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The McLaren 12C has extraordinary pace and handling, but is a touch clinical

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There could hardly be a more difficult mission for a new supercar company than setting out to beat Ferrari at its game, but that’s the task McLaren has set itself with the McLaren 12C, a natural competitor in terms of performance, price and mechanical layout to Ferrari’s universally admired 458 Italia.

And make no mistake, McLaren is a relatively new supercar company. It has had two previous forays into road cars, but the F1 of the early ’90s, and the spec and positioning of the more recent SLR was so heavily governed by Mercedes-Benz that it couldn’t really be called a pure McLaren.

Ferrari has much to be concerned about

According to its founder and chairman Ron Dennis, the company plans a three-tier model range: the £170,000 12C is first, the super-expensive P1 is second, and an “affordable" £120,000 model is around the corner.

The 12C (initially called MP4-12C, but it was too much of a mouthful) is most definitely a pure McLaren. Its broad mid-engined mechanical layout is familiar among supercars but it bristles with McLaren-only technology.

Under the skin you'll find a relatively small twin-turbo V8 of unprecedented efficiency and power, a carbonfibre tub chassis made using a revolutionary McLaren-designed process, and an all-independent double wishbone suspension so capable and widely adjustable that the 12C can be made to drive both like a softly damped saloon and a pure-bred racing car.

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The icing on the 12C cake is its manufacturing process: McLaren has built a magnificent factory adjacent to its lakeside technology centre – already an architectural icon – where future McLarens will be built to the highest standards.

McLaren says it’s built and maintained to the sort standards popularly attributed to Ron Dennis himself, with the keenest possible eye for quality of materials and high manufacturing standards.

The car is good, especially after an extensive bout of factory upgrades (including a power hike) but it’s not yet perfect.

DESIGN & STYLING

McLaren 12C dihedral doors

The 12C’s styling has always been controversial, mainly because it was never as instantly eye-grabbing as Ferrari’s 458.

However, if the reaction of onlookers is anything to go by, the 12C’s looks are ageing well, helped by the fact that, as far as the punter is concerned, this is currently 'the McLaren', whereas Ferrari’s 458 is merely part of a four-tier range. Late in its gestation, the shape is in danger of looking a little dowdy, but some attention to its grille and lights at both ends have made the difference.

To open a door on early cars you had to run your hand along the underside of the side strake, which could give you grubby fingers

Unlike the Ferrari 458, the McLaren has a carbonfibre tub produced in one piece by a revolutionary McLaren-developed process. Its twin virtues are extreme lightness and rigidity, and the fact that the same structure can be used as the basis of the 12C coupé and Spider.

It is also closely related to the P1 structure (with further structural components). Aluminium subframes are mounted at each end to carry the engine, front and rear suspension and ancillaries, and to provide a crash structure. Body panels are made from a mixture of aluminium or composite materials, but to keep repair costs under control none of the outer skin is made from carbonfibre.

For the first time, McLaren has specified a unique engine, developed and built in the UK by Ricardo. Forced induction will soon become essential for supercar efficiency (AMG’s latest engines rely on turbos, as will Ferrari’s upcoming V8s) but McLaren has taken a leap into the future by using 3.8-litre, twin-turbocharged, flat-crank V8 that generates a spectacular 616bhp at 7500rpm plus 442lb ft between 3000rpm and 7000rpm.

Its specific outputs of 162bhp per litre and 117lb ft per litre both beat any rival. The engine started life with 'only' 592bhp, but a collection of upgrades that sharpened throttle response also lifted peak power to the current 616bhp.

As in the Mercedes-AMG SLS and Ferrari 458 Italia, the gearbox is a Graziano-built, seven-speed dual-clutch automatic unit with a manual, paddle-shifting override. The control electronics are all-McLaren, a fact noticeable in the impressive speed and smoothness of gearchanges.

Where the McLaren differs most from rivals is in its suspension design. Like most cars of its ilk it uses coil-sprung double wishbones at each end, but the rule-braking part is a set of linked hydraulic dampers, each of whose internal pressures (and thus damper rates) can be varied to resist roll and pitch, and also deliver three levels of ride quality according to the driver’s choice. The system removes any requirement for conventional steel anti-roll bars.

