As ‘my’ 12C sparkles in the Spanish sunshine it’s at first difficult to establish that this is the Spider. Rivals from Lambo and Audi favour fabric roofs, but, like key competitor Ferrari, the team from Woking has opted for a folding hardtop, so the 12C can be a roadster when the roof is down and look and feel like a coupe when it’s up. But unlike the 458 Spider, the McLaren’s snugly fitting roof can be raised and lowered on the go, at speeds up to 19mph.
Ferrari will say that its 458 Spider doesn’t do the theatrics for the sake of safety, but amongst the posing posse this on-the-move exhibitionism is important. There’s no point pressing the transmission-tunnel-mounted roof button while yours truly is parked in the pitlane of the Ascari racetrack, so I wait until we trundle out of the paddock, to the mountainous roads that circle this sunbaked circuit.
Button-operated doors- at last!
We’ve got to get in first though, and much to the delight of frustrated men who spent as much time fumbling with the 12C’s touch-sensitive door pad as they did blundering about in their wife’s pants, a simple button now releases the dihedral doors on the latest cars. Slide a hand under the deliciously thick side crease and towards the gaping side intake, thumb a button, step back as the door comes up (taking a chunk of side sill with it to ease entry and keep your trousers clean) and then climb inside.
Press the starter button, hear the V8 bark into life, then cruise comfortably away, marvelling at how the ProActive chassis (hydraulically linked dampers replace regular coil springs and anti-roll bars) keeps the ride as supple as a Merc S-class. And then tug the little switch and remember to focus on the road and not on the automotive origami taking place over your head. The forward half of the rear deck hinges back to the horizontal, then the two-piece composite roof arcs up and folds in on itself, before tucking neatly away. The rear window rises up between the flying buttresses to act as a wind deflector, and the 17sec spectacle is complete.
What's the 12C Spider like on the move?
The soundtrack – initially packed in carbonfibre and cotton wool – is now with you, all around you, and although flooring the loud pedal in second gear in a tunnel will not wake the bats hanging from the ceiling in quite the same way the shrieking Ferrari 458 would, the installation of a new, lighter free-flow exhaust does underscore the emotional appeal of this understated two-seater from Woking. And if you don’t want the full Spider experience, you can independently lower the rear window, so you can keep the roof up but suck in earfuls of beautiful noise through the back door.
Give me some juicy stats
The weight penalty of the roof is just 40kg because no additional strengthening is needed thanks to the super-stiff carbon tub, which means there’s nothing between the 12C Spider and 12C: both hit 62mph – on the optional, stickier Pirelli PZero Corsas – in a McLaren F1-beating 3.1sec; there’s only two-tenths between both 12Cs at 124mph (9.0sec versus 8.8sec); and the Spider’s top speed is but 3mph slower (204mph plays 207mph). The Spider is no dirtier or thirstier than its sibling.
The rest of the 12C coupe’s ingredients remain, but are upgraded to the latest spec, so the 3.8-litre twin-turbo V8 now packs 616bhp instead of 592bhp, and there are faster and smoother changes from the seven-speed twin-clutch ’box. And rather than engine noise ramping up as you switch from Normal to Sport and then to Track powertrain modes, there’s a customisable Intake Sound Generator, so you can cruise through town with the cabin filled by intake roar, or take to the track in a muted environment.
The V8 is now freer revving, it produces more mid- to high-end urge and kicks harder at high speed, its throttle response is even faster, and it sounds better too. No 600bhp rear-driver can deliver its power so effortlessly to the road. And although a 911 GT2 might feel faster as it boosts, you crunch through the Porsche’s gearchange, then feel it smack you in the back again, where the Spider’s twin-clutch ’box snaps through the changes and it roars endlessly forward. A little tweaking means the delicate and slender metal paddles are now much lighter than Lewis H’s original super-stiff calibration, while the adjustable dampers now seem to cover an even wider range, too, from very compliant to very firm, the former much more cossetting than a 458’s ‘bumpy road’ mode, the latter ideal for the track.
Any other driving impressions?
When we drove the 12C coupe on moist, winding Welsh country roads last year, its trick Brake Steer system (in place of a heavy diff, McLaren uses electronics to prevent wheelspin and improve traction, similar to the method employed by a Focus ST’s front wheels) would occasionally cut in, seemingly out of the blue and without warning, tugging momentarily at the inside rear wheel, and raising the hackles of this road tester as the car did something that hadn’t been asked of it.
After a day at Ascari, however, Brake Steer can be perceived as more of a help than a hindrance, assisting in setting up the 12C Spider for a corner and, to an extent, ironing out mistakes such as braking a little too late or missing a turn-in point by a fraction. With the suspension set to Track, there’s zero roll, while the pop-up Airbrake’s stabilising effects can be clearly felt under braking. With stability control fully deactivated, Brake Steer won’t save you when you’re trying (and failing) to slide a Spider as smoothly as the pros…
All in all, this is a brilliant car. It may not look as drop-dead gorgeous as the 458, and it still does not sound quite so thrilling as the Italian, but it is easier to drive fast: it retains its handling balance even on hot tyres, and it keeps evoking positive adjectives such as smooth, creamy, compliant and homogenous. Not a sufficiently enthusiastic verdict for a nine-tenths supercar? Perhaps not. But these are exactly the qualities you are looking for when it comes to control, confidence and commitment, and the McLaren 12C Spider offers these in rare abundance.