- Available for £70,000
- 3.8 litre 600hp twin-turbo V8
- Huge peformance and remarkable ride quality
- Highly useable do-everything daily
- Infotainment a bit clunky, parts are expensive
- Massive price drops have made them a bargain
There's a pub in Horsell near Woking called The Cricketers. They do a nice roast there, and as the name indicates it's a relaxing place to sink a brew on a summer Sunday afternoon to the background click of cork on willow.
On the day that the parameters for the MP4-12C were first laid out to members of the McLaren development team, you can bet that a few of them will have repaired to that pub for a restorative ale or three. The task they'd just been given must have seemed impossible.
Like Gordon Murray's 1992 F1, the first all-McLaren road car had to appeal to aesthetes as much as to those who wanted super-sports levels of performance. Like the F1, it had to be exotic and special in technology as well as looks and heritage, but unlike the F1 it had to achieve all that at a price as close to £150,000 as possible - and then sell in high enough numbers to generate a profit.
The conflicts kept on coming. On the styling front, newly hired designer Frank Stephenson (of Mini fame) was asked to come up with something that would be modern but evocative, standout but also elegant and discreet. The mid-engined layout meant that sportiness was a given, but to prevent the car falling into a 'high days and holidays only' niche that would have restricted sales, there also had to be good space for both passengers and luggage. It had to be compact on the outside but roomy on the inside. It had to be light, with a class-leading power to weight ratio, but also well equipped, which added weight.
Nothing was to be borrowed from another car. It really was the first all-McLaren McLaren. Everything was going to be purpose-made, with no shortcutting. 'You get it all,' said McLaren Automotive's then MD Antony Sheriff in 2009. 'This and that, not this or that.'
Another round please landlord.
McLaren couldn't find an existing engine that was small or light enough for the car, so in cahoots with Ilmor and Ricardo they made their own extremely compact, all-aluminium 3.8 litre dry-sump twin-turbo V8. It weighed just 150 kilos and produced 600hp.
At this point let's get the naming sorted out. At the end of 2012 the Formula One-y 'MP4' bit of the MP4-12C name was dropped, leaving just the 12C part. The 12 is a reference to the company's internal performance-measuring index, while the C refers to the extensive use of carbon fibre. So even though the first cars were MP4-12Cs, the post-2012 ones were 12Cs, and as that's shorter we'll stick with that from now on.
1,700 orders were placed before the MP4-12C even appeared in dealerships, and nearly all of those orders were fulfilled in the first full year of production. It eventually became the world's best selling carbon fibre-based car.
It was up against the 570hp Ferrari 458 Italia, which at £172,000 was around £4,000 dearer. In terms of engineering, build quality and detailing, the production-run 12C didn't compromise the glorious memory of the handbuilt, no expense spared McLaren F1, but how would it do against the Ferrari 458, then the benchmark for instantly accessible fun?
We'll get into that a bit more later on, but we can say at this stage that the high-speed handling of the first 12C wasn't an unqualified success. road testers and early-adopter owners expressed doubts about the on-the-limit behaviour of the 12C. That's why the launch of the £195,000 12C Spider in 2012 was significant, and not just by virtue of it being a convertible. McLaren had listened to the early misgivings and incorporated big improvements into the Spider that were also migrated to the coupe.
The engine was recalibrated and the throttle control refined not only for more power - up from 600hp to 625hp, lowering the 0-62mph time to 3.1sec - but also for more driveability. Now the car could be drifted out of a corner with much less fear of a grip-delivering power-chop just when you didn't want it. The exhaust note became programmable too, which went some way towards resolving complaints about the flat-plane engine's 'boring' (to some) sound.
In April 2014 production of the 12C was stopped. It was replaced by the substantially revised and upgraded 650S.
