The battleground is laid the moment you enter the McLaren Technology Centre, speak to the team behind the MP4-12C and witness the spotless surroundings in which it is assembled. Because none of us really believes that McLaren isn’t capable of producing a technical masterpiece; a street car imbued with a dynamic repertoire to make a Ferrari 458 seem as sophisticated as the SS Great Britain. No, the fascination with this first new machine from McLaren Automotive is whether the company can deliver a subjective performance as impressive as its exemplary engineering capabilities. Certainly, no street machine has ever been born of more fascinating, more impressive or, some might say, more sterile facilities.
The MP4 -12C is based around the company’s carbon monocell, a first for a sub-£200,000 supercar. It brings unprecedented weight saving and provides a much more rigid basis for the suspension system than a conventional steel or aluminium monocoque. Deformable aluminium arms protrude forwards, and behind the passenger cell in an aluminium subframe sits an all-new 3799cc twin-turbocharged V8, code name M838T, developed for McLaren by Ricardo Engineering. It produces some startling numbers: 592bhp at 7000rpm and 4421b ft between 3000 and 7000rpm, and yet only weighs 199kg.
A dual-clutch transmission (SSC in McLaren speak) comes from Graziano and offers seven forward gears with the added bonus of a ‘Precog’ function, allowing the driver to pre-load the clutch mechanism by holding one of the steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles for a virtually instantaneous gearshift.
If the powertrain is conventional, the chassis is revolutionary. McLaren has taken this cleansheet opportunity to impose an entirely new suspension method on the sports cars sector. All four corners have a pair of wishbones, a spring and a damper, but there are no anti-roll bars. Instead the MP4 runs a hydraulic system working alongside adaptive dampers and, on the rear axle, a Z-bar to connect the rear of the left upper wishbone to the front of the right upper wishbone. If it all sounds frightfully complicated, well, that’s because it is. The aim behind the design is fundamentally sound though: McLaren wants to separate the roles of comfort and roll-stiffness, insomuch as one tends to mitigate against the other in a conventional suspension set-up.
The idea here is that when running on a straight, bumpy road the damper is soft in terms of bump and rebound and there are no rollbars restricting wheel travel; the car is supple. The moment you introduce a direction change through the light but feel-some and accurate rack, the hydraulic system can apportion immediate support to the necessary corner — in other words, the car can resist roll.
In practice, the results are stunning. On smooth roads you don’t really notice anything especially noteworthy, but as conditions deteriorate the MP4-12C offers a quality of ride not only unprecedented in its class, but good enough to better many so-called luxury saloons. It planes lightly over surfaces your eyes suggest should cause great crashing intrusions into the cabin, and then the moment you turn the wheel for a corner the car is precise and mostly roll-free. At first it feels uncanny, almost unpleasant because the brain teaches the driver of a softly sprung vehicle to expect extreme roll angles, and when they don’t arrive, it’s confusing.
McLaren has wisely chosen to separate the driver’s control of electronic systems for the chassis and powertrain, something Ferrari has never done. In other words, it is possible to run a hard suspension setting with a less aggressive engine map and vice versa. There are three settings for each: comfort, sport and track. For the chassis this just means a gradual increase in roll stiffness and decrease in ride comfort; for the engine you are granted sharper throttle response, more intake and exhaust noise and a higher intervention threshold from the electronic safety systems. It’s all very clever and clinical: designed to allow the driver to extract the maximum performance from the package.
Emotionally, the MP4-12C is more guarded — a bashful, teenage, straight-A student. This is not a machine that bristles with character. It is beautifully built and ergonomically surprising: the heater controls are in the door panels, the clock set is dominated by a large — and must be said rather lovely — sparse rev-counter, which itself is flanked by two TFT screens displaying all necessary information. The driving position is low and exciting, the steering wheel comes to meet your chest and the two pedals are well sited. The seat isn’t too heavily bolstered and offers just enough support in the midriff. The car is key-less; instead the driver carries a small flint of carbon fibre.
On-track performance is vast. The car can be delivered on regular Pirelli P-Zeros or a softer Corsa version, but even on the harder street tyre the car summons huge levels of traction and grip: just as well, because the straightline potential is alarming. McLaren claims 0-62mph in 3sec and 0-124mph in 8.9sec. Top speed is an irrelevant 205mph, but what will matter to potential buyers is that the MP4-12C not only offers a palpable step in acceleration over a 458, it is also vastly more accessible because of its forced induction. It gives something away in terms of throttle response and ultimate, synapsetingling joy, but it is so effective you can’t help but grin. In sport and track modes it makes an enjoyable noise too, one that is cleverly channelled into the cabin, but it remains less interesting than a 458 and nothing like as buxom as the great woofing V10 in the Lambo LP-560-4.
There is a theme emerging here, and it can be traced through the adjectives the MP4-12C attracts in description. You see, this is a car that excels in almost every tangible area of performance, but which struggles with the more subjective notions of being-a-supercar. Take the styling: clean, inoffensive, aerodynamically perfect but, left next to a 458, sorely lacking in inspiration. Especially from the rear where the concentration of detail around those slatted taillights and the exhaust outlets draws the eye to a point far higher than should be the case on such a racing-slipper. There are suggestions of Ascari, even Lotus Evora in the MP4-12C’s silhouette, and neither of them helps counter the appeal of Ferrari’s stunning job on the 458’s coachwork. In the car park, the Ferrari already has this contest won by some margin.
Should cars of this type be judged in such crude terms? Absolutely. It doesn’t matter that McLaren has quite probably given us the most talented sports car ever made if in doing so it has forgotten the very foundations upon which cars of this type were born: raw, infantile excitement. Yes, you could use this car every day and it will ship you from Calais to Cannes in far greater comfort than any rival, but does that matter if, when you park up at the Carlton, you don’t feel in any way compelled to turn and admire its silhouette in the fading sunshine?
With Brake-Steer to chamfer turn-in, ProActive chassis to meld roll stiffness and ride, turbochargers for imperious overtaking and a family of computers to help the driver extract the most from it, the MP4-12C is a technology statement the like of which we haven’t seen since the company’s last road car. The difference is that for all its undoubted brilliance, just like the building in which it was created, the MP4-12C is ever so slightly grey.