There are all sorts of extraordinary things about the extraordinary new McLaren MP4-12C that will, even after a day of driving it, leave you dizzy with a mild sense of disbelief. But the thing that really gets you, what blows you away completely and makes you wonder if the world hasn't gone ever so slightly insane, is its performance.
Not just in a straight line (although in a straight line this car is devastatingly rapid) but anywhere: around corners, under brakes, changing gear, on rough roads or on perfectly smooth race circuits. Wherever you drive it, the 12C is mind-alteringly fast – to a point where a Ferrari 458 Italia, the car with which it is so clearly intended to compete (the McLaren's UK list price of £168,500 [$272k] is actually slightly less than the 458, if you're counting), would not see which way it had gone. On any road, in any kind of conditions.
And, in the end – even though this is, in fact, just the beginning – the 12C's stratospheric level of performance actually defines precisely what McLaren Automotive, the car company, is all about. Not least because it occurs on every level throughout the company.
The more you learn about the newest supercar maker, in fact, the fresher and more vibrant it seems. And the culmination, of course, is the MP4-12C itself, which may be the first of many new road cars that McLaren will produce over the coming years, but which also happens to be a quite astonishingly accomplished machine in its own right.
To understand how and why it's as good an effort, you must scroll back to the beginning of 2007. That's when the project began, and when the likes of Ron Dennis sat down with a small team of people in Woking, England, and decided that a mid-engined sports car to rival the best of the best was indeed to be the way forward.
Interestingly, McLaren didn't then embark on a traditional recruitment campaign by poaching designers and engineers from other manufacturers. Instead, it harnessed ideas in a much more radical way, encouraging “thinkers” from all walks of life – many of whom were not employed in the regular car industry – to become involved with the project.
McLaren's amiable chief test driver, Chris Goodwin, describes the atmosphere at the time as being “genuinely exciting and genuinely eccentric. There was even a touch of the Spitfire mentality in the way the thing came together at the beginning.”
It's important to remember (possibly because it's curiously easy to overlook) that the MP4-12C is truly a British car. Its twin-turbo 3.8-liter V8 engine was developed jointly by Worthing, UK-based Ricardo Engineering and McLaren itself. The carbon fiber tub and the entire suspension system (also radically different in its design) were developed in-house. Only the 7-speed dual-clutch gearbox (courtesy of Italian company Graziano), the enormous Brembo brakes and the custom Pirelli tires were externally sourced. Yet, in each case, McLaren worked in conjunction with the manufacturer to develop a custom arrangement for the car.
It's hard to know where to start when describing what makes the 12C so very special, both technically beneath its handsome body shell, and dynamically out in the real world. In its tail, nestling unusually low to the ground and well in front of the rear axle line, sits a twin-turbo V8 that produces 592hp at 7000rpm and 442lb-ft from 3000-7000rpm. This is mated to a 7-speed dual-clutch gearbox that features what McLaren describes as a “pre-cog” selection system which, in practice, enables shifts to occur faster and more seamlessly than one could possibly imagine, up or down the 'box.
There's no manual option as such, although the paddle-shifter's gear-change speeds and the throttle map settings can be tailored to suit an individual's needs courtesy of a rotating switch at the base of the center console. The suspension, which is also fully adjustable from within the cockpit, is perhaps the 12C's most potent trump card, and is certainly one of its more intriguing features, there being no conventional anti-roll bars and an open differential at the back.
In theory, you'd half expect the rear-wheel-drive 12C to struggle for traction and general handling composure as a result, but in reality McLaren has produced an ingenious solution to each of these regular issues. The car's roll is controlled hydraulically by a matrix of sensors that effectively mean there is no roll, while its dampers are actively operated. Together, this all but eradicates mid-corner lean, while providing the 12C with incredible agility, as well as a supremely refined ride. McLaren claims the car generates up to 25 percent more grip mid-corner than conventionally suspended rivals.
As for its lack of a differential, the MP4-12C develops much of its traction via a system called Brake Steer, which tickles the rear brakes to kill wheel spin and keeps the nose more planted than it otherwise would be under cornering load. The system was first developed for McLaren's F1 car during the Coulthard/Hakkinen era, whereby the drivers operated a third pedal to apply the brakes to improve traction and keep the car better balanced mid-corner. The system was banned when Formula 1 photographer Darren Heath famously uncovered the extra pedal when taking a picture of the McLaren's foot well.
On top of this, the 12C also has more conventional traction control, anti-lock brakes, ESC stability and a launch control system. This can fire it to 60mph in either 3.3sec or 3.1sec, depending on which model of Pirelli tire the customer goes for (regular P Zeros or stickier Corsas). Under really heavy braking it also has an air-brake system that deploys to ensure maximum stability when the 12C is in full deceleration mode.