As standard, the MP4-12C’s disc brakes are steel, with carbon-ceramics an option. McLaren says the steel discs can give a shorter stopping distance but that carbon-ceramics are more resistant to fade with repeated track use.

As such, they’re fitted to all of McLaren’s demo cars but are likely to be the preferred option of just 30 percent of customers.
 

INTERIOR

McLaren 12C dashboard

Getting in and out of the McLaren will be a broadly familiar experience to owners of cars with similar cockpit tubs, whatever their construction material.

A Lotus Elise, Mercedes SLS or Ford GT each requires occupants to hurdle a wide sill, which in the MP4-12C is coupled to a door that could be awkward to open (due to its electric release) and reluctant to close without slamming. Early cars had a 'touch' exterior catch, actuated by stroking, but it was never sufficiently reliable and has been replaced by a button.

The steering wheel is a lovely size and rim width, but a bit too squared-off for my personal tastes

Drop yourself into the McLaren’s two-seat cabin and you’ll find it’s a more businesslike cockpit than rivals’. The driving position is straight and comfortable, the steering wheel small and relatively thin-rimmed – the same thickness as on a McLaren Formula 1 car, we’re told.

Likewise the 12C’s metal gearshift paddles resemble those regularly used by grand prix drivers and require a stiffer pull than those fitted to most road machinery.

Happily, the wheel is reserved for steering purposes only. Expensive column stalks, similar in feel and operation to Porsche units, are attached to the column, the only important fault being an elementary problem on the left-hand lever that allows it to be pushed into high beam while you’re trying to turn left or right.

We’d have liked more lateral support from the seats (electrically adjustable as an option) but otherwise the environment is hard to fault, though a few critics find it “too quiet”. Materials and switches are generally of high quality though there is an unconvincing finish on the chassis and powertrain mode switches, which look plastic even though they’re metal.

Worse still, they’re poorly labelled and not very intuitive. Whether you prefer the design of the 12C or Ferrari 458’s cockpit is largely subjective, but most who have driven the 12C believe the McLaren cabin slightly lacks the 'specialness' of the Ferrari.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

McLaren 12C 3.8-litre V8 engine

As things become measurable, the 12C starts to dominate. The 3.3sec 0-60mph time we recorded is pretty impressive, given that it equals the time we set in the dry for the Ferrari 458, but was recorded on a showery day with traction at a premium.

By 100mph under full acceleration the 12C’s 616bhp really asserts itself, allowing it to post a time of 6.7sec. It will cover the standing quarter mile in 11.1sec (with a terminal speed 131.5mph) and the standing kilometre in 20sec dead.

There’s noticeable turbo lag on a circuit, though you’d be hard pushed to detect it on the road

In short, the 12C is ferociously, apocalyptically quick. The minutiae will keep statisticians at it for a month, but basically, little else with four wheels, a windscreen and number plates will keep up with a 12C on full chat.

The quality of the McLaren’s noise is also impressive. At idle it makes a relatively purposeful burble and its turbos mean performance is strong even from very low revs, although it is naturally fastest towards its 8500rpm cut-off.

To say it ever bogs down would be an overstatement, but big normally aspirated engines such as Mercedes SLS’s 6.3-litre V8 are initially a little quicker to respond. Once over, say, 4000rpm, the needle truly flies around the tacho dial.

On a circuit there can be some turbo lag if you’re caught a gear too high, but you’d be hard pushed to detect it much on the road. The seven-speed transmission always shifts cleanly and smoothly although downshifts are not quite as whip-crack responsive as in a 458 Italia.

Left to its own devices in auto mode, the transmission will change into seventh at around 1000rpm, where the engine stays smooth even if it lacks responsiveness. Predictably, this is the mode in which CO2 emissions of just 279g/km are recorded.

RIDE & HANDLING

McLaren 12C cornering

Making a car that can sprint to 60mph in less than 3.5sec and forge on to 200mph is quite a feat, even for McLaren. Making it capable of lapping a circuit almost as quickly as a BTCC racing car is even more impressive. But the most surprising aspect of the 12C is undoubtedly that it can also be made to ride with a quality that at times equals that of a Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

The 12C’s suspension is remarkable for its ability to absorb bumps and maintain an eerie freedom from pitch and roll, regardless of whether you’re on a motorway or a mountain pass.

