Gavin Green on McLaren’s brilliant – but not quite perfect – new MP4-12C

Published: 15 June 2011

The new McLaren MP4-12C is brilliant. Quite brilliant. No supercar more skilfully combines speed, agility, thrilling power – the usual supercar staple – and the automotive flip side (comfort, refinement, all-round usability, ease-of-driving). It is a technical tour de force, the most compelling mix of speed and composure I can remember. Rather as I expected. With McLaren, expectations run Everest-high.

What’s more, those areas in which small volume high-performance makers usually struggle – cabin quality springs to mind – just isn’t a problem. In fact, the MP4-12C has one of the best supercar interiors I’ve sat in, not least because it’s so lacking in clutter. It’s a notch above the Ferrari 458 in quality, way better than any top-end 911 in ergonomics and driving position. It even has tolerably good over-the-shoulder visibility, a bugbear of mine (and quite appalling on most Italian supercars). 

Superb at fuss-free high-speed performance

Particularly impressive is its unerring precision and composure on winding, undulating, variably cambered roads – surfaces on which Ferraris and Porsches require maximum concentration and a firm hand. 

It’s a good long haul car. The mechanical wail and road thrum that invariably supplement Ferrari (and even Porsche) mileage is largely muted. It’s more a Grand Tourer, than a mid-engine hyperactive hypercar, on the long haul stuff; you can relax, enjoy the radio, phone a friend.

Faults, there are a few…

It’s not perfect. The touch sensitive door handles are a nerdy complication. I repeatedly ran my hand under the door lip expecting those scissor doors to spring into action. Often, they remained as firmly shut as a pair of rusty old carvers. Please, give me a button or a handle. McLaren owners will have to go through Masonic hand rituals to gain access to their chargers, no doubt to the considerable amusement of onlookers. 

The paddle shifts are too stiff and require too much effort. They need to be finger light, to facilitate instant changes. Plus I don’t like the way they rock, to and fro like a see-saw, yoked in the middle. I prefer two separate paddles. 

My only other quibble – and this is much harder to quantify – is that the MP4-12C, despite its unfazed composure and its monumental acceleration, is sometimes just a little too calm and collected, even detached. It almost feels like a virtual reality supercar at times, so brilliantly does it cushion and isolate. A good Ferrari, on the other hand, is far more engaged. It isn’t so much in your face, as halfway down your throat.

A touch of drama can be good for supercars. The inspiring bellow of a Ferrari exhaust; the instant kick of a frisky normally aspirated V8 or V12 (rather than the McLaren’s tidal wave of not-quite-spontaneous turbo torque); the quick edgy steering of the 458. The best Ferraris, Porsches and Lamborghinis serve up more sensory delights. They dance with you, serenade you. McLaren doesn’t do irrational very well. 

This ‘criticism’ – more of an observation – will not overly concern those perfectionists from Woking. McLaren did not seek drama. The priorities were huge speed. And prodigious, no-fuss capability. It’s a different approach from the supercar mainstream and, to many, a far more meritorious one. 

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By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience

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