There are so many key statistics surrounding this incredible car that it seems churlish to highlight any one in particular. However, the car's dry weight of just 2,868lbs when fitted with the lightweight alloy wheels (as our test car was) is genuinely extraordinary. With fluids and a fuel tank that's 90 percent full, this still means that the 12C weighs little more than 3,000lbs. It's only once you grasp how little the McLaren weighs, relatively speaking, that its performance begins to make sense.
Not that the 12C feels in any way intimidating the first time you brush the underside of its handle-less scissor door and climb in behind the wheel. The cabin, on first impression, appears simple almost to the point of mild blandness. But what you also notice is how excellent the all-around visibility is, and how intuitive the cockpit seems, all of which is intentional.
“We wanted to create an environment that's easy to get on with straight away,” explains Goodwin. And from the way everything seems so logical, so quickly, it's not hard to understand what he means.
Take the steering wheel, which – unlike that of the Ferrari 458 – has not one single function engineered into it other than an airbag and a method of reach and rake adjustability. At a stroke it represents an entirely different approach from that taken by many other car makers, Ferrari especially. The intimation is that McLarens are for driving, not just for playing with or looking at. It's a refreshing departure from the norm, even if the cabin itself does seem a touch bleak as a result.
So what makes the 12C stand out from the crowd when on the move, out on the public road? Just about anything and everything it does, to be honest. Its ride quality is truly ground breaking, as is its steering precision, its brake feel and power, its gear change speed and refinement and its seemingly endless traction. But to begin with, at least, what defines the 12C is its performance – the pure and very brutal thump of acceleration it can deliver. That's what leaves the biggest impression, even days and weeks after you've walked away.
The first time I put my foot down and held it there properly, the amount of thrust that was unleashed through the rear tires came genuinely and sincerely as a shock. It starts from the very moment you nail the throttle at anything beyond 1500rpm, even in fourth gear, and by 3000rpm you can already feel your organs being squeezed hard into the seat.
From there until the cut-out at 8500rpm, there is just a vast, constant wave of energy that catapults the MP4-12C forward – with more conviction than any road car you can ever remember this side of a Bugatti Veyron. Including the legendary McLaren F1. And the numbers would appear to support this impression.
STANDING QUARTER MILE
According to McLaren's own data, the 12C will, in its optimum settings, do 0-60mph in 3.1sec, 0-100mph in 6.1sec and cover the standing quarter mile in 10.9sec. When we tested the McLaren F1 back in 1994, it did 0-60mph in 3.2sec, 0-100mph in 6.3sec and the standing quarter mile in 11.1sec. Whichever way you look at it, the 12C accelerates harder than the F1 – until it reaches somewhere between 160 and 170mph, at which point the old timer's combination of longer gearing and more slippery aerodynamics allow it to glide gracefully away.
And then there's the noise, which is virtually non-existent at a steady 3000rpm/top-gear cruise but brain-bendingly loud at 8000rpm in third gear. Not quite in 458 Italia territory for sheer volume or quality of sound, perhaps, but not far off. And you can get rid of it more easily than you can in the Ferrari, the 12C's throttle being more sensitive under lighter loads, meaning you only get an eruption of sound when you want it.
Another amazing discovery about the 12C is that you don't need to go berserk in it to realize how quick it really is, and it's the torque that makes it feel so effortless. Even at half throttle it provides enough acceleration to leave most other cars reeling in its wake, including one guy I encountered in a Porsche 911 Turbo who wouldn't take no for an answer. And, at full throttle, it feels quite magical in the way it picks up and hurls itself down the road, to the extent that a Ferrari 458 would struggle – and fail – to keep up.
And that's before you so much as mention the 12C's handling, ride, steering and braking capabilities, all of which are perhaps more extraordinary still than the straight-line speed. There's so much grip and such a high level of dynamic composure to the car that you really need to drive it on a circuit to get anywhere near its towering limits. Which is precisely what McLaren allowed us to do at the Portimao racetrack in Portugal, albeit for a few brief laps. What's most spooky about the 12C's chassis, however, is the lack of inertia it suffers from. The nose snaps to attention and glues itself on to the apex of whichever kind of corner you aim it at (and at seemingly any speed). And the rest of the car then just seems to follow.
Yet, despite the urgency of its responses, there's nothing neurotic in the way the 12C behaves. There are no spikes in its behavior, no sharp edges to its handling (or ride). So while it feels nailed to the ground in any corner, it doesn't feel nervous or scary. And that, apparently, was one of the key goals when designing not just the chassis but the car's whole dynamic personality: It had to be quick with a capital Q in terms of response, but at the same time approachable and friendly near the limit, and supremely comfortable as well.
And that's precisely how the 12C feels – on rough roads, smooth racetracks, meandering highways, even when it's bumbling through busy towns. The new McLaren is impossibly fast, yes, but it's also easy to drive in a way that's unprecedented at this level of motoring.
It's quite a car, in other words. And one that Ferrari should be very worried by indeed.