To reach the outer limits of the McLaren 12C’s ability you’ll need a circuit

Where it is less than impeccable is when there are quick, sharp chassis hits taken at speed, such as cats-eyes or drain covers, and then only because the noise they make is amplified within the chassis.

Only if the suspension takes another thump when already fully loaded – under braking, for example – do you feel it through the seat or steering wheel. All in all, the ride is arguably this car’s most impressive facet.

The 12C’s steering is also first rate. It’s smooth, slick, linear and capable of filtering out the worst of the feedback while allowing the good bits of feel to filter through. Our only criticism is that it might benefit from higher gearing near the straight-ahead.

The excellent steering and ride make the 12C a supremely unflustered car in which to travel cross-country, and one that allows you to tackle crests, corners and bumps with confidence. To reach the outer limits of the 12C’s ability you’ll need a circuit, and to turn up your commitment.

Ultimately, the 12C is communicative and adjustable, but unlike its more approachable rivals – the 458 Italia, for example – the 12C wants a specific driving style before it reveals all of its secrets. At its limit the 12C begins to understeer.

In a car with a limited-slip differential, power would enable you to counter it, but the McLaren has an open differential and relies on electronics to do this work, so you need a very heavy right foot to drive through the understeer because there are turbos to spool up too.

Once you get the knack, though, the McLaren is fabulously adjustable. It's just that you have to do things its way, not yours.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

McLaren 12C

On the face of it, the McLaren is a touch cheaper than the 458 Italia, but the 12C does not have standard carbon-ceramic brakes like the Ferrari. In any case, price is hardly a finite thing: it is remarkably easy to inflate the cost of either car with options.

Our estimates suggest the two will depreciate with much the same speed, with some of the more 'dressy' options not keeping their value as well as the vehicle itself.

The McLaren promises purchase and running costs competitive with its rivals

We achieved an average economy figure of 18.9mpg over our full road test, which is not to be sniffed at for a car delivering this sort of performance, and sounds somewhat more realistic than McLaren’s official 24.2mpg combined figure.

A touring consumption of more than 22mpg is even more impressive, and it means the car will cruise for well over 300 miles without needing refuelling. The glib view of supercars is that if you can afford the lifestyle you probably won’t choose your car for economy, but it’s not true. Even high performance car owners appreciate efficiency.

And for the record, the McLaren promises purchase and running costs of a very competitive level next to any comparable rival.

VERDICT

4.5 star McLaren 12C

Since we first tested the original 592bhp version of the 12C in 2011, McLaren has cured several of the flaws we said still allowed the Ferrari 458 Italia to sit at the very top of this class.

The car now has a more engaging engine note (though perhaps still not quite in the Ferrari’s class) plus sharper throttle response and more engine flexibility, especially lower down in the engine range.

The McLaren 12C is a magnificent machine

For some of our testers, more dramatic styling would have been a requirement, too, although the fact that it still falls a millimetre short of class leadership is not down to such subjective matters.

There is more to do with control layout and door closures, and maybe the on-limit handling could be a little more intuitive. But the McLaren 12C is a magnificent machine. That many of us expected it to redefine boundaries and expectations says a lot about the engineering talent we expected McLaren to unleash.

Maybe the Ferrari still holds a small lead, but we would back the engineers in Woking to make further big steps as time goes on.

Behind the scenes, they are certainly sparing no effort.

Steve Cropley

Steve Cropley Autocar
Title: Editor-in-chief

Steve Cropley is the oldest of Autocar’s editorial team, or the most experienced if you want to be polite about it. He joined over 30 years ago, and has driven many cars and interviewed many people in half a century in the business. 

Cropley, who regards himself as the magazine’s “long stop”, has seen many changes since Autocar was a print-only affair, but claims that in such a fast moving environment he has little appetite for looking back. 

He has been surprised and delighted by the generous reception afforded the My Week In Cars podcast he makes with long suffering colleague Matt Prior, and calls it the most enjoyable part of his working week.

McLaren 12C 2011-2014 First drives