McLaren was predestined to build a version of its MP4-12C for the pate-tanning set. But is the new Spider as good as the closed-top coupe that shares its nerdy alphanumer-name, or is it — like most other convertibles — a tragedy of compromise? Let's head to Spain and find out.
Torsional rigidity. Have a little and you can wring the stale beer out of a barback's towel. Have more and you've got a bridge whose steel box girders won't buckle in a hurricane, or a sports car whose carbon-fiber monocoque delivers a driver's inputs directly to the ground, without mechanical "noise."
(Full disclosure: McLaren wanted us to drive the 12C Spider so bad, they flew me to Andalusia to give it the beans on a famous private racecourse, and along some of the best, but most craggy and seismically compromised B-roads in southern Europe. They also put me up at a hotel where actor Robert Duvall's half brother Albert tends bar. Al Duvall is a world-class fisherman and the best bartender I've ever met. The resemblance is uncanny. )
Lacking a roof, which typically adds stiffness, convertibles are prone to what the Brits call "scuttle shake," where during hard cornering the front end does an Indian burn against the rear. Adding undercarriage bolstering helps increase rigidity, but adds weight, which is why, in the eyes of the racerati, convertibles are the sole province of dilettantes, swingers and the tribal-tatooed; they're the animal-print underpants of cars.
That stigma ends with the 2013 McLaren 12C Spider, which is, by any human calculation, the least-compromised convertible sports car built. McLaren reps insist the company strove from the outset for performance parity between the 12C coupe and Spider, setting a roof-off target for chassis stiffness that — when the cars' suspensions were installed and tuned — would assure the 12C Spider changed direction just as crisply as the coupe does.
That way, no convertible buyer — estimated to total 70 percent of 12C customers eventually — will regret their purchase if they ever had to slalom around something unexpected along an Andelusian highway, like an old man walking his caballo or a careening van whose driver just hot-ashed a Fortuna cigarette into his lap.
Unlike most convertibles, the 12C Spider — having been built around the same carbon-fiber MonoCell monocoque as the 12C coupe — feels like a whole car. Unless your butt moonlights as a deflection sensor, you'll find no discernible difference between the two, other than that one of them (the Spider) will box your ears with an uproar of sound and turn your forehead grenadine red inside of an afternoon.
The Spider also introduces some improvements to the 12C that will reflect in the updated '13 coupe as well. There's more power, quicker and smoother shifts and more choices for adjusting engine noise. Sounds piped into the cabin via the Intake Sound Generator can now be separated from driving modes. (Want "Track" noises in "Normal" mode? You can have it. Want quiet on the track? You can have that too.) Owners of older cars will get those ECU upgrades for free
Even with its fixed roof folded and tucked neatly under the tonneau, the 12C remains the most broadly capable sports car on the planet. The Spider just adds extra shots of sensory stimulation, from the Group-B-like sounds of mechanical sucking, boosting, banging and blowing, to the open-road smells of wild olives and cork oak and fields of Narcissus cavanillesii and horse poop.
The basic delights are intact: In the morning you can cane it on a racetrack, suspension set stiff as a puritan's collar, then flip a switch and spend the afternoon unfolding a 200-mile serpentine jaunt on dubious roadways. It's the Swiss Army knife of the leisure class.
If the 12C coupe seemed less than avant-garde — insomuch as a double-six-figure sports car should look like the Mon Calamari cruiser in your rear-view mirror — the Spider, with its top down, cuts a more dramatic, design-forward and much better-resolved profile.
Where most convertibles look like a hack of the coupe version, the 12C Spider is its own flavor. With the fixed roof tucked neatly behind the tonneau, twin buttresses jutting skyward — Formula One-airbox-like — behind the cockpit, the 12C has a considerable visual edge over the coupe and a feeling of finality that might lead one to speculate the convertible was designed first. No one at McLaren's copped to that, it's just a hunch.
The two-piece retractable hard top goes up or down in around 17 seconds, while rolling along at up to 19 mph. What's more, the rear window can be lowered independently, so the growl and wail of the V8 will funnel into the cockpit even if the top's up.
This is what I want a high-priced sports car's interior to be like. Grippy seats, wide forward visibility over a low cowl, easy-to-memorize switchgear, uncluttered dash cluster, nothing gaudy or eye-grabbing that doesn't direct your attention to something you need to find in a hurry. Tasteful carbon-fiber trim trumps wood grain. Tasteful simplicity wins.
Crisp, immediate and thrusty. WIth more power and torque for 2013 — 616 hp and 443 lb-ft — the 12C is even more fun to pedal-drop between corners, and devastating in a launch-control hole shot. Pull from the 3.8-liter twin-turbo V8 is still concentrated at the middle of the rev range, but it's all very usable and never manic. It's a charming and flexible engine that's got as much character as many naturally-aspirated V8s of its kind.
