DETROIT — Perched at the top of McLaren Automotive's product lineup is the Ultimate Series, an elite group of hypercars built in scarce production runs with prices that start in the high six figures.
That's far out of reach for most of the North American vehicle market, but McLaren is expanding the segment rapidly — to tantalize buyers who can reach them.
Last month, McLaren took the wraps off the Elva roadster, a $1.82 million nameplate that will have a run of only 399 vehicles.
The Elva marks the third Ultimate Series nameplate the brand has introduced since the P1 gas-electric hybrid launched in 2013 with a production run of 375 cars.
"P1s were about $1 million, $1.1 million in the U.S.," recalled McLaren CEO Mike Flewitt during a stop in Detroit. "And we thought at that point, 'Hey, you know, we might come back into the segment every 10 years.' "
But the reception for the P1 prompted McLaren to speed up that timeline.
"The Ultimate segment, which is a several-million-pound segment, is much stronger, much healthier," Flewitt told Automotive News. "McLaren has gained much stronger credibility in that segment, and more quickly than we had planned."
McLaren followed up the P1 with the P1 GTR, a track-only variant with a sold-out run of just 58 vehicles. In 2018, production began on the Senna, which had a starting price of nearly $1 million. At the time, it was McLaren's most-powerful road-legal car, and also its lightest. The production run of 500 vehicles was sold out as soon as McLaren announced it in late 2017. The company then added a GTR variant, limited to just 75 cars, which also sold out.
"You've got to seduce people," Flewitt said. "People really have to want it to spend a million pounds ($1.29 million) on a motor car. You've got to produce something that is not just technically special, but it's emotionally appealing. And if you do, and your brand is trusted, that credibility builds."
The company's new Ultimate Series Speedtail may be the strongest test of that philosophy to date.
The futuristic Speedtail, with a three-seat layout paying homage to the iconic McLaren F1 of the 1990s, carries the highest starting price in McLaren's portfolio, at around $2.3 million.
Its production is limited to 106 vehicles, which mirrors the number of F1s built.
Speedtail deliveries begin in January, but the model was sold out before it was even officially announced in late 2016, before it had been given an official name.
The high-end sensation isn't lost on Flewitt.
"It's wonderful that customers have the confidence in McLaren that they basically signed up for that car two and a half years before we were even putting it into production," he said.
The addition of Ultimate Series models takes place as the British exotic brand records substantial sales growth. McLaren sold 4,806 vehicles globally in 2018, up from 1,654 in 2015.
Such numbers are almost rounding errors for some automotive brands. And the Ultimate Series totals are even smaller. But Flewitt said that McLaren is benefiting from something else.
"We're playing in a market segment that's all about exclusivity," Flewitt said. "I come from a traditional automotive background, and volume was the defining thing. How many cars you made defined your success."
But volume, he said, "is almost an irrelevant measure for us."
Exclusivity and volume work against each other. McLaren could've sold more P1s and Sennas had it built more, he said, but larger production runs might have had an adverse impact on demand.
"We announce a limited-run car like Speedtail, 106 cars, and they sell out. And you think, 'Should have I done 150?'
"But the reality is that you could pick too high a number and it would dampen demand. People wouldn't want it because it wasn't exclusive," said Flewitt. "It's a bit of an art form.
"The high price, the low volume and the exclusivity [are] part of the appeal for people, without a doubt."
Each Ultimate Series model was developed to serve a different purpose.
The Senna is seen as a track car that happens to be road legal. The 1,035-hp gasoline-electric hybrid Speedtail, with luxurious interior materials and room for three inside, along with precision aerodynamics, is viewed as a hypercar and grand tourer built into one.
The most recent addition, the Elva, is the most extreme yet. It has a carbon-fiber chassis and body but has no roof, windscreen, side windows or even an audio system — all in an effort to be McLaren's lightest car to date.
"We're very often pushing boundaries. We're very often setting targets for ourselves that we don't actually know how to meet yet," Flewitt said.
"We're going to meet that target through the development of the car, which keeps our cars at the edge in terms of performance."