0-60mph 3 seconds
Quarter mile 10.9 seconds
2,868 lb curb weight
McLaren’s painstakingly groomed reputation holds that little if anything in its operations — the racing team, the fledgling automaking division or even its electronics or catering subsidiaries — happens by chance. Here, technology has been advanced to unfathomable levels; each detail is the intentional result of rigorous consideration.
The glass-walled headquarters, which houses a treasury of cars that McLaren wielded in pursuit of grand prix championships as well as wins at the Indianapolis 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, aptly set the context for my drive of the MP4-12C, a wickedly fast two-seat coupe expected to arrive in the United States at the end of the summer.
Implicit in the McLaren name and racing legacy — and taken to unprecedented heights by the McLaren F1 model of the 1990s — is an allegiance to pure uncompromised performance.
With a midmounted 592-horsepower V-8 and a curb weight under 3,300 pounds, the 12C’s performance is squarely in supercar territory — at the upper end, in fact. Yet the 12C was engineered for the road, unlike the competition McLarens whose superstar drivers and on-track accomplishments were detailed by my knowledgeable guide.
So even if the 12C carries the genetics of those forebears, to compete against thoroughbred sports cars like the Ferrari 458 Italia it must temper that performance with civility. To some carmakers, that might mean backing off the ragged edge, but to Antony Sheriff, the managing director of McLaren Automotive, that would never be a consideration. Only a super sports car that would be best in class in every respect, yet still usable every day, would do.
“It needed to be the best shortstop ever,” said Mr. Sheriff, a New York City-raised Yankee fan who is given to occasional baseball analogies.
At McLaren, such a quest is just a cue to dig deeper into the technology vault — or invent a solution, if necessary. While the components come from around the world — the transmission is from Italy and the carbon-fiber chassis from Austria — Mr. Sheriff emphasized that all of the pieces, down to the dashboard switches, are McLaren creations.
Meeting the 12C for the first time — in this case, car PP9, a close-to-production, left-side-drive example — does nothing to diminish the impression of McLaren’s all-business demeanor. The last-century notion of a door handle has been discarded; a sweep of your hand under the ridge that leads back to the side air scoops will undo the latch and let the door arc effortlessly upward.
The action is more than a gesture of grand entrance, Mr. Sheriff explained: the articulated motion results in a door that when fully open is neither as wide as a conventional hinge arrangement or as high as a gullwing. It is not for dramatic effect, but purposeful practicality — you don’t want to knick the Accord in the next space at the mall, right?
Even before the engine roars to life, the 12C delivers surprises. Pulling the door shut does not set off the claustrophobia alarms. The forward view is surprisingly uninhibited, an impression confirmed minutes later on a drive through the Surrey countryside. When I mentioned to Mr. Sheriff that even the rear view was excellent, his response was a pure reflection of McLaren ideology: “That is by obsession.”
The dashboard is dominated by an enormous tachometer and the center console has a bare minimum of switches. The steering wheel, bless the designers’ hearts, has none, unless you count the gearshift rocker behind the spokes. The materials are rich and well detailed, but there are none of the trimmings you might expect in a USD $231,000 car.
Well, not exactly. For enthusiast drivers, the luxury is found in two knobs on the center dash panel, just under the starter button, which let the driver choose normal, sport or track settings for the suspension and engine controls.
Starting out in the normal setting proved a relief for a reporter unaccustomed to driving on the left side of the road. Even taking the left-drive car onto English lanes and motorways, the 12C never felt intimidating. It managed bumps with poise, and only the most pleasant sound levels from the engine — remember, it sat just behind me — made it past the carbon-fiber bulkhead.
Start cranking the knobs clockwise and magical things happen. The response from 3.8-liter engine sharpens, and more of its bark (but never a lot) enters the cabin. The shifts of the 7-speed dual-clutch transmission get quicker. Buttons for the launch control and a loaded-for-bear Pre-Cog function (for even faster shifts) await more adventurous owners.
By McLaren’s measure, the 12C can reach 60 m.p.h. in as little as 3 seconds; a run through the quarter mile is over in 10.9 seconds. With torque peaking at a low 3,000 r.p.m., the kick is available with a tap of the right toe.
Offsetting that rush are the equally impressive brakes, simply the best I have ever experienced — even with the standard iron rotors, not the optional carbon ceramic set. For higher speeds, an air brake is mounted on the rear.
No less a jaw-dropper is the suspension system that McLaren calls ProActive Chassis Control. Beyond the conventions of coil springs and double wishbones, the 12C takes a considerable departure from common practices.
What looks like shock absorbers are a set of linked hydraulic cylinders that work with a pair of pressure accumulators to soak up bumps and distribute forces. There are no antiroll bars: the task of keeping the car level through turns is handled entirely by hydraulics.
In action — something revealed in an abrupt evasive maneuver on the motorway as well as on the tight curves of local two-lanes — the ride can be both limousine smooth and brilliantly controlled. Here’s the takeaway: the performance is there, but no sacrifice is demanded. The 12C manages to excel in every measure without the penalties of harshness or uncivilized behavior.
I am less sure what to make of the styling. Subtle messages are seen throughout. The sickle shape alongside the headlights is a representation of the kiwi bird, a nod to the homeland of the company’s namesake, Bruce McLaren.
There is an undeniable beauty in the car’s unswerving devotion to function, expressed without apology in the enormous side scoops behind the doors and the not-quite-resolved air intakes at the front end. It is not easy to design a midengine car with good proportions.
What the 12C leaves to its admirers to decide is where the car falls in the hierarchy of market competition. It is fantastically capable, but it will be months before we get a real sense of its limits.
Yet the McLaren badge breeds another level of expectation — that this car, priced in the thick of its segment, would be as head-and-shoulder superior as one expects from the nameplate. In short, a supercar.