Seventeen years after the iconic McLaren F1 made every other supercar redundant, McLaren is back with a new car: the long-awaited McLaren MP4-12C. Here’s a taste of what it’s like, but for our full review get yourself a copy of the March 2011 issue of CAR Magazine, which is on sale on Tuesday.
For the benefit of that one moon dweller reading, just remind us why the McLaren MP4-12C is so special
Where to start? The 12C is the first proper McLaren sports car since the seminal F1 of 1994 (the iffy SLR was Mercedes' idea); it costs an almost reasonable £168,500 yet is constructed around a carbon chassis that is normally reserved for cars costing twice as much; it runs on a sophisticated hydraulic suspension set-up and is powered by a brand new McLaren-designed V8 engine and dual-clutch gearbox.
Oh, and the McLaren MP4-12C's vital statistics are 592bhp, 443lb ft and 1434kg. Remember that the McLaren's target - the Ferrari 458 Italia - makes do with 562bhp, 398lb ft and weighs 1485kg.
So the 12C weighs less than a Ferrari 458, has more power and a stack more torque. I think I can guess where this is heading...
Into the distance in short order is where. The McLaren does 62mph in 3.3sec (or 3.1sec with the optional sticky Pirelli Corsa rubber) and the Ferrari 3.4sec. But by the time they get to 124mph (200km/h), the 12C has pulled out a 1.3sec (1.5sec on the Corsas) lead, claims McLaren.
On the road though, the gap feels even greater. Don’t get us wrong, the Ferrari 458 is a stupendously quick car, but the McLaren’s kick in the back comes in so much lower down that it feels more urgent on the road when you see a gap and just need to stomp on the right pedal.
Stomping on the middle pedal elicits a similar shock to the body, by the way. Both the standard cast iron stoppers and the optional (and even more deccelerative) carbon rotors feel great and help the 12C outbrake a 458.
But I’ll bet those twin blowers mean the new McLaren supercar sounds like a Lexus LS460, and has the throttle response and rev range of a black cab?
That’s exactly what we feared beforehand, but McLaren proved us wrong on both counts. The crisp throttle response, almost total absence of lag and incredible 8500rpm redline is all down to clever matching of the ECU mapping and turbo geometry, McLaren says.
The mixture of intake and exhaust noise is nigh on perfect: unobtrusive when cruising but capable of erecting those neck hairs as well as any naturally aspirated supercar. And unlike the Ferrari’s rather wearing quiet-LOUD-quiet-LOUD character, the transition from demure to demonic is more progressive on the McLaren. This is all on the standard exhaust too. Heaven knows how juicy the optional straight-though sports pipes must sound.
But what about the handling? The SLR wasn’t exactly praised for its dynamic abilities – is the McLaren 12C similarly disappointing? Does the hydraulic roll control work?
It works brilliantly. By tweaking a dash dial between Normal, Sport and Track you can alter the system pressure, so altering the amount of roll and ride comfort. Drive it in Normal on the road and the ride is better than some saloon cars’, thanks to a well controlled but loping gait. Track mode is too stiff for the road but, as its name suggests, is ideal for the circuit where it gives the car huge stability. Sport’s blend of suppleness and body control though, makes it the best all round mode.
Equally impressive is what McLaren calls Brake Steer, an ESP-based system inspired by a technology banned in F1 over a decade ago. It brakes the inside wheel when cornering to help the car turn into a bend, killing understeer. Steer into the corner using the ultra-precise electro-hydraulically-assisted steering and you can really feel the car pivot as the brake steer works. Its other purpose is to take the place of the heavy active differentials rivals like Ferrari are using.
There is really only one disappointment but you’ll have to be a pretty tasty driver, and probably on a track to experience it. And it’s that even in Track mode, the ESP system doesn’t allow an inordinate amount of slip and will be reined in even further for production. If you want to switch it off, you need to enter some special cheat code while parked that McLaren wouldn’t reveal.
Now away from sideways-obsessed car media, that may not be relevant, but surely if you do want to really play about, it’d make more sense to be able to do it with some sort of safety net available rather than risking everything by switching it all off.
So it’s a bit of a demon in a straight line and around corners. Any other tricks up the McLaren MP4-12C's sleeve?
What, you mean besides the incredible visibility and surprisingly easy-access semi-gullwing doors that make the prospect of using it every day absolutely realistic? Or the 24mpg it achieves on the combined cycle while emitting just 279g/km of CO2?
What about the styling though? I’m not convinced...
Our only real disappointment concerns the way the new McLaren supercar looks. It’s certainly not ugly, in fact it’s quite pretty. But it’s not especially dramatic. When Leonard Setright first used the term supercar in CAR Magazine over 40 years ago it was because he needed a term to convey how much more extreme the Lamborghini Miura he was driving was than other sports cars. Not just in performance, but in every respect, including visual drama.
In the 12C’s defence, style is very much down to personal taste, and I should add that it looks much more assertive in the metal. Especially in the orange of our test car (the silver car looked way more subdued).
McLaren MP4-12C: the road test verdict
Quite simply, this is the most complete supercar the world has ever seen. Quicker than a McLaren F1, easier to live with than an Audi R8 and more economical than a BMW M3, it rides like an executive saloon when you’re not in the mood but thrills like any supercar should when you are.
To read the full 15-page story, grab a copy of the March 2011 issue of CAR. We've analysed it in full detail, got stacks of scintillating photography and grabbed a hot lap with F1 McLaren driver Jenson Button. Don't miss it!