MCLAREN MP4-12C - McLaren delivers formula fun
It isn’t all that long ago that choosing an appropriately prestigious British car to road test in honour of the recent boating- with-bunting farrago and the imminent Open would have left me not waving but drowning in a sizeable sea of choice. Today, however, things are a tad thornier. Because there is, let’s face it, not a great deal left of our automotive industry…
Rolls-Royce? Built under a moss roof outside Chichester, but owned by BMW. Bentley? Still hewn in Crewe, but the steering committee’s the Volkswagen Audi Group. Lotus? There is some corner of a Norfolk field that is forever Malaysian. I’m unsure of the exact composition of the conglomerate of uber-rich types at the helm of Aston Martin but, having repeatedly flung a Virage at the horizon only recently, I thought not.
Certainly, British shed-based production of hugely entertaining, canvas-topped roller skates continues apace. But the weather’s relentlessly lousy and, if I am to don a sou’wester, I’d sooner be sailing. All of which, if I’m not very much mistaken, leaves us with a choice of just two companies lodged at the polar extremities of the industry; the ash-framed, studiously enforced antiquity of Morgan, or the Formula 1-inspired, white hot technology of McLaren.
Already forming the words ‘Fat Chance’ on their behalf, I rang McLaren. ‘Certainly’ a nice man said. ‘I appreciate it’s rather short notice, but how about this afternoon?’ I was standing at the reception desk of the McLaren Technical Centre in Woking – a building cleaner, inside and out, than any NHS operating theatre – before he’d got his phone back in its cradle.
And there, parked beside the lake that is the Yin to the Yang of the glass cathedral to the glory of motor racing itself (the whole forming a vast, perfect circle on plan), stood a burnt metallic orange iteration of McLaren’s first road car since the extraordinary FI made every other supercar redundant in 1994. No; the iffy SLR was Mercedes’ idea…
MP4-12C. Not, if we’re honest, the most evocative of names. Mention a 458 Italia and heads swivel. But drop MP4-12C into a pub conversation and the only heads that turn will be those that suspect you of brazenly discussing lingerie sizings for Shetland ponies in a public place.
However, establishing, at the outset, what a very different proposition this car is to the utterly addictive Ferrari, that’s how McLaren does things; the ‘12’ relates to its performance level (out of 10, I quickly came to assume) and ‘C’ to its body style, hinting at further iterations, such as a convertible.
Now, you’d automatically expect any car aerodynamically styled to cleave air thrown at it at over 200mph to be a thing of beauty, but this is not a given. Bugatti’s monsterpiece, the Veyron, for instance, shackled by a daft little replica of a 1930s radiator grille stapled to its hooter and a little too much time in the gym, is, whisper who dares, something of a munter. In the context of Ferrari’s stunning 458 land shark, then, I’m moved to deem the McLaren undeniably striking, quite pretty, and appropriately business-like.
The story’s the same on board, with an almost entirely frippery-free cockpit wholly dedicated to the business of driving very fast. Indeed. There’s no exterior door handle, and you have to slide your hand along under the top of the massive divot through which the powerplant inhales to activate a microswitch and raise the curtain on the undeniable drama of the McLaren’s dihedral door opening procedure.
The door design works well; easier to live with than either gullwing or scissor alternatives, and taking a large chunk of sill with it to ensure that climbing in and out requires far less anatomical origami than in most supercars. The only slightly sour note to the whole exercise, though, is a need to slam the door with such vim there’s a danger of pelting you passenger with the wax pellet sympathetically ejected from your left ear.
Echoing the sophistication of Formula 1 construction, the cockpit is a massively strong carbon fibre tub from which aluminium subframes hang fore and aft to hold engine, suspension and ancillaries. The driving position’s nigh on perfect, though electric seat adjustment via buttons mounted out of sight on the front of the seat base isn’t exactly intuitive.
