Look, if you're going to test out a car built from racecar technology, it should probably be on a racetrack. Because...racecar, or something like it. Here's a McLaren 12C Spider. It'll cause you to make highly awkward facial expressions of glee.
McLaren set a bunch of media-types loose on the Circuit of the Americas in 12Cs, only instead of the usual "look at how fast this looks" external footage of where the car went, we got cameras pointed back at our faces.
Open-faced helmets make you look like one of the evil henchmen from Spaceballs: fact. Surprisingly easy to drive but ridiculously quick cars will cause you to make silly faces and give you giggles for the rest of the day: also fact.
This, for example, is the glare you'll get if you suggest driving a paddle-shift car in "automatic mode:"
"This is not my car. I must adjust all the things."
And my car it definitely wasn't. You sit down in the 12C, and the overall layout felt as if it was a Lotus made for tall people. The car is constructed much like my friend's Exige—one big tub that you sit in and climb over to enter the car, only the 12c's is carbon fiber.
The 12C, however, has pedals that are farther away and ergonomics that were a little hard to make work for all 5' 4" of myself. I finally found a spot that worked fine enough, but it took longer to find that than most cars I've driven. Adjusting the seat often either made me feel too close to the wheel or too far from the pedals until I finally finagled it into its sweet spot. That sweet spot was just a lot narrower for me in this car than most.
So, normal-sized people everywhere—rejoice. There's a British supercar for you now.
Personally, I had an easier time reaching the pedals in this:
McLaren's test driver is "fun-size," too.
The pedals in the 12C felt different than anything I'd been in as well. There was considerably more resistance when pressing down both the brake and gas pedal, but maybe this is the car's way of reminding you that it's not just another stupid 944. Use these pedals with caution, else the computers might need to save you.
Enough complaining. I get to hoon a McLaren that's not mine.
So, I'll admit: I was a little nervous. That's my nervous scowl. I hadn't driven Circuit of the Americas since June. This isn't my car. It's only a tiny bit lighter than my daily driver, but it's far more powerful. Furthermore, I have been known to accomplish great feats of n00b stupidity, some of which involve off-track detours in which whatever I'm driving suddenly becomes a lawnmower.
Granted, I do that less now, but it was still on my mind. Trouble comes a lot faster when there's actual horsepower to play with. There isn't much lawn to mow here—rather, there are some nice, expansive run-off areas that are fenced off by expensive walls of safety unobtanium that you don't want to hit.
This sounded like a recipe for certain doom: my stupid butt in this car. This car also cost considerably more than most of the toys I've been allowed to play with—even the GT3 RS. And the instructor—bless his brave, brave heart—next to me was talking about the car's features over the glorious sound of the V8 behind me.
Yes, yes, sport mode—that's good. Traction control remains fairly hands-off. Good, good. Excellent.
As soon as I crested the top of the hill and started the steep descent towards turn 2, I started hearing the instructor give less of a pitch for the car and more on what I should be doing right now. I started to relax a bit.
This car wasn't hard to drive at all, and didn't feel twitchy or unpredictable in the slightest. It didn't take long for a smile to appear.
By lap two, I was laughing like a hyena whenever I got to floor it. This thing accelerates so smoothly and quickly that you've gone to plaid before you can hardly think about it.
One thing I noticed, though: the instructor said "you could brake a little longer there" a lot. Haha.
This car just kept taking it, though. It had predictable understeer whenever I entered a corner too fast, but for all my throwing it around, it never seemed to get unsettled in the least bit.
The only time I ever scared the instructor enough for him to reach over to my side of the car was when I chucked the car into turn 10—a very slight curve on a downhill section where the track drops away into a steep hill—flat-footed as if it was my Lancer.
Note to self: this has a bit more than 168 neutered, CVT-driven horsepower, and it's probably slightly dumb to try and drive it the same way. All the 12C did then was understeer onto the wide, forgiving kerbing that shoulders COTA's runoff area, so even that wasn't too scary.
Apparently, I also tend to stick my tongue out whenever I concentrate on anything really hard. I should knock that off before I accidentally bite it off someday.
I also got to pass people! I never get to pass people in any car I own! Ever! Oh my gosh! I passed people! Other people! Whose cars weren't breaking!
I could get used to this "faster car" thing.
This gearbox is perhaps the best paddle-shift gearbox I've driven to date. Shifts feel only a little rough, but they are practically instantaneous. It stays in the gear you put it in on track, even if you forget to shift. The paddles are one connected piece, so when you shift one the other paddle rotates further away. It's brilliant in every way.
The paddles are also connected to the wheel itself, a clear nod to its racecar origins. Without getting into the whole fixed versus moving paddles debate, if they're intending for this to be a track weapon, allowing the paddles to move with your hands at 9 and 3 is the way to do it.
I soon discovered one other piece that was designed for larger people as well: the seat.
The seats have big, meaty bolsters on the sides, but they're far enough away from my sides that I felt myself leaning with every turn. They're comfortable enough when you're still or on a straight, as they are a well-made shape that would be easy to sit in for a road trip. In a turn, however, I wanted a little more support.
It's these seats that make me wonder what the car really is—is it a focused track toy or a comfortable grand tourer? Granted, I know not every supercar seat is going to be like the Ferrari 360 Challenge Stradale's subtle reminder that I should lay off the pumpkin pie kolaches and go for a run, but there's got to be a happy medium somewhere.
The cupholders are because racecar'd in behind the center console, but you'd need those for a road trip. It also comes with a trick folding hardtop, which—while the whole car is still incredibly rigid regardless—isn't usually a novelty that hardcore track dorks go for.
On the other hand, the "sport" mode I was driving in seemed like it was going to rattle my fillings loose every time I drove over one of the kerbs. I like this for track driving, but this mode would be the death of you if you tried to drive it over, say, the third world cart paths that the City of Austin's neverending construction crews pass off as "roads" in North Campus lately. It would be a tad superfluous to have such a mode had this only been meant as an absurdly quick point-a-to-point-b road car.
Maybe this is just a track toy with a curious case of—OOH! SHINY SQUIRRELS MADE OF GLITTER AWESOME.
Either way, it's quite nice. I came back into the pits giggling.
"These are fun."
(Oh dear, I look silly in these helmets.)
Overall, though, something was still missing. Driving this car quickly didn't feel like it took much effort at all. Sure, I had fun with it and came back into the pits giggling, but going into giggle-mode was no hard feat. I've heard the phrase "too easy to drive" applied to modern supercars before, and perhaps all of the trick suspension and techno-gadgetry on the 12C makes it just that.
Still, it is an absolutely drop-dead gorgeous car, particularly in one of the deep metallic "volcano" hues.
This car is absolutely stunning in person—and poster fodder for dorm rooms everywhere. If the 12C's raison d'être was Cars and Coffee, they've knocked it out of the park.
Photo Credits: Thomas Endesfelder (interior shot of F1 car, exterior shots of red car); Circuit of the Americas/Mobil1 (shot of me laughing hard at the end of the drive)