Andrew Frankel - Road cars

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MP4 looks like fun, not folly

There will be those who’ll look upon the new McLaren MP4-12C as an act of purest folly. They will point to McLaren’s first road car, the F1, and observe that despite being the fastest and most remarkable machine ever to wear number plates, it would have been a financial disaster had it not fortuitously turned out to be a rather good racing car, a role for which it was never designed. They will point also to the likes of the gorgeous new Ferrari 458 Italia and AMG’s first bespoke sports car, the Mercedes-Benz SLS, and ask why people will choose instead to buy a comparatively sober-looking McLaren and have to explain to all their mates what it is.

On the other side of this argument will sit those who’ll point to the specification of the MP4 (I make no apology for contracting its contrived and convoluted name) and suggest it’s going to change the way we think about supercars: 600bhp in a car weighing under 1400kg and boasting a carbon-fibre tub all for something less than £175,000 is not a combination of numbers with which we are familiar.

Of course the truth lies in some as yet undetermined point between these poles. Everything remains to be played for and despite now possessing a detailed specification of the car, I think this provides only a slim indication of its likely future success or otherwise. Even so, a closer look at what we do know is instructive.

I like very much that the MP4 is smaller in all significant dimensions than its rivals. The F1 had exactly the same attribute all those years ago, casting the same shadow as a Porsche 911, which itself was substantially more compact than it is today. It means there are a greater number of roads on which you can enjoy it. I like too its lack of ostentation inside and out: like the F1, the MP4 gives the impression of engineering-led design, a rare trait among fast modern cars.

The carbon-fibre chassis is no surprise at all, given it was McLaren that first started using carbon tubs in Formula 1 some 25 years ago and it has been part of the company’s brand identity ever since. Modern production techniques mean that it is viable in cars costing half the likely price of the MP4, so perhaps the more pertinent question is why the likes of Ferrari, Lamborghini and Aston Martin have yet to make series production cars from a material as strong, light, durable and brand- building as this.

The 3.8-litre, 600bhp twin-turbo engine is less expected. I can remember talking to Gordon Murray about the wonders of the 6.1-litre V12 engine used in the F1, in particular how only a normally aspirated engine could provide the throttle response, sound and torque characteristics he wanted. Ever since, I had always imagined that a company with such a focus on pure engineering would be the last to embrace forced induction for any future road car. Not so. Of course technology has progressed a great deal, but if you look at the MP4’s major competitors, all have chosen the atmospheric route. Clearly a small turbo engine is easier to package, spreads its (lesser) weight over a smaller area, and may well be more efficient than a larger, normally aspirated engine, but time alone will tell whether such