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Feb / Mar 2013
Quiet Confidence

Writer: Nicolas Shammas

In terms of pedigree, McLaren is almost without equal. With their sights set on producing the best supercars in almost every commercial category, we wouldn’t bet against them. Not after we’ve tried their first offerings: the MP4-12C Spider and coupé. 


It can’t be easy being McLaren. The second most successful team in Formula One - after Ferrari - is not even close to being as famous as its Italian rival. There’s a reason for this. Road cars. 

Ferrari has been building them ever since they first went racing and as a result such is the power and desirability of the Prancing Horse that it has - and will continue to - stretch its brand equity left, right and centre. McLaren on the other hand, only ever made one road car and that was in the 1990s but in so doing, it rewrote the automotive book by creating what many still regard as the single greatest (hyper)car of all time, the F1. After producing about a hundred F1’s, the marque shut down production and shifted its focus back to racing.

So when Ron Dennis, the famously punctilious boss of McLaren, announced that he wanted to create a dedicated commercial vehicle division, the pressure to succeed must have been ridiculous. Even if those new McLarens managed to better their Ferrari rivals, they’d still never be able to escape the shadow of their legendary ancestor. This is what you call a ‘lose-lose’ situation.

“Being ‘as good’ as everyone else,” says McLaren Managing Director Antony Sheriff, “is not good enough.” His words were prescient. When the MP4-12C debuted in 2011, according to the world press at least, apparently it was ‘not good enough’. It may have been a significantly superior model than the Ferrari 458, more scientifically advanced, faster, with better handling but – and here’s where British manufacturing went Teutonic for the first time – the MP4-12C lacked soul. “This car,” one petrolhead wrote, “represents cold-hearted efficiency.” 

McLaren took note. The company tweaked the MP4-12C here and there, putting in a louder exhaust, a little more feel in the suspension, a little less travel in the gear paddles and threw in a few extra horsepower for good measure. 

In the spirit of full disclosure, I admit that I have never driven a McLaren before. This means that I’m neither weighed down by the history of the F1, nor am I put off by the nerdy efficiency of early MP4-12C’s. But given how little the car has actually changed between its initial release and today, I can only conclude that sometimes journalists are guilty of making mountains out of molehills. I mean, were they really trying to criticise the McLaren for being too good? Because let me tell you, in my opinion, the McLaren is more than a perfect sportscar. It’s a perfect car. Period. It beats a VW Golf for pottering about and it’ll lick the 458 on a track. If I owned one, I’d drive it every day. Even to do the groceries – the trunk hidden beneath the bonnet is quite capacious.

In layman’s terms, I’d say that the Ferrari 458 is the celebrity equivalent of Katy Perry. She’s hot, she’s got a set of lungs but you definitely can’t take her everywhere, certainly not with that ever-exposed cleavage. The McLaren on the other hand is Eva Green. Depending on her mood, she can play starlet or average Jane. She’s confident, comfortable in her own skin, modest, cultured and yes, a little nerdy too. 

Now for the nitty-gritty. Oddly, the McLaren experience begins with a fondle. Seriously. To open the doors, you need to put your hand under the cut line and grope about until you get to the rubber switch. Once you’ve found it, they swing up and out. They’re not scissor doors à la Lamborghini and they’re not swan doors like on Astons. “The dihedral doors aren’t a visual gimmick. They allow us to make the door openings smaller than would otherwise be possible and they’re designed to allow the driver and passenger to enter and exit the car as easily as possible,” says Tej Sehmby, McLaren’s product and pricing analyst. “They also save weight.”

Getting in requires you turn away from the car, bend forward and push in, backside first. Once your bottom’s on the chair, you swivel, swing your legs in and place your feet in the wells. The cockpit is excellent. There’s a welcome feeling of space. Everything’s clear, functional and almost minimalistic. What’s more, there are echoes of the F1 with the seats designed to be as close to the centreline as possible. To help in this endeavour, the centre console has been minimised, the touch-sensitive control pad is vertical rather than horizontal and the air conditioning controls have been moved to the door rests on each side. In all, it’s a great place to be: comfortable and effective.

To get started, you press the starter button and immediately the mid-engined twin-turbo, 616bhp V8 barks into life right behind your head. Unlike the F1 of the 1990s, which had an engine developed by BMW, this one has been designed and built entirely in-house. “Where the 458 is a screamer, we think this car’s best described as a howler,” explains Sehmby. And the fun part is you decide just how much she howls. 

There are two key buttons that control the McLaren. The first commands the powertrain, the second the handling. Keep everything in normal and the car will automatically short-shift around town in absolute silence. Find some open space and I recommend you de-activate the auto, switch over to track powertrain and sports handling - track handling removes most of the traction control. You’ll be rewarded with decibels of volume, incredible manual gearshifts and hardly any bodyroll. 

Speaking of which, the MP4-12C rides unbelievably well. Even on horrid roads. The secret here is a combination of Formula One-style adaptive damping and hydraulic roll control. It means you have a sportscar that rides as well as any German saloon. This is unheard of in the realm of performance cars, which leads me to further question those early reviews. Seriously, how can something this good be too good?

I tried both the MP4-12C Spider and coupé. Amazingly, they’re the same. That’s an impressive feat because basic physics dictates that you can’t saw the roof off a car without ruining its stability. Most car companies will try to rectify a loss of structural rigidity in convertibles by adding extra bracing as well as reinforcements that unsurprisingly weigh the car down. Not the McLaren. In the case of the 12C Spider, you’ll get the same performance figures and even almost identical weight figures as its coupé sibling. How, you might ask? Well, just like Formula One cars - and unlike the aluminium-framed 458 - the MP4-12C has a carbon-fibre chassis. This material isn’t just incredibly light, it’s also extremely robust, which means there’s no need for any extra bracing. In fact, the only additional element that the engineers needed to include was a boron tube squeezed into the windshield frame but that’s only for structural support in case of a rollover. 

The Spider has a great roof too. The two-piece unit is very much like the one on the Ferrari 458 Spider, which is hardly a surprise given the same third-party manufacturer developed them both. The only real difference between the two rivals is that the McLaren’s can be raised or lowered on the move. It also doesn’t obstruct the engine bay window. 

At this point you’d be expecting me to tell you the Spider is the way to go. It sacrifices nothing in dynamic terms and you get the bonus of being able to go topless whenever you like, right? This is clearly the way most people think and McLaren has admitted that the production numbers of the coupé will be reduced, with the Spider expected to take around 80 per cent of sales. But I’m not so easily sold. Especially at 268,000 USD versus 240,000 USD. There were two things I did not like on the Spider. The first is that when you’re going fast - and you will be going at some crazy speeds in this car given it can do 0-100 km/h in just over 3 seconds and 0-200 km/h in a little over 8 - there’s a lot of wind buffeting and I’d rather be cocooned in a closed cabin than flapping about. And secondly, there’s less headroom in the Spider and I always felt a little cramped. 

So ignore what other journalists have said. Go for the coupé. And do drive it as an everyday car. It’s made for it. Remember that ‘lose-lose’ scenario I mentioned earlier? Forget it. The MP4-12C is definitely what’s called a ‘win-win’.

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