The 2012 MP4-12C is McLaren Automotive's first attempt at a sports car for the regular wealthy, not the ones with unicorn stables at their million-square-foot ectopods in Jackson Hole Nebula. But is it too nerdy, and not sexy enough? We found out.
(Full Disclosure: McLaren wanted us to drive the 2012 MP4-12C so bad, they flew me out to Riverside, California for a half-day road-and-track drive and some morning karting at Auto Club Speedway (aka Fontucky). I came in second place by 0.004 seconds (nemesis!). They also gave us some B-roll video of the event, which we edited for maximum dramatic effect.
As many have written, the 2012 McLaren MP4-12C is a supercar you can drive every day. Owing to well-considered engineering, trick technologies and sensible packaging, one can creep languidly along the thoroughfares like a suspect uncle, turn a knob and beat a Chengdu J-10 to the Taiwan Strait. Its ability to change character at will is truly epic.
What's been said less often about the MP4-12C is that it's really, really good to drive balls out. X-factor good. Some have scorned the 12C as a car without a soul, the product of a Brit-nerd assignment stressing technological supremacy and a Watson-and-Crick-like attention to detail over raw sex appeal. They've said it's a car that hits the right performance numbers but grasps at the undefined steaminess that gives its Maranello rival — the Ferrari 458 — an emotional leg in the air.
Quite a keg of codswallop, that. Yes, there are some amazing cars with more blouse buttons undone, but raw sex appeal risks diminishing returns. Swimsuit models are fine for a laugh, but who among us could resist the charms of a cute girl who's quick with a joke and who's engineered a plasma-propulsion orgasmatron just because she could? Not me.
Having spent part of an afternoon nursing the McLaren MP4-12C through stop-and-go traffic, winging it over a canyon pass and, most significantly, flogging it on the Auto Club Speedway's infield road course, I'm convinced the car's harshest critics wouldn't know soul if Junior Parker sang "Love Ain't Nothin But a Business Goin' On" right into an open artery. Throw the MP4-12C around a racetrack for a half hour, and you'll not only unearth the soul of a great racecar, but also the collective soul of those who've ever slung a McLaren to victory.
Note: Recently, McLaren announced a few changes for 2013, including a price hike to $241,800 in the U.S. They're also adding 25 horsepower (616 hp total), modifying the transmission algorithms and adding new features, including one that allows the driver to adjust the amount of engine noise in the cabin (hope there's still a setting for "a lot") and another that raises front and rear suspension for higher ground clearance.
In this genre, where today's sequence of angry pencil swipes become tomorrow's desktop wallpaper, the MP4-12C seems a bit underdressed. Rather than probing into avant-garde design territory, it recalls shapes of its predecessor, the McLaren F1. The difference between the F1 and the MP4-12C is Frank Stephenson's virtuosic blending of natural forms to soften and humanize the MP4-12C's wind-tunnel-tested shape. Functionally, though, it all comes together. The low cowl and immense windscreen provide enough downward visibility to angle the car around droplets of possom sweat. A capacious doublet of crescent-shaped intakes, nestled into sharply upswept channels at each side, draws in huge lungfuls of air to satisfy its profuse combustion and cooling needs. It's Occam's Razor with four wheels.
Yes, the MP4-12C's got one of the best-tailored interiors in the supercar world, with nary a stitch askew. Echoing the F1's central seating position, the driver's seat as set close to the center of the car as possible, reducing the width of the console to a mere snip. That meant tilting the nav screen 90 degrees into portrait mode and moving the HVAC controls to a landing strip at the opposite side of the steering wheel. After a few minutes' orientation, the most important buttons and knobs can be grabbed intuitively, and the steering wheel avoids the garden-of-switchgear situation that plagues some modern cars' helms. Ultimately, the effect is elegantly nerd-sporty, but may disappoint the teak-and-brushed-aluminum set.
Out of a launch-controlled holeshot or connecting apex dots on track, the MP4-12C runs like a doped thoroughbred. McLaren claims 3.0 seconds to 60 mph with the optional Pirelli Corsa tires (which were on our test car), and 150 mph arrives a few heartbeats later. Strangely, as whatever's-in-the-windshield starts falling away, there's a bit of turbo-fed cognitive dissonance. The rising wail of the small eight suggests an engine begging to be rung out, and yet the torque outlay starts early and builds to a stomach-rending crescendo as the V8 belts out an Indy-style high note.
