GTs with a twist: McLaren GT vs. Polestar 1 vs. Bentley Continental GT

Three different takes on a grand tourer meet for a blast to the mountains
by Paul Horrell | Jan 29, 2020

“It’s remarkable that such a diverse trio can do their job so well, even if they each excel at different parts of that job”

The moment a sailing boat rises onto its plane, everything changes. It’s not just about the extra speed, intense though that is. Breaking through its own bow wave, the craft tenses its muscles. It’s more urgent to the tiller and the sheets. Instead of moving in simple rhythm with the waves beneath, it skims, dancing, superimposing movements of its own onto your inputs. It’s no longer just you sailing: The craft gains its own animus. This is what happens when you’re on a good road in a fine mid-engined car. And the McLaren GT is one.

Drive the same road in the Continental GT and you’re aboard a displacement yacht, one that has great seakeeping qualities. It eases through the swells and sets its course with reassuring quiet dignity. It’s your long-distance home, and when things get stormy, it’s your refuge. On a planing boat, meanwhile, lengthy exposure can be exhausting.

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We could waste an enjoyable evening and several pints arguing about the definition of a grand tourer. We all know the history: a race-type chassis carrying coachwork that added some style and comfort. In those days, long-distance speed depended on that race engineering. It no longer does, because of enforcement and traffic. So, in our beery argument, I’d assert that the Continental GT has been for years and remains the definitive grand tourer, because it’s not just powerful but also securely quick in all conditions, thanks to its four-wheel drive. Plus, its refinement and comfort mean you’re never knackered. It’s ruddy stylish, too, so you feel good arriving in it.

So these have been the rules for ages: Supercars are fantastic when you get to the glamorous sunlit mountain passes, but GTs are better for the long haul across the plains.

PHOTO: Rowan Horncastle

But now McLaren aims to leap this chasm with the GT, a friendlier, more usable kind of supercar. Question is, how big or small is its deficit versus the Bentley at the day-to-day and long-distance stuff? Is this a deficit you’d gladly suffer in order to experience its supercar joys in the mountains?

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To shake things up even more, just as the supercar of GTs arrives, here, too, is the plug-in hybrid of GTs: the Polestar 1. PHEVs haven’t been great long-distance cars, because they usually have feeble electric power, a shortish electric range, and, because of the space-eating battery, a small fuel tank. This one dodges the criticism. Its 302hp of combustion for the front wheels, via Volvo’s supercharged and turbocharged four-banger, is bolstered by a left-right pair of electric motors, 116hp each, giving quick-witted, torque-vectored electric drive for the rear wheels. There’s a smaller front hybrid motor as well. Total: 600hp and 998Nm.

It also has a unique skill among the cars tested here, in its ability to accept nightly charging and do silent 130km round-trip electric commutes at infinity km/L. Which makes the Bentley’s urban 5-6.4km/L look tiresomely old-hat. Also, when you drive the Polestar to foreign cities that are banning combustion vehicles, its ability to run engine-off will save you. If you’ll permit my nautical analogy one final outing: The Polestar is not just the yacht, it’s the tender, too.

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So, we’re looking at it as a GT. And also, just looking at it. It’s gorgeously taut and has deceptive drama in its proportions. Yeah, we do know that below the window line, it’s broadly speaking a Volvo wagon—it appeared as the Volvo Concept Coupe a whole six years ago. Yet it just works.

PHOTO: Rowan Horncastle

If they’re to beat the Bentley as a GT, the McLaren and the Polestar have a mountain to climb, and not just because the Continental is so established. Its qualities are masterfully targeted at a huge proportion of the wealthy. It’s laid out like a normal car: enough room and trunk, armchair driving position, loads of easily fathomed equipment. But its visual extravagance, outside and in, is anything but normal. This definitively separates it from its rivals among high-end BMWs and Mercedes-Benz, which are really just grander manifestations of the cars these wealthy Bentley owners buy for their child-care staff.

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The W12 Continental, going gently, is super-cosseting, smothering the road. Its syrupy elastic propulsion is beautifully easy to control, even though if you ask, its force is all but inexhaustible. Its steering has strong center weighting and a viscosity to its damping, so it’s undemanding to drive briskly. The Continental is aptly named: It eats distance, spearing down highways with planted authority and uncanny silence. It has all the driver aids to keep your course and speed, but it hardly needs them because its controls are so well-calibrated for you to do it yourself.

It has air suspension, adaptive damping, and a controlled center diff, so its mode switch can do meaningful things. It’ll go hard, and has the grip and brakes to match its engine. But it feels always heavy, always deliberate. That’s brand DNA: Bentley fielded heavy cars to win Le Mans nearly a century ago. It understeers into tight or wet corners, will work its rear tires harder in Sport mode on the way out. It just doesn’t involve your fingertips. And Sport mode brings on an annoying shudder from below, because there’s so much weight in the brakes and the tires needed for a two-and-a-quarter-ton 320kph car. Still, that’s a small thing. The Bentley is so successful with buyers because it’s a normal car, but better. It’s at its most appealing when you keep some of its huge reserves in reserve.

