McLaren 12C Spider

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Factfile
Engine: 3.8 litres, eight cylinders, petrol, twin turbocharged
Top speed: 207mph
Price: £195,500
Power: 616bhp at 7500rpm
Fuel/CO2: 24.2mpg, 279g/km
www.mcclarenautomotive.com

Naturally no one is saying so officially, but if you informally put it to McLaren that the MP4-12C supercar it launched last year wasn’t quite the finished item, you’ll not find many of its staff rushing to disagree with you.

Supplier issues meant it’s only very recently that a functioning navigation system has become available, but more fundamentally than that there was something not quite right with the way it drove. In isolation, each major area of the car seemed fully fit for purpose: the engine delivered pulverising acceleration, the gearbox cog swaps so swift the period of time between one clutch disengaging and the other taking up the drive was undetectable. And the chassis appeared to give superpowers to the car, enabling it to do things no other car in history could have managed. I remember driving it down a B-road made legendary among road testers for its terrible surface, schizophrenic cambers, sharp crests and vicious dips and knowing a Rolls-Royce Phantom would have been less composed.

And yet when you considered these systems not in isolation but as a whole, something was missing. The car was beaten by the slower Ferrari 458 in every comparison test I read, and it was not hard to see why. The package failed to gel, like a slew of Hollywood A-listers being gathered together to make a film and discovering they have no on-screen chemistry at all.

So it’s fortunate that the arrival of the Spider version afforded an opportunity to revisit the car a year on, a year in which it’s clear McLaren has been very busy indeed, and not just with the business of slicing the roof from the car.

In fact turning the 12C into a Spider (mercifully McLaren has dropped the `MP4′ prefix) appears to have been an almost entirely painless process, far from the engineering nightmare usually presented by turning a coupe into a convertible. The reason is simple: in structural terms the 12C was already a convertible onto which an unstressed roof panel was added to create the coupé. So there was no loss of torsional rigidity, no need to add hundreds of kilos of underbody bracing and no need to entirely re-engineer the suspension to cope with a far heavier, far floppier platform. The 12C’s weight has risen by 40kg, but that’s all in the electric motors required to make the two-piece roof panel slot elegantly behind the seats. Chief test driver Chris Goodwin told me they embarked on a programme to see what chassis changes might be required and realised almost immediately there would be none.

So given that it was always designed to be an open car it is a little odd to discover that when you drive it, the convertible component of the 12C Spider is now its least successful. When you chop the top off a car this fast, you do so fully expecting customers to drive it fast with the roof down. But McLaren has not got the wind management right and at only a small fraction of its potential pace voices need to be raised, hair starts to plait itself and buffeting in the cabin makes you want to either slow down or put the roof up.

Then again I’m probably missing the point. Do you buy a convertible McLaren to put you in closer touch with the elements or to let every passer by see exactly who’s so much richer than them? Happily McLaren provides a clever compromise that allows you to drive with the roof up but the rear screen down, so you can continue on your way in anonymity and comfort but still bathe your brain in the sounds of the 616bhp, 3.8-litre V8 motor.

But it’s not really the roof that interests me, it’s what’s happened to the rest of the car that really caught my attention in two delicious days in Spain with the 12C Spider.

The most apparently needless modification was the extraction of a further 25bhp from the Ricardo-designed V8, achieved not by raising the power curve but simply extending it: it just keeps going that little bit longer at the top end. I can’t say you can feel the extra shove that now allows it actually to out-accelerate the once presumed invincible McLaren F1, because when you’re being flicked from rest to 62mph in scarcely more than 3sec flat, your mind tends to be on other things. All I can say is that if the extra weight of that roof blunted performance to any discernible extent, the extra power more than makes up for it.

Far more noticeable is how the engine behaves, how it now relates to the gearbox and how these changes in turn change the way you feel about the entire car. The throttle response is now so sharp that while you’d never mistake it for anything other than a turbocharged car, no longer do you have to micro-manage the lag by applying the throttle in anticipation of the arrival of power. Similarly the gearbox software has been transformed: the changes were always quick in themselves but often dispatched some time after your fingers had given the command. No longer: so swift is it to react you can convince yourself it must have known when you were going to pull the paddle.

I guess all this could have been predicted, just by knowing how much work has gone on in Woking to address the 12C’s shortcomings. What I failed entirely to foresee is how radically these modifications to the car’s powertrain would affect the way the 12C handled.

McLaren is insistent, you might say adamant, that no revisions have been made to the 12C’s unique interactive, computer-controlled, antiroll bar-free suspension. And yet the last one I drove on the track needed to be driven in a very certain, methodical and precise manner if it was not to start being difficult. I resented the fact that I had to tailor my driving style to suit the way it had been set up. Yet after many laps of the fabulous full and fearsome circuit at the Ascari Race Resort, it showed an entirely reformed character. It understeered a touch more than I would like but it provided me with the confidence you simply have to have if you’re going to brake hard at the exit of a quick curve, or lob a mid-engined car with over 600bhp into tightening apex on a trailing throttle. In short, it was as rewarding and reassuring as the last 12C had seemed awkward and aloof.

I have therefore to conclude that it is the new-found immediacy and consistency of the engine and gearbox that are responsible. Simply put, when every twitch of your toe and flick of your finger affects the attitude of the car, the more instantly the powertrain answers to your commands, the more reliable will be the response of the chassis.

This is a very long way of saying the 12C is now the car it should have been from the start. You can take or leave the convertible element — and I’d definitely leave it — but as a supercar to go head-to-head with the best that Ferrari can offer, I’d say it is now and at last supremely fit for purpose.

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