WE WERE BLASTING ACROSS THE BRECON BEACONS mountain range when the flames appeared. First a wisp of blue in the rearview mirror. Then another, bold enough to come out and stay, growing longer as exhaust temperatures rose. As the sun went down, the two tailpipes morphed into fully fledged flamethrowers, spewing blue and yellow into the night air.

It’s taken McLaren some time to stoke the fire, even if its cars have always been fast. The British automaker’s first supercar of the new age used carbon chassis technology in a market still convinced aluminum was the way forward. Technically and dynamically, it worked. But the resulting machine sounded and looked like an appliance, at least by supercar standards. Even its name was better suited to a washing machine: MP4-12C.

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Richard Pardon

Over the past few years, McLaren product planners have activated their DRS, so to speak, and spit out an entire lineup of ever more compelling cars. The incredible 720S was our Performance Car of the Year in 2018, and the radical-looking Senna hypercar narrowly missed the top spot this year. Don’t be surprised if this new car, the 600LT, makes it three podiums in a row.

Unless you’re a McLaren geek, the jumble of letters and numbers that make up the name 600LT might not mean much. Even knowing LT stands for “longtail” might cause some head-scratching. Looking at the 600’s rear, it’s clear we’re not exactly talking about a Moby Dick 935 here.

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Richard Pardon

But there is a Porsche connection, of sorts. In 1996, a year after McLaren’s F1 GTR won Le Mans on its first attempt, rivals Porsche and Mercedes responded with dedicated, no-compromise racing cars, modifying them just enough to create road-car spin-offs for homologation. The results were the 911 GT1 Strassenversion and Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR. Both legal according to FIA rules but, as the English would say indignantly, stiff upper lip trembling, just not cricket.

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Richard Pardon

So for the ’97 season, McLaren built the most extreme F1 it could muster. This evolution focused on aerodynamics, downforce, and significant weight savings. Somehow, McLaren managed to cleave 220 pounds from the already-light F1 GTR. But the standout feature was its new bodywork, including a deeper front undertray and a giant composite plume sprouting from the rear that extended overall length 25 inches. McLaren made three road cars, carrying the name F1 GT, to legitimize the project. Competition versions became known as Longtails. The plan worked: The stretched F1 won five of 11 rounds in the 1997 FIA GT Championship and finished first and second in the GT1 class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans—just behind the LMP TWR Porsche and 29 laps ahead of its nearest rival.

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Richard Pardon

In 2015, McLaren resurrected the Longtail name for the sublime 675LT, the first of a new stream of high performance supercars. Nowadays, the LT treatment is similar to Porsche’s RS tag: lighter, faster, more focused, and of course, a wheelbarrow load of banknotes more expensive than the car on which it’s based.

The starting point for the 600LT was the 570S, McLaren’s entry-level model (not counting the decontented 540C, which doesn’t come to the United States). The 570 is not only the most attainable McLaren, but is also pitched as more suited to daily use than the wild 720S and Senna. The 600LT, in both price ($242,500) and output (592 hp) would seem to slot neatly between the 570S and 720S. In fact, we’re getting something quite different from either. Something more focused than even the 720S. A baby McLaren, infused with hypercar sensation, that might turn out to be a mini Senna.

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Richard Pardon

We came to the 600LT’s home country to get under its carbon skin. More precisely, we picked up the car in England, at McLaren’s Woking factory, and then drove two hours to Wales. Nineteenth-century poet William Blake talked of England’s green and pleasant land, but the relatively empty roads in Wales are infinitely more pleasing for a 204-mph supercar.

Out of the box, the 600LT is primed to turn more heads than a 570. Only McLaren faithful will notice the recontoured bumper and extended splitter, but the extra projection is obvious, as are the fins on the rocker panels. Then you catch sight of the rear end. It’s like walking around the back of a pleasantly unassuming midcentury home and finding a Frank Lloyd Wright extension. It’s hard to say which assaults your senses first: There’s a large diffuser, whose vanes hang into the air like giant composite icicles. But the fixed rear wing above makes a good case for itself, too, its center section adorned in a fireproof material to protect it from the tailpipes, which have moved from the bumper to the decklid.