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PHOTO: Rowan Horncastle

The Polestar isn’t supposed to have reserves, is it? Its appeal is in eschewing over-endowment. It makes best use of what it’s got. A form of minimalism. I can get behind the philosophy, but I wasn’t expecting the result to be so enjoyable. The related Volvo PHEVs have a gritty engine, poorly calibrated transmission, and slightly irresolute suspension control. Not here. The Polestar is terrifically finessed.

Half the McLaren’s pistons, and a third of the Bentley’s? So the engine, in and of itself, can’t possibly be the star. But it’s actually more than okay sonically, and seriously over-delivers down the road thanks to the seven-league boots supplied by the instant, smooth, and perfectly integrated electric force. Four-wheel traction gets it all down, no drama, and because each rear wheel has its own assigned motor, the torque-vectoring pivots it through a bend like a carousel. This is in Sport mode, which keeps the engine always running, recuperates spare power when it can, and spends it just as liberally.

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Despite having two powertrains, in corners, the Polestar doesn’t feel anything like as much of a weighty vessel as the Bentley. Set it a challenging road and it’s controlled, quick, and properly enjoyable. The passive but expensive Öhlins damping walks a fine line between discipline in the mountains and forgiveness down the highway. But a Top Gear tip: Use an ‘Individual’ mode to keep the steering in the lighter setting, where its weighting is more progressive than in Sport.

The powertrain isn’t only well-integrated for the high-performance bit. In normal hybrid mode, the combustion engine sneaks in and out like a thief in the night. No clunks or untoward noises. The untoward thing is wind noise from the pillarless glass. I did well over 1,000 miles, all in a hurry, some on the epic roads you see here. With only one full battery charge, it did about 20mpg. The Bentley, not driven any harder, did 12.

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PHOTO: Rowan Horncastle

The McLaren can tackle GT driving, be assured. It’ll ooze its way through a city, waft onto the bypass, do hundreds of miles of highway. It tracks well, and kicks up far less tire noise and suspension crash than most supercars. McLaren has shone at those things ever since the 12C. Ground clearance is good, and can be made better again by a quick-acting nose lift. But versus the front-engined cars, there are compromises: More tire and wind noise, of course, and at low speed, an engine that farts flatly and a dual-clutch transmission that can’t quite blur the shifts. You get less help than the others, too. McLaren’s sublime hydraulic power steering is incompatible with lane assist, and that’s a fair trade, but in average-speed zones, I really do miss adaptive cruise control and can’t see why it’s absent.

Give its engine and suspension something to do, though, and you see what it’s all for. The way its nose sniffs into the apex of any tight hairpin, the way the whole rig can zig and zag, flat and hard—these things are on a level unimaginable to the front-engined GT driver. Steering feel is transcendent, damping control is epic. Okay, its actions have a smidge less definition than a 720S’s, but this is still a supercar chassis. And if its top-end performance stops just short of the 720S’s ultra-violence, well, that just gives you a bit longer to savor a V8 at 8,500rpm. By which time, even the W12 Bentley is a distant speck behind.

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The McLaren will carry a lot of stuff. Under the rear hatch is 420 liters, or as much as in a Golf. But you need to find particularly long, thin baggage (“Two pairs of skis!” McLaren declares), and to load it, you’ll be leaning awkwardly over the wide, grimy rear wings. There’s another 150 liters in the front, so put your heavy stuff there. The Polestar has a small trunk, because its expected space is shared with an electrical substation behind a Perspex panel. You’ll be carrying some things in the rear seats, then. The Bentley, being a normal car, has a big no-excuses trunk.

PHOTO: Rowan Horncastle

The Bentley’s interior is magical when you first sink into it. The leather isn’t so much stitched as embroidered; Crewe’s wood displays the skills of Chippendale or Stradivarius. But soon you’re let down by the plastic: Too much obviously fake chroming and knurling. Still, the ergonomics are terrific and the screen system is easily mastered.

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The Polestar’s cabin makes no attempt to hide its Volvo basis, though the garnishes and the ambient light lift it, and the visually Scandi-lightweight seats give superb support. The dash uses the Volvo big-screen operating system, which demands annoying menu-diving for some common functions.

The cockpit of the McLaren also needs learning—the seat switches are out of reach, and the infotainment can be ornery. But it’s super-handsome, surprisingly easy to see out of, and well-crafted. It feels special.

PHOTO: Rowan Horncastle

The McLaren can do the practical long-distance work that’s line one of the GT job description. It’s not as good at it as the others here, but you really can’t grumble. Not, anyway, if you call to mind how it is on an empty, dry, curvy road: captivating and bewitching.

The Bentley is the opposite, and it’s easy to choose between them based on a simple calculus. What proportion of your driving is fantasy-recreational, and what proportion is on the sort of roads you don’t see in magazine features? If you’re on the former end of that sliding scale, get the McLaren; otherwise, opt for the Bentley. It’s the default posh coupe for a reason.

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You’ll seldom see a Polestar. But that’s not because it’s wilfully oddball. It’s a clever, minimalist, discreet proposal that mildly subverts the conspicuous consumption of the grand GT class. It faces the future with creativity and bracing confidence.

It’s remarkable that such a diverse trio can do their job so well, even if it’s fair to say they each excel at different parts of that job. They’re just about the apogee for people like you and me who always see a 1,000km destination as a road trip to relish, when everyone else sees only a flight-booking website.

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NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.

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PHOTO: Rowan Horncastle
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