All the test cars had steel disks, not the optional carbon ceramics. Despite a longer than usual pedal throw, the steelies were well-suited to our road-and-track sampler. Under heavy braking, the Air Brake wing flips up, slamming downforce on the rear axle, keeping the rear tires from going light and making the car much more controllable and less wiggly when drawing down from, say, 160 mph to a 65 mph hairpin.
Is Chris Heyring Day a federal holiday? It should be. Heyring was the Australian inventor who emancipated the motor vehicle from the shackles of anti-roll bars by piping together a set of hydraulic dampers and nitrogen-charged accumulators into something McLaren calls Proactive Chassis Control (PCC). The system, now sourced by Tennaco, keeps the car flat in corners and allows for full articulation, and thus greater comfort, in a straight line. Driven aggressively, its reflexes are lightning-quick, firming up and releasing undemonstratively. Three chassis settings provide very tangibly different ride qualities: Normal, the most supple and absorptive; Sport, which adds tautness for well-sorted roadways, and Track, the most rigid, which is best kept to actual racetracks. Want to drift like Chris Harris? Just select track mode, then prod the throttle rashly as you exit a corner. Countersteer as needed, or wait a beat and let the system catch the tail as you stay on the power. Genius = you.
The MP4-12C has an open diff. Supercar sacrilege? Not exactly. Back in 1997, McLaren developed a novel cornering-assist system for its MP4/12 Formula One car that used brake force to drag the inside wheel when exiting slow corners, helping rotate the car to stamp out understeer. That early F1 system — dubbed "brake steer," and subsequently banned by the FIA — used a second brake pedal to accomplish what the MP4-12C's system does automatically. McLaren engineers say the system saves 60-odd lbs. over a mechanical LSD, and unlike a limited-slip diff, it works off-throttle. Out on the track, brake steer pivoting the car around a tricky hairpin feels as strangely comforting as a new friend guiding you into an unfamiliar pub.
The McLaren's seven-speed, dual wet-clutch box from Oerlikon Graziano, tuned with McLaren's own control algorithms, is indeed quick and accurate. But its "pre-cog" feature allows a driver to pre-load the next gear (up or down) by giving a half-click of the shift paddle (like focusing a SLR camera), to shift with neurological quickness. Still, the transmission is so well-suited to aggressive driving already, that pre-cog's kind of a gimmick, only necessary on specific racetracks. The system doesn't blip the throttle to rev-match on downshifts, starting out from a dead stop it's a little clunkier than a torque converter, and the paddles require more effort than most paddle-shifted road cars. But once adjusted, giving the rocker paddles a firm snick does add some F1 gravitas.
The conflict between the McLaren MP4-12C's personalities couldn't make judging its audio gear any more awkward. The idea that one might opt to get his Skrillex on rather than soak in the bark-and-yowl of a flat-crank V8 — either at full volume or muzzled — counterpointed by the blow-off valve's deep churgle fails to compute. Still, the Meridian-sourced, two-channel, four-speaker audio system is clean and sufficiently bassy, and comes with 40GB hard drive with USB, PDMI and audio jack ports. Also, turn off the damn audio system.
The car's hardware and systems comprise a nerd's toybox. Accessories are expensive. Very expensive.
As confounding as it is to consider, sub-three-second 0-60 times come far cheaper than the McLaren's $229,000 base —i.e., Nissan GT-R and Porsche 911 Turbo. Still, counterintuitive as it may seem the Macca's cost accrues toward elegant minimalism — you're paying smart people to leave stuff out. You're paying for technology that supports inalienable principles of lowering weight and heightening performance. Perhaps most of all, you're paying for Ron Dennis to insist every stitch in the dashboard is immaculate, that every panel gap is caliper-perfect, that every delicious, combustive crackle and pop is uniform, lest heads roll. And then, after you're done paying for all that stuff, you can drop another five figures spec'ing up your perfect beloved with everything from heated seats ($3,430), sat nav and surround sound ($6,850), carbon-ceramic brakes ($13,130) and a total carbon-fiber exterior accent package ($19,440).