DRIVEN: MCLAREN MP4-12C
A Volcano Orange guided-missile lights our fire...
We've needed a day like this for years but, having just spent the best part of a weekend with the McLaren MP4-12C, the situation has clearly escalated. The only alternative is for car makers to start engineering compromise back into their vehicles, so we can start to enjoy (and/or be afraid of...) 'the edge' of a car's performance envelope again - at speeds that traffic on our roads, or sanity, will allow.
I know a beast does lurk within, because it showed itself from time to time through little flashes of ferocious brilliance - a deftly gobbled-up trio of B-road bends, mad-cap acceleration past a line of Lincolnshire potato lorries, that 'fastest-ever' motorway slip-road sweeper, etc. But you won't be surprised to hear it's impossible to properly enjoy the 12C's performance on public roads.
Some think the law may even be interpreted to preclude it, which I guess is why buyers (and reviewers) consider 'emotion' to be such an important part of the supercar experience. If all that latent potential can't be expressed in other ways, why bother with it at all?
To get inside, you have to slide your fingers under the upper portion of the door panel in the manner of a poacher tickling a trout. I'd prefer a button. The doors 'scissor' upwards, but unfortunately also swing outwards to a degree that can make public parking a challenge. With traditional doors you can usually open them a little and squeeze in or out even if somebody else parks too close. With this set-up you've either got sufficient room - or you're trapped in or out of your car. Fortunately the solution is obvious. Don't park, just drive...
The electric memory seats and steering wheel adjust to give even tall and fat blokes like me a comfortable set-up - with head- and elbow-room to spare - yet the car still feels beautifully compact around the driver. That's one trade-off from McLaren's novel 'space-saver' centre console, the other being a 90-degree rotated nav/infotainment centre that still hasn't been finished leaving early cars to be delivered without full functionality. (They'll be upgraded later - blame the Japanese tsunami, etc.) The sense of compactness extends to the view through the windscreen, with wheel arches framing the view either side of an elegantly dipping bonnet. It's workmanlike, unflashy, yet totally 'pukka'. And you could sit comfortably for hours.
Beneath the nav-station in the centre console sit two rotary switches for Normal, Sport and Track configurations - the one on the left adjusts the chassis settings, the one on the right is for the powertrain. The switches only come into play when you push the 'Active' button beneath them, so you can leave them set to Sport/Sport and still loaf around in the default comfort setting until there's a gap in the traffic.
Put your foot down and start using some revs, and the noise gets louder - moving from a gruff throaty roar to a definitely pleasing howl in the top half of the rev-range, but even at the 8500rpm redline it's never overly intrusive. It's not one of those highly-pitched shrieks the Italians favour, designed to make your engine sound as though it's been tuned to within an inch of its life, but it's a lot more mellifluous than a 911 turbo, for instance. Again, it works for me, but others may find it underwhelming - particularly as a couple of motorway 'fly-bys' had fellow PHers reporting the sound as being relatively muted from the external third party perspective.
Naturally we tried the acceleration 'a bit', and the car really does feel mind-blowingly quick. There's a sort of exponential/time-warp factor as the turbos gather themselves up, but my over-riding sense was that going this fast has no right to be this easy. Other cars I've driven with anything approaching similar performance have delivered it with more dramatic side-effects, be it noise, ride or a sense of barely concealed rising panic that the McLaren just doesn't prescribe to. It's as easy as 1-2-3, roughly translated as Pedal, Turbos, F***ing Hell That's Fast, or more scientifically as 0-100mph in 6.1secs...
Off the motorway, light and direct steering combined with the car's compact feel make it easy to place accurately around corners, and only the manual gearchange disappointed slightly. Not for speed or smoothness, but it would be nice if the race-style column yoke gave the paddles a bit more of a crisp, mechanical action. Grip, agility and body composure through corners at speed is pretty much peerless, and the roll-free Sport setting retains amazing comfort too thanks to the 'active' nature of the hydraulics.
But that would be a lousy sign-off for a piece about such an epic machine. If McLaren will let us have it back for National Fast Car Day, we'll gladly correct the oversight!