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Richard Pardon

Any gripes about the 570’s slightly effete styling are well and truly quashed. But if you want to turn your $242,500 LT into something like the car we have here, prepare to dig deeper. Riding shotgun on the trip to Wales, photographer Richard Pardon called out the options fitted to our car. They are so extensive, we were nearly at the border by the time he finished: Elite paint ($4320); Bowers & Wilkins stereo ($4290); carbon fiber trim, roof, and racing seats (four packages totaling a whopping $50,540); and hydraulics to lift the nose ($1560). To save you the math, options on this car bring the retail price to more than $320,000. A base 720S costs $288,845. Suddenly the baby McLaren is looking all grown-up.

The next bill was smaller: About $7 to cross the Bristol Channel into Wales, part of the United Kingdom but as fiercely independent of neighboring England as Texas is of Washington, D.C. The fee to cross the Prince of Wales Bridge, a long-standing bone of contention with Welsh businesses, which claim it stifles trade, will finally have been abolished by the time you read this. (As if to rub salt in the Welsh wound, there wasn’t a fee to cross back into England.)

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Richard Pardon

The tollbooth barrier rose smartly, like an F1 pit-stop lollipop. We played along and gave the right pedal the obligatory piano-dropped-from-a-rooftop treatment. The 600LT, in return, gave us our first taste of its two main advantages over a plain 570S: more punch and less paunch. McLaren engineers cut weight out of everything from the wiring harness (7.3 pounds) to those top-exit exhausts (27.8 pounds). Masochists can forgo air-conditioning and music or maps at no cost. Other diet supplements, like seats lifted from the Senna (54.2 pounds), cost extra. When the car (and by extension, your wallet) is in its lightest configuration, it weighs some 230 pounds less than a 570S.

Like every McLaren, from the 540C right up to the new, limited-production Speedtail, the 600LT uses a twin-turbo V-8, this one code-named M838TE. The numbers in McLaren model names refer to the metric horsepower output, meaning the 600LT has 600 PS, or a less pleasingly round 592 hp in SAE-speak. Nothing unpleasing about the 30-hp increase over the engine in the 570S though, or the extra 14 lb-ft of torque, which brings the total to 457 lb-ft. There’s no alchemy going on here, just a new ECU map and a freer-flowing exhaust that now measures an absurdly short 11.9 inches. The new calibration and those exhausts make the V-8 sound angrier, buzzier, more frenetic. Not harsh exactly, but definitely more serious in personality and performance.

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Richard Pardon

If only our time with the LT hadn’t been immediately preceded by three transcendent sonic experiences: drives of a Porsche 911 GT3 RS and Lamborghini Huracán Performante, on similar roads to these, and a visit to Cosworth to hear Aston Martin’s incredible 1000-hp Valkyrie engine soar past 11,000 rpm on a dynamometer test. All three use naturally aspirated engines. And all three put into focus just how much McLaren is missing when it comes to noise. We might even trade the flames for a better growl. Is it too much to ask for a little thunder with our lightning?

As with all McLarens, there’s also turbo lag—very little action until the tachometer is almost halfway through its arc. Roll onto the throttle while in a tall gear, and you’re going nowhere. A turbocharged Ferrari 488 feels like it’s running a 7.0-liter big-block V-8 by comparison. But use all the revs, right up to the 8500-rpm limiter, and the 600LT flies.

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Richard Pardon

The roads were damp during our drive, so McLaren’s traction-control system subtly mopped excess power. It’s only deep into third gear that there’s enough traction to feel the stomach-churning, elastic sensation of almost 600 hp doing its best to logroll planet Earth. Given better conditions, McLaren says, the 600LT can hit 60 mph from a stop in the same 2.8 seconds as the 720S, and it reaches 124 mph in 8.2 seconds, only four tenths later than its big brother, despite packing 118 hp less muscle.

It takes considerably longer to get out of the LT than it does to get to 60 mph. Despite all that weight cutting, our car had an incongruous motorized steering column that pulls the wheel into the dash when you exit, to give you more space. But the jutting shoulders on the spectacular-looking carbon seats mean you need to be as flexible as a yogi to wriggle between the bucket and A-pillar. Conventional 570-style seats are an option, but there’s no need to go that far. The 600’s standard buckets were used on the P1 hypercar and are probably the best all-around option. They don’t look as exotic as the Senna chairs, and they’re not as light, but they’ll still keep you centered in the bends. The driving position is ideal for making mischief. You sit hunkered way down low, the wheel jutting toward your chin—as in a proper race car.