SPECIFICATION | McLAREN 12C
Engine: 3,799cc, V8, 32v
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 600@7,000rpm (625hp on post-2012 cars)
Torque (lb ft): 443@3,000-6,500rpm
0-62mph: 3.3 secs (3.1sec post-2012)
Top speed: 205mph
MPG: 24.2 (official combined)
Wheels: 8.5x19 (f), 11x20 (r)
Tyres: 235/35 (f), 305/30 (r)
On sale: 2011 - 2014
Price new: £168,500
Price now: £70,000-£95,000
Note for reference: car weight and power data is hard to pin down with absolute certainty. For consistency, we use the same source for all our guides. We hope the data we use is right more often than it's wrong. Our advice is to treat it as relative rather than definitive.
ENGINE & GEARBOX
If it were possible to apply a quantifiable measure to 'soul' or 'character' to a car it's a fair bet that the McLaren's turbocharged engine and gearbox wouldn't score as highly as the normally-aspirated powertrain of the Ferrari 458, but if you have never experienced the Ferrari and have no interest in doing so in the future then you'll probably come to the conclusion that the 12C's powertrain is a tour de force in its own right.
The 3.9-litre V8 redlines at 8,500rpm, but more importantly produces its peak 443lb ft of torque between 3,000rpm and 6,500rpm, with 80 percent of that available from just 2,000rpm. Pickup is impressive in the higher gears and shocking in the lower ones. Zero to 100mph will happen in around six seconds. It's very, very fast. The 'seamless shift' SSG gearbox does indeed shift very quickly, a light touch on the paddle preloading the next ratio. Because the paddles are connected on a rocker, the driver can push or pull to change up or down.
On servicing, the schedule was pretty amenable, the first one not coming up until 10,000 miles or 1 year. The catch tank for the dry sump engine runs for the full depth of the car. If the sump plug gets over-tightened (which has been known to happen) and you need to replace the tank, that's a 15-hour engine-out job costing in the region of £4,000 including parts. The engine itself isn't known for leaking oil. The main seals are strong, so leaks are rare. If the cause isn't obvious. there'll be a fair amount of labour involved in simply getting access to the engine (removal of the airbrake, decklid, engine covers etc). Turbo feed pipes can develop a drip but that's not a massively expensive fix.
If with the car on a ramp you see dried water marks in the area inboard of the nearside rear wheel, that's almost certain to be down to a leaking water pump. It's a good idea to replace all the Jubilee clips holding the various hoses in place with race-spec ones. This motor takes pink coolant, not blue.
There's a telltale hole on the transmission casing that you need to remove three rear undertrays to inspect. A trace of fluid there is normal, it's a hole after all, but if there's a noticeable flow when the engine and gearbox are warmed up the gearbox may require rebuilding. The gearbox oil cooler can get punctured too.
The carbon fibre tub for each Murray-era F1 took between three and four thousand hours to fabricate. Twenty years on, construction of a 12C Carbon MonoCell took four hours. It weighed just 80kg, was built around the driver, and made the 12C really light to drive by supercar standards. A slim centre console made it possible for both seats to be placed nearer to the car's centreline.
The ProActive Chassis Control suspension was pretty radical. It wasn't a fully active system along early-1990s F1 lines, but it wasn't far off. A mix of springs and front-to-back, side-to-side interconnected hydraulics controlled the car's ride height and ride quality. There were no physical anti-roll bars as such: the independence and attitude of each wheel was electronically controlled, with hydraulic support being provided to each of them exactly in line with the dictates of the road. The result was a freakishly good ride at all speeds, but especially at the low and medium speeds we spend most of our time doing.
Unlike some cars, there's a tangible difference between the 12C's three modes of Normal, Sport and Track. Even if you switch between them when the car is stationary and idling, you'd swear you can actually feel the car change. On corners you basically had the choice of little roll, hardly any roll, and no roll at all. On straights the wheels were effectively decoupled to give incredible articulation. Normal provided a beautifully supple drive. If you leant on the car in corners the adaptive damping would stiffen up. Sport gave you a lot more exhaust noise. The sports exhaust gives you even more and is a nice add-on. Track was a mode you'd probably only want to use on an actual track. The clue's in the name.