In contrast to the 458’s busy cabin, the McLaren boasts a mere handful of buttons and switches, none of which are mounted on the steering wheel. His ‘n’ hers air conditioning controls are relegated to door pods, leaving the centre console reserved for two elegantly honed rotary switches by which the powertrain and suspension may be tuned to Normal, Sport and Track settings, and an audio/navigation screen in which the latter still doesn’t work despite the delivery of over 1000 cars to date. Ron Dennis, one imagines, is thrilled…
Behind your ear lurks a 3799cc, twin-turbocharged, McLaren-design V8 which, at the stab of a button, barks into life like a werewolf assaulted by a cattle prod. Via a seven-speed transmission with paddle shift override, it throws 592bhp and 443lb ft of torque at the rear wheels and is capable of smearing the MP4-12C to 62mph in 3.1 seconds, and on to some 205mph. The Ferrari 458 is stupendously quick.
The McLaren is quicker. Moreover, because the latter’s kick in the back comes in far lower down the rev band, it feels more urgent yet. The paddle change requires a surprisingly forceful tug to engage each gear with a faintly audible click, but, once learned, the action has a pleasing mechanical crispness to it that speaks of all the ruthless accuracy and intent you’d expect from this manufacturer.
If there is any turbo lag, I never unearthed it; the car simply crushes you to the seat and sets off after the horizon at hilarious velocity. You can’t see anything of the front through the windscreen except the top of the wheelarches, bringing an extraordinary immediacy to the business of hoovering the road ahead straight into the cockpit at a rate which grows with astonishing, relentless alacrity.
Unlike the 458, which is quite simply either LOUD or not, the McLaren’s soundtrack build’s more smoothly as you climb through the revs. Early cars were criticised for a lack of aural drama, and the company has rectified this by giving drivers access to greater engine noise via the powertrain adjustment switch.
Thing is, however, the same noise, louder, isn’t necessarily any more enjoyable (memories of the baby monitor) and, I confess, my ears give the nod to Ferrari’s glorious, howling diva of a conventionally aspirated V8 every time.
The other noises of interest are those emanating from the road surface and loose chippings lobbed at the car’s underside; the only downside to that artfully melded carbon tub being that it’s hollow, and can amplify thumps and thuds to hollow bongs which ring through the cabin on occasion like a badly tuned kettle drum.
Construction aside, the other element wherein the MP4-12C differs from rivals is its suspension. Like most cars of its ilk it has coil springs and double wishbones fore and aft, but it has sophisticated, interlinked hydraulic dampers which not only obviate a requirement for anti-roll bars but also offer genuinely miraculous straight line suppleness and ride comfort whilst still allowing the car to corner flatter than a Lancashire vowel.
It rained relentlessly during my short time with the car, making much of the experience more akin to Her Majesty’s river pageant than the driving of a supercar. So all I can honestly report in the handling stakes is that the car is far, far braver than I am in the wet.
The steering’s a joy, politely murmuring a constant stream of invaluable information like a simultaneous translator at a UN conference. And there’s absolutely no need to opt for expensive, carbon ceramic brakes because the steel discs I called on all too frequently can administer a shock to the body even more acute than that breathtaking acceleration.
Setting you back a cool £168,500, the MP4-12C is actually a shade less dear than the Ferrari 458. Truth is, however, by the time you’ve ladled on the extras that seem inevitable in the case of both cars – they biffed the price of the specimen I drove to £212,763 and, um 33 pence - were talking parity to all intents and purposes. Indeed, McLaren tells me that many of their owners also stable a 458.
Which is probably the best way of playing it if tasked with choosing one over the other. Both utterly superb, these are two very different animals indeed; the McLaren undeniably technologically superior and a whisker quicker, the Ferrari capable of getting under the skin unlike anything else I’ve ever driven.
And that’s probably why, when the time came to return the MP4-12C, I didn’t actually find myself blubbering with quite the intensity I mustered on handing back Ferrari’s Italia. That and the ruddy English summer.
MCLAREN MP4-12C -