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Richard Pardon

The new front and rear spoilers help generate 220 pounds of downforce at 155 mph, but in mixing with traffic north of the Welsh capital, Cardiff, the 600LT didn’t feel particularly more planted than a 570S. The real surprise was that the 600 felt almost as civilized as its daily driver brother. Tire and engine roar are perfectly bearable, and the ride has that familiar, almost Lotus-like ability to breathe with the road, smothering changes in topography and surface grade.

But the hints are there, the ever-present suspicion that this car has a different agenda than the 570S, which uses softer springs and thinner anti-roll bars, sits 0.3 inch higher, and doesn’t come with the super sticky Pirelli Trofeo R rubber that LTs wear as standard. (Our photo car came with Sottozero tires due to cold weather.) You feel it in the tautness of the damping and the way the front tires demand you take a firmer hand on the wheel to prevent them from losing concentration, even at freeway speeds. That sensation magnified tenfold as we headed north on empty two-lane roads that beckoned us to the mountains.

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Richard Pardon

A major difference between McLaren’s Sports Series cars, which include the 600LT and 570S, and their Super Series superiors (720S and 720S Spider) is in the suspension design. Both echelons use adjustable dampers, but whereas the Super Series has a complicated hydraulic suspension, the entry-level machines make do with a more conventional setup. The 600LT, at least, borrows the aluminum wishbones, uprights, and rear toe links from the 720. The LT feels busier on the undulating pavement than a 720 would, but as we stretched the 600’s legs across Black Mountain, we couldn’t escape the feeling that the LT would have a clear edge on these roads, both in terms of pace and driver interaction

McLaren’s promotional videos show 600LTs sliding around in a plume of tire smoke, but at road speeds, including naughty ones, the only haze is one of confusion as to how the chassis never loses composure, even after repeated changes in direction. With less weight than a 720S, the 600LT feels even more agile, delivering the sort of intimate driving experience you don’t get in most big power supercars. The laggy turbo is the only aspect of this car that lacks immediacy.

Stomp on the brake and you reveal yet another strength. The LT marries the lightweight, high-performance braking package from the 720 to the brake booster from the Senna. Pedal feel is race-car meaty, with less of the usual McLaren dead zone at the top of the travel. It’s a real leg workout to slow the car—and even to start it. As with the Senna, the LT needs a herculean shove on the pedal before the starter button does your bidding.

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Richard Pardon

Along roads that cut through the 520 square miles of Brecon Beacons National Park, the 600LT revealed what British car fans already know: The Welsh tourist board ought to add driving to sailing, windsurfing, and all the other outdoor activities it promises thrill-seeking visitors.

The way this car steers makes you think of the Senna—and maybe a Caterham. McLaren has stuck doggedly with hydraulic steering assistance when virtually everyone else has jumped ship to electric. It’s not true that electric racks can’t deliver quality feedback— the technology and automotive engineers’ understanding of it has come a long way. No one gets out of a Porsche 918 and complains about the steering feedback. But put them in one after letting them loose in a 600LT across an empty Welsh moorland road shared only with the occasional sheep, and they might make an exception. On the street, the 600LT’s steering may actually be better than the Senna’s, with less kickback and a touch more self-centering action. And the rack feels effortlessly natural. It plugs you into what the front axle is doing and how the road feels, as if you’d had surgery to fuse your wrists with the front control arms. Whether you’re cruising the freeway or attacking curves, there’s never a moment of ambiguity as to what the car is doing. Never a moment when you feel less than connected, less than enthralled by the way this chassis behaves.

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Richard Pardon

As we crisscrossed the national park, watching the exhaust flames grow brighter and brighter as sunlight dimmed behind the thick winter clouds, it became ever more clear that McLaren really does get it. Most high-performance automakers, increasingly obsessed with lap times, have lost sight of the fundamental difference between cars built for the track and those built for the street. On the track, only going fast matters. Performance is important on the street, but also feel, sensation, and hedonistic pleasure for both driver and, at an altruistic level, pedestrian. The latest McLarens, bland exhaust note aside, are shot through with that understanding. And the flamethrowing 600LT, lithe, alive, and—if you can hold back on the carbon-fiber garnish—vaguely attainable, might just be the best McLaren currently sold.