The McLaren 540C is a more affordable supercar

Go shopping with $250k and there's all manner of Porsche 911s to choose from, or you could step into Jaguar's svelte F-Type two-seater or Mercedes-Benz's potent AMG GT. Opt for a Nissan GT-R and you'll pick up the supercar pace and walk away with change for a city runabout.

Similarly, trudge around with half a million and you're suddenly in Ferrari and Lamborghini territory.

But land somewhere in the middle – say $350,000 – and the sports car options are murkier.

It's something upstart McLaren noticed with its 540C, a car that sells from $331,500, plus on-road costs.

The car is the most affordable model in the McLaren lineup (or the "most attainable", according to McLaren) which includes two broad ranges – the entry-level Sports Series and the flagship Super Series.

Lightweight agility

Being a brand long associated with racing – especially Formula One – McLaren has technology at the heart of most of what it does.

The British-based company was the first to produce a carbon fibre Formula One car in 1981, something quickly copied by the entire field and now commonplace in the top tier of motorsport.

The 540C uses similar technology, with the main body and tub of the car produced from the strong, lightweight material. It makes the car impressively light, about 1.4 tonnes in the case of the 540C.

Less for less

Think supercars and more power generally equals better. That's the point – they're fast.

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Which makes the 540C an interesting proposition. The 540 bit in the name refers to how much horsepower the 3.8-litre twin turbo V8 produces.

The V8 is a detuned version of the same basic unit used in every McLaren road car since the 12C in 2011. That includes the P1 hybrid hypercar, a car never sold in Australia because it was only produced with the steering wheel on the right.

Translated to metric the 540C's output is 397kW, so it's one of the most powerful cars on the road.

But it's also less than the output of the 570C that uses the same basic body.

Still, 0-100km/h in 3.5 seconds is nothing to be sneezed at – and it's only 0.1 seconds slower than the 570C, something not likely to make a difference on public roads.

Road or track

Our few days with the 540C were limited to public roads, where it quickly becomes apparent you're never going to genuinely experience the capability of a car honed on the track.

The 3.8-litre V8 revs to about 8500rpm, at which point it's approaching 90km/h in first gear.

The exhaust is hoarse and purposeful but not outrageously loud, the occasional crack on a gear change where it emits its loudest bark.

Change into second and the fun is all over, at least if you want to keep your licence.

While the 540C is easy to drive around town – the engine is wonderfully tractable and the cabin is comfy, with decent head room – it would be more at home on a race track.

Not all is perfect

A scout around the cabin reveals some quality niggles. Nothing likely to stop you loving its alacrity and pace but enough to remind you this car is more a product of humans rather than robots.

On ours the stitching is not quite straight around one of the circular air vents and there's an air bubble in the trim on one of the windscreen pillars.

And the 7.0-inch floating touchscreen in the centre of the dash sits vertically, something that works well – unless you're using polarised sunglasses, at which point you'll have to tilt your head to see what's being displayed.

It's all about the look

You're never in any doubt you're driving something special in the 540C – and that's part of the sales pitch.

McLaren says that while it doesn't produce a cheap car, the 540C's lower price tag is appealing to some. Even more important is exclusivity and the overall experience.

Just getting in and out requires plenty of work from your quads to lower yourself to what is a low-slung cabin.

And the butterfly doors create quite a scene, rising up and slightly out for some theatrical exits.

Throw in the "McLaren orange" paint job of our example and it coaxes plenty of smartphones out for a snapshot.

That it also makes plenty of growly noises and looks like something out of a sci-fi movie helps, too.

Even the lights – a collection of LEDs front and rear – help create a distinctive look.

$350K target

The Porsche 911 GTS is one of numerous competitor to the McLaren 540C. The recently released addition to the iconic 911 range pairs some race track talents with everyday driveability.

It's slightly slower (0-100km/h in 3.7 seconds) but still fast.

There's also Audi's V10-powered R8, which in its $354,616 guise matches the 540C for 0-100km/h acceleration (there's a Plus model claimed to hit the mark in 3.2 seconds).

McLaren sees part of its advantage as the 540C being much lower volume than something like a 911 so more exclusive.

Not that it will have the market to itself for much longer. Ferrari is rumoured to be preparing a two-seater to sit under its V8 hero car, currently called the 488.

The new car has been referred to as a modern Dino and, like that car, is expected to get a V6 engine.

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