Just about anyone could take a 458 onto a track they'd never been to before and be laughing their heads off by the end of the first lap. While the e-diffed Ferrari was child's play to powerslide around 100mph+ corners, the open-diffed McLaren wasn't quite as playful or consistent on the limit. Even highly experienced drivers struggled to temper its behaviour in high-speed drifts when, even with all the available traction controls turned off, the 12C's brain would, at a given point of yaw, knock off the power mid-drift. The rear tyres would grip and the brake steer system (a computerised nod towards the twin-brake pedalled MP4/12 Formula 1 McLaren of 1997) would very likely also step in to add extra fun to the already unwelcome over-correction.
Get up near to the limit and there was a suspicion that the 12C might be driving you rather than the other way around. The funny thing was that, although the McLaren was nervier on the brakes (ceramics were an option) and less consistent on the limit than the Ferrari, there was very little to choose between the two on lap times.
You may hear scare stories about 12C suspension and steering racks being replaced but the experience of at least one specialist is that that's an urban myth. If the car pulls to one side or there's uneven tyre wear the geometry will be out. If you feel a light front-end vibration it's much more likely to be a cracked bush on the lower suspension arm, causing a leak of fluid that will fail the car on its next MOT. Annoyingly, you can't buy the balljoint on its own: you have to get the whole arm which is around £700.
Rear suspension arms don't appear to have any weaknesses. The rear subframe is also very strong and resists bumps well. The machinery for the tyre pressure monitoring system lives atop a plate behind the front subframe. This plate does get a bashing. Replacing the TPM gear will generate a four-figure bill.
The 12C's dihedral doors can get squeaky with age, especially if they've been slammed a lot, which tended to happen because getting those doors to close first time (or even second time) wasn't always guaranteed. There seemed to be a knack to it. Soft-close was a nice option that can be added as a retro fit. There were no external handles. You opened the doors on early cars by stroking a sensor under the upper doorpanel return, but that was eventually replaced by a button.
Under the front of the car you'll see a drain pipe. That's supposed to channel water from the scuttle area, but it can come away at the top end with predictable results. Don't let anyone convince you that it's an expensive or difficult fix. While you're under there you may notice some damage to the airflow deflectors that are fitted ahead of the front wheels and also to the floorpan. That's pretty normal and not something you need to worry too much about.
12C rear lights are known for misting up. Many were replaced under warranty. If a car you're looking at has this problem, you can save the expense of a new unit by drilling the unit and putting a bung in the hole once the moisture is out.
Staggered wheel sizes (19 front, 20 rear) means that there's no spare. Most owners carry 'mushroom' tyre plug kits and a compressor.
The 12C is easy to park, fits into a standard size garage, and has a workable ride height. That sort of thing might seem a bit mimsy in a discussion about 200mph cars, but worrying about hitting road furniture that you can't really see or scraping the bottom as you pull into your driveway or petrol station soon gets old. The hood of the Spider can be deployed on the move and is generally squeak- and leak-free, but the wind strips can lose their efficacy.
Not everyone will feel comfy on first climbing into a 12C, but the range of adjustment on the steering wheel quickly allays any fears most drivers will have about finding a good driving position. Although the multi-textured wheel itself is nicely uncluttered and button-free, its rim shape (purportedly based on Lewis Hamilton's preferences) annoyed some. The quality and layout of some of the switchgear was slightly disappointing but the indicator stalk was a thing of beauty, the Meridian hi-fi was stonking and there was no distracting excess of toys in the cabin.
Gauging the pedal weights was a skill 12C owners needed to acquire. Besides being highly sprung, the throttle pedal has plenty of travel. The rate of first-gear creep with your feet off the pedals might take a first-time driver by surprise too.
Although 12C build quality when new was excellent, the dash can get a bit rattly over time. Backlighting for the driver's side control panel does fail, and that can be £1,000 to put right. The dual climate control system was more efficient and quieter on 2012-on cars, which also had redesigned seats, rain-sensing headlights and a revamped sound system to further increase passenger comfort. The carbon interior is widely regarded as a 'must-have'.