Naturally, without the rear glass the extra turbulence behind the driver's head increases drag, which cuts top speed from 207 mph for the coupe to 204 for the Spider. Not exactly a deal-breaker for most mortals.
Let's go through this, quickly. The brakes and brake-related kit make for a very strong package that — if required — will not only bring the 12C to a stop from ridiculously high speeds, but it will also do that thing to your internal organs where they become flat as cutlets. Or so it feels. The clamps over the standard rotors — forged aluminium bell and cast iron ventilated and cross-drilled discs — are excellent for 90 percent of applications, and roundly defeat the lighter, pricier carbon-ceramic discs on the street. Warbucks-class track rats will opt for the carbons, but will they need them, or is it just a vanity buy? The jury's out.
Of course, we can't forget the wing — sorry, AirBrake — which, unchanged from the coupe, flips upward to add stability under full braking. It's part of the reason the 12C stays so dead-nuts accurate, without diving or squirreling, during high-speed drawdowns on track.
There's not another car in the 12C's class that can take on such a range of ride qualities, from pavement-smoothing to bone-rattling. McLaren's ProActive Chassis Control system continues to astonish with its efficiency and flexibility. Also new for 2013, McLaren's added a suspension lift function that can raise the front and rear at low speeds to clear speedbumps and the like. No rallycross mode, though. Yet.
Not surprisingly, the 12C continues to be among the top handling super-sports cars around, in both feel and function. It's lithe, graceful and quick — what you might imagine a flagship Lotus, extrapolated upward from the Elise, might feel like to drive. The typical McLaren stuff — excellent roll control, phenomenal grip and quick, accurate steering — is all there, despite the roof being stowed.
There's no doubt, stiffness is key. McLaren avoided the anti-flex issue by developing the two body styles — coupe and Spider — simultaneously, using the same carbon-fiber MonoCell as the foundation. As McLaren product experts explained, the roof of the coupe only provides a touch of stiffness; the bulk comes from the cell itself, which aside from wearing the same part number on both cars, provides damn-near the same overall rigidity. (Shoring up a typical convertible's metal frame with extra metal adds unwanted poundage). The result is a supremely tight-handling convertible — something few though was possible.
Like the coupe, the Spider gets the 7-Speed SSG sequential box by Graziano. McLaren reps say the transmission software's been re-calibrated for 2013, with an eye toward quicker, smoother shifts and better "guesses" in automatic mode. We'll need lots more laps to conclude whether auto's better than Porsche's excellent PDK, but it's still picks the proper gears with spooky accuracy.
Also, with the new calibration, the 12C's earlier "pre-cog" feature — that allowed a driver to pre-select a gear for an impending corner, using a half-click on the paddle — hasn't been discontinued, exactly, but it has been tuned to require a more careful trigger finger to activate. Anyway, the quicker shifts make it less useful.
Vwwaaaaaaaaa, says the engine, wheeeee, say the turbochargers, ch-ch-chuff says the wastegate, "There goes another time zone," says the driver. The open top reveals an entirely new range of sounds from the 12C. The convertible has a redesigned exhaust system (and optional sport exhaust) engineers developed after they realized the coupe's pipes often sounded weird and droney in the top-down car. The new system is slightly heavier than the Coupe's exhaust, but, along with the controllable Intake Sound Generator that pipes engine noise into the cockpit, it gives the Spider a bit of extra growl. At low revs, the sound tends toward gravelly, but as the revs climb the waveform takes on a proper race car wail — never screamy, though.
Audio supplier Meridian made some adjustments to the previous software, adding new sound-mapping algorithms that boost the quality of lesser-quality digitized music. Customers had complained that music sampled at lower rates reproduced poorly with the first iteration, while higher-rate samples sounded audiophile quality. The top-up sound quality is excellent and the system can generally muscle for soundspace when the top's down. But then who needs music?
Like in the coupe before it, McLaren is not playing, yet. I was recently reminded of an early prototype car's built-in camera system that would allow drivers to record their road drives and track laps without a GoPro. It's still not available, but they haven't ruled it out for future models.
Considering how much car McLaren delivers, the 12C Spider is without doubt worth the screamingly-close-to-300-grand — likely your entire investment banker's bonus for the year — you'll pay for one (that's $265,750 plus $2,500 destination). Imagine a leisurely, top-down cruise to your private racetrack club (on which you spent last year's bonus), nailing 30 mpg and preserving your tuchus from the perils of public pavement, flipping a knob to reveal a 600+ horsepower Lotus Elise, turning a few master-class laps, flipping the knob again and slinking off to cruise the local corniche for a sundown supper al fresco. Exactly. Who needs a house, anyway?
Also: No gas-guzzler tax.