Driven: McLaren MP4-12C

Clinical. It's a word that pops into your mind with remarkable frequency when asked to describe what the new McLaren is like to drive.

Is it a fair word to choose, considering how mind-alteringly good the MP4-12C is at just about everything it does? It depends entirely on your own personal expectations - both of what a car like the 12C should be like, and on what the word itself actually means.

For some, clinical will mean cold, grey and unemotional. For others it will mean efficient, effective, and devastatingly capable. Either way, there are certain facts about the new McLaren that are unequivocal.

One, at £168,500 it is cheaper - just - than its arch rival, the Ferrari 458 Italia.

Two, with 592bhp and 442lb ft courtesy of its 3.8-litre twin-turbo V8 engine (and weighing at least 50kg less than a 458) it's also faster than its nemesis from Maranello. Quite a lot faster, truth be told.

Three, beneath its slightly beige looking yet classically styled mid-engined supercar exterior, it's one of the most technically advanced road cars the world has ever seen.

And four, despite the vaguely Teutonic association one tends to make with the name McLaren Automotive (entirely unfair, of course), the MP4-12C itself is a 100 per cent Great British creation. Which is important, what with the British car industry having abandoned its greatness at around about the same time that Steven Spielberg decided to make a film about a very big fish.

The problem with creating a car that's so obviously aimed at the very best - yet which is a first-time effort from a brand new company, remember - is that unless you succeed on every level, you run the severe danger of being accused of failure; of not delivering on the promise. Yet at the same time there can be no greater motivation in life than knowing precisely what you have to beat, and that's primarily why the 12C is what it is; and, more to the point, is as good as it is.

McLaren knew that to put one over Ferrari it would need to use every trick in the book, and then invent a few new ones to go with them. Which is why it recruited from outside the regular car industry to dream up, and then execute, ideas to make the 12C really fly.

The result is a car with a genuinely radical (you could even describe it as clinical) suspension system that uses active dampers and hydraulics to provide its roll control. It also has an open differential, using instead a Brake Steer system to aid traction, similar to the one developed (and subsequently banned) during the Coulthard/Hakkinen years in Formula One.

On top of this it has an active air brake that deploys only when the car's matrix of sensors realises that A Very Big Stop is required. And then there's a whole host of conventionally complex technology to help the 12C along its journey to greatness; such as a seven-speed dual clutch gearbox, featuring what McLaren describes as a Pre-Cog selector mechanism that shifts ratios faster and more smoothly than any normal human could possibly believe. Plus traction control, ESC, launch control, ABD - you name it, the 12C has it.

Including a full carbon fibre tub from which the aluminium sub frames front and rear are then hung. If the all-round double wishbone suspension sounds familiar in its description, the way in which it operates is anything but. And it's the hydraulic anti-roll system that makes the 12c's chassis so extraordinary - so clinical - in its execution.

In practice there is effectively no roll when cornering, instead the car just turns in and heads for whatever apex you to aim it at. And then sticks. McLaren claims the hydraulically controlled, actively damped 12C generates up to 25 per cent more grip mid-corner than most conventionally suspended competitors. From the way it felt so nailed through any corner, and seemingly at any speed, around the Portimao circuit in southern Portugal where the Prototype Production launch was held recently, only a true cynic would accuse the engineers of hyberbole.

Be in no doubt, no doubt whatsoever; the 12C is an absolutely extraordinary car to drive. And what makes it so unusual, even in company as esoteric as the Ferrari 458, 911 Turbo, Lamborghini Gallardo et al, is its eye-watering all round capability. McLaren doesn't really do PR speak (it's a bit too clinical for that) but if pushed it will describe the 12C as an "and" car. Thus, it both rides AND handles better than any rival; it has better visibility AND more luggage space than any rival; it has more performance AND produces less emissions than any rival; AND so it goes on.

But what's most amazing of all, perhaps, is how far this car moves the game on in each and every dynamic area, seemingly without compromise, and in a market that's already bursting with extremely good cars. Its straight line performance is borderline ludicrous, the twin turbo V8 producing a constant wave of torque, even from as little as 1500rpm, that fires the 12C towards the horizon with more energy than you'll find in any rival, including the 458 Italia.

And it sounds pretty stonking when you give it the beans, too; perhaps not quite as spine chilling as a 458 but deeply satisfying nonetheless, albeit in a more clinical kind of way.

The gearbox, too, is phenomenally effective in the speed and precision with which it changes gear. As with the active suspension you can pick from a range of three different performance modes (Normal, Sport and Track), each one more aggressive than the next. Yet even in Track mode the shifts are smooth, the throttle response fast but not neurotically so.

The same thing applies to the suspension. Even in Sport the 12C rides better, much better, on rough roads than any rival in its most comfortable setting. And around a circuit, in any mode but especially in Track, it will remove the trousers and thoroughly spank any obvious rival it might encounter within the first few corners.

And in the end that's the thing about the 12C - the way in which it can, at the press of a few easy-to-understand buttons, transform itself so effortlessly; from a virtual racing car one minute to a smooth and spookily refined cruiser the next.

Never before has such a vast range of capabilities been available under just one roof. Never before has such monumental performance been so readily accessible to so many. And the real killer blow is that while the 12C can be driven rapidly and enjoyed by any driver, at almost any skill level, it also has secrets up its sleeve that only the true expert will want to unleash. That's where the variable active suspension settings come into their own.

And if you look very carefully in the driver's manual - on about page 86, written in very small letters - you'll even find that there's a way to turn all the electronics off. Only then will you discover the full fury of what lurks within this seemingly most clinical of supercars. But be warned; the 12C is raging monster at its core; one that will go from 0-100mph in 6.1sec and throw you sideways far more quickly than you can say its name; and only the bravest, the most skilled, or the most stupid of drivers will want to lift the lid to that particular box.

For the rest of us the MP4-12C is no more, and certainly no less, than the most capable supercar on the planet right now. Better than a 458? No, just different. And a whole lot faster. Everywhere.

(Read the Ferrari 458/McLaren MP4-12C comparo here - including 'stats')


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Comments (331) Join the discussion on the forum

  • MagicalTrevor 14 Feb 2011

    That sounds truely amazing and well worth the wait.

    Well done McLaren! Typical English understated delivery biggrin

  • andywaterfall 14 Feb 2011

    Nice review! Interesting to see the Sunday papers ignored the embargo; seems like some people aren't too happy about it:

  • wackojacko 14 Feb 2011

    Lovely looking , just think those doors ruin it (in my opinion).

  • Asterix 14 Feb 2011

    andywaterfall said:
    Nice review! Interesting to see the Sunday papers ignored the embargo; seems like some people aren't too happy about it:
    That's extremely bad form from The Times.

  • whythem 14 Feb 2011

    How can you describe ET as a big fish?

    Im glad Mclaren have produced such a great car, that can match the 458. As a Brit you'd just have to buy one over the Ferrari. However, I think the name is to long and boring, like 90210387465, and I'm not sure on the styling at the front, but the back looks great. Just hope for Mclarens sake it sells better than the Evora, which is another great Brit car that the press loved, but has not sold well.

    Good write up as well.

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