In 2014 McLaren launched a revised IRIS 2 Android infotainment system. At the time this was considered to be a worthwhile upgrade over the original IRIS, even if it was a £3,000-plus screen and button panel retrofit, as IRIS 2 provided a better screen, better sat nav, voice control, phone tethering, audio streaming, less fiddly inputting, and the facility for a rear-view camera. In all honesty though it was only a relative improvement as neither IRIS system was much to shout about. They weren't very good at multi-tasking and the sat nav was never brilliant.
In 2009 McLaren Automotive's MD Antony Sheriff talked about the company's tradition in designing cars that endured, that in 25 years would still look contemporary, well-proportioned and purposeful, and that would still be easy and practical to drive.
We haven't quite reached the quarter of a century mark with the 12C yet, but on the styling front at least few will argue that this McLaren has breezed through its first decade. Most of the evidence accumulated so far suggests that it won't give you too many nasty swipes on the ownership side either. Although they're not perfect, and parts prices are high, the core vehicle appears to be strong and reliable. Fuel consumption figures beginning with a 3 are easily achievable on motorway journeys and £1,000 a year should cover you for servicing. Original-spec brake pads last well, even if you're trackdaying the car.
There are about a dozen McLaren dealers in the UK along with some well respected independents like Thorney Motorsport or Alastair Bols. John Thorney has a great reputation for knowledge and customer care. His own 12C has been modded to over 700hp and he regularly attends owners' club meetings where he provides free inspections. He'll do a pre-warranty inspection on your 12C for £400 or so and then sell you a very straightforward warranty that promises to look after your vehicle for 12 months. The only exclusions are reasonable wear and tear, abuse (which doesn't mean you can't do trackdays), trim squeaks and rattles, and non-Thorney mods. That warranty will cost you £2,850, which is about £900 less than an 'official' warranty. When you realise that a leaking 12C damper can be as much as £7,000 to put right, that sounds like good value.
We've talked about the Ferrari 458 in this piece, too much some of you may think, but there's no getting away from the fact that, in extreme driving situations, the 458 owners will divvy up more pure fun. But away from those rarely-visited limits, in the more normal conditions that most of us drive in, the McLaren delivers. The traction control system lets you drive ridiculously quickly and safely even in the worst British weather. The ride is tremendous, as is the visibility both forwards and rearwards thanks to the superb mirrors. The front boot holds a decent amount of luggage, and the safety-first chassis control setup that made early cars slightly less rewarding than the Ferrari at very high speeds will also allow the 12C to repeatedly knock off lap times within a fraction of a second of a Ferrari 458's in an utterly drama-free fashion.
Ferrari supporters will say that's the point, and that 12C owners will never experience 458 levels of unbridled joy, but if you aren't too fussed about uncovering the sort of limitations that only manifest themselves at silly speeds, if you're happy to trade momentary belly laughs for a long-lasting calm smile, and if you put a high value on everyday comfort and useability, then the 12C seems like a pretty intelligent choice.
You can add another big plus to that list of 12C benefits, which relates to the saving of a shedload of cash. Today, price is the key differentiator between the 458 and the 12C, and something that should really grab your attention. When both cars were new you could easily option either of them way beyond the £200k mark. Now, a 2012 458 with 5,000 miles on it will be around £150,000. A 12C from the same year with the same mileage will be literally half that. Seriously. Even the dearest 12C currently on PH Classifieds (and it's the dearest 12C on there by a long way too) is cheaper than the cheapest 458.
These prices seem crazy for a fantastically talented sports car that's also rare, with fewer than 300 coupes in the UK and maybe a hundred Spiders. Only two years ago, a 2011 12C with a thin spec would be up around £100,000, while a '12 car would be £10k on top of that, or even £20k more with the right bits. The cheapest Spiders were £120,000 and you could pay up to £135,000 for a late, top-spec car. The drop in values since 2018 has been terrible news for existing owners but great news for prospective ones. Fill your boots.