Taking your eyes off the road in a car as fleet as the McLaren Elva is always a bad idea, and between sun glare, sunglasses, and the distortion of the helmet’s visor, you can’t really see the digital screen all that well.

Luckily, as you accelerate you can feel the air pressure as it builds up against your chest. The sensation is not like a motorcycle, where you feel the wind everywhere, but is more similar to riding on a rollercoaster where most of your body is safely within the ride, but from the sternum up you are exposed.

This pressure replaces the aural shifting cues. You know how if a person suddenly goes blind, they say their hearing gets sharper? Losing the engine sound forces you to shift by feeling the air flowing against your chest. It’s outrageous and oh so unique. The pressure really starts to build around 85 mph and begins ramping up quickly from there. One-hundred mph seems to correspond to 8,000 rpm or so. Soon, I was pulling the right paddle based on what I was feeling, rather than seeing on the screen or hearing. How cool is that? Staggeringly cool.

Fast? Oh yes, it’s so fast. The grip and the speeds the 2021 McLaren Elva can carry through a corner are flabbergasting. Remember, the Elva has more horsepower than a Senna yet weighs less, with the same tires and brakes. Back to my Porsche Speedster analogy: What is sublime about the Elva is that even if you’re not hammering it at 10/10ths against the bloody edge of the envelope, the car is still a delight. Had I been in a 765LT—like I was a week before I drove the Elva—I would have been frustrated because the 765LT has no point beyond going as quickly as possible 100 percent of the time. A Senna would be even worse. Anything other than flat out, and why bother? The Elva is not a roofless Senna. In fact, it might be the opposite, proving itself a treat at almost any speed.

Full disclosure: My personal full-face helmet broke, and MotorTrend‘s pro driver, Randy Pobst, generously mailed me one of his. One decade of working together has taught us we wear the same size lid, but this one was a touch big on me. Talking to Randy after the fact, he said, “Yeah, it’s always been a little big on me, too!” As a result, when I’d take a turn at a felonious speed, the helmet would shift around a bit from the wind. I decided it felt a bit unnerving after about 30 seco

So rather than taking a turn at 90 mph, I whoaed it down to 80 mph, and the experience was just as magical. Yeah, magic. Like prestidigitation, this giddy, raw, nearly surreal experience has to be a trick. But it isn’t. The 2021 McLaren Elva is driving distilled down to … something notable. I’m not going to say distilled down to its “purest” state because I can already hear the Greek chorus of kids without drivers’ licenses commenting, “No manual lol.” But you can rest easy knowing the Elva experience is driving boiled down to something else. Something exceedingly rare, though I suppose you could get a similar experience by Sawzalling off any car’s windscreen.

2021 McLaren Elva: Hell Yes, It’s Worth It

This leads us to the central question of the Elva, its ecstatic truth to frame it in Herzogian terms: $1.7 million, and you don’t even get a windshield? My Ford cost $23K, and it has a windshield!

I racked my brain trying to come up with the proper metaphor, the most apt descriptor, a way to explain what McLaren’s done. Here’s the best I could come up with:

H. Moser makes a watch called the Swiss Alp Watch Concept Black. It looks just like an Apple Watch, only it sports a flying tourbillion (a useless though fascinating complication) on its face, but it doesn’t have hands. That’s right, if you look at this watch, it does not tell you the time. There’s a button on one side that activates a minute repeater (a complication that musically gongs out the time) but again, no hands, no visual readout whatsoever. Price? $350,000. I’m obsessed with it. Why? It’s a statement, an artistic strike, a declaration if you will. It screams if less is more, then much less is much more. It’s an extreme, a wry one at that. As investment legend John Bogle once said, “I’m so conservative, I’m liberal.”

The 2021 McLaren Elva, therefore, like this crazy H. Moser watch, goes around the horn. In the immortal words of Doc Hudson, “If you’re going hard enough left, you’ll find yourself turning right.” It’s beyond Occam’s razer, cutting away all that’s unnecessary. It’s the sound of no hands clapping, the sound of an 804-hp supercar you can’t hear.

Perhaps I’m overthinking it. Perhaps, to put it in the simple words of the aforementioned Angus Mackenzie, “McLaren Elva? I’d have one.” Me too. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about the very rich, “They are different from you and me.” To which Mary Colum replied, “The only difference between the rich and other people is that the rich have more money.” Enjoy the bugs in your teeth, you lucky bastards!

2021 McLaren Elva
BASE PRICE $1,695,000
VEHICLE LAYOUT Mid-engine, RWD, 2-pass, 2-door convertible
ENGINE 4.0L/804-hp/590-lb-ft  twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8
TRANSMISSION 7-speed twin-clutch auto
CURB WEIGHT 2,900 lb (est)
LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT 181.5 x 76.5 x 42.8 in
0-60 MPH 2.8 sec (MT est)
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON 12/18/15 mpg (MT est)