I'd heard so much. Read so much. Seen so much about the McLaren MP4-12C. And been told as much by McLaren: “Being ‘as good' as everyone else,” says McLaren MD Antony Sheriff, “is not good enough.” That's a statement of some intent. As a result, I spent two of the three days of this test waiting for the MP4-12C to do something truly spectacular. In the end, it did. I'll come to that later.
Meantime, to the start of our test: McLaren HQ, to collect our test MP4-12C. I won't dwell on its looks; their success is entirely for you to decide and will play no part in this verdict. The 12C is – like all McLarens, race or road, from the past three decades – carbon fiber-tubbed. In its midships sits a 3.8-liter, twin-turbo, flat-plane-crank V8 making 592hp and 442lb-ft.
They're class-leading figures, no doubt, but it's not like Ferrari's engineers sat around scratching their rears even before work was under way in Woking.
That the 458 Italia feels two generations better than the F430 that preceded it may not be entirely coincidental to McLaren's arrival in this arena, but Ferrari is a company that has been making this sort of car for a long time, and is rather good at it. So, while the 458's figures are outshone, the 12C's mathematical advantages are only single-figure percentages most of the time.
The 458 is 30hp down on the McLaren, and 42lb-ft. The 12C is claimed to reach 62mph in 3.1sec, the 458 3.3sec, and there's just 3mph between them at the top end. McLaren claims a far lower weight than Ferrari, yet the 12C tipped our scales at 3230lbs, only 44lbs lighter than the 458.
These are far from game-changing statistics. Besides, they're not everything. "Faster" doesn't mean "better." We'll do well to remember that. We'll come back to it later.
Still, I've rolled with the hype so far, so it's with a bruising realization – for my expectations, rather than the McLaren – that, well, it's just a car.
As such, it has the foibles any new car might. It was ludicrous to expect anything else, really. It has doors that don't close properly without a slam, an engine that's uninvolving to listen to much of the time, slightly too-plastic switches for the separate chassis/powertrain modes (three of each: Normal, Sport and Track), and brakes (carbon-ceramic options on this test car) whose effect is hard to modulate at low speeds. Why I thought it might not have little issues like this is anybody's guess.
Still, the 12C is not a shabby way to drive to Brands Hatch for a sodden photo shoot that will, ultimately, produce little more than some tidy cornering shots.
One thing becomes quickly apparent: the 12C's ride is sublime. It has coil-sprung double wishbones all 'round and oil-filled dampers, but instead of conventional anti-roll bars, the dampers are adaptive and their oil can be shared and pressurized across the car to reduce body roll, or slackened off in a straight line to allow for a superior ride quality. I am not kidding when I tell you that, at times, the 12C's ride is as isolated as that of an executive-level Mercedes-Benz.
The 458 Italia has always ridden well, too, mind. It also has adaptive, magnetically controlled dampers and, as such, can also afford relatively soft anti-roll bars. Each individual wheel is still allowed a certain amount of suppleness.
I know, I know: ride quality in a supercar. Meh. But it's relevant if you want to make a supercar that is usable every day, as McLaren did. You can see out of the 12C well, there's a decent front trunk, the seats are comfortable and the cabin environment is, generally, ergonomically sound. It's an interesting interior – less flamboyant than the Ferrari's and very straightforward.
In the Ferrari, you sit higher, the car feels wider, and there's more going on inside. Neither the 12C's nor the 458's cabin is particularly superior. The McLaren has a nicer steering wheel with paddles that are a mite small, firm and fixed to the wheel. (They're meant to ape those of Lewis' weekend wheels, but he never has to take his F1 car around a mini-roundabout.) The Ferrari has column-mounted paddles, larger and easier to reach on lock. They're preferable to the 12C's, but with them comes a wheel overly laden with switchgear. Small points, maybe, but important; the wheel is your main interface with a car, and too many companies seem intent on reinventing it.
It's something to ponder on the M25, at any rate, as is some thump through to the McLaren's cabin when it hits big inputs. Blame the major-league stiffness of the carbon-fiber tub and a construction that McLaren describes as “hollow.” As in, like a kettle drum. It amplifies tire roar, too.
Nonetheless, the McLaren is the long-distance supercar of choice. It steers with an oily slickness and a beautifully graduated feel from straight ahead, whereas the Ferrari is set up to feel more alert, and more alive, at the expense of some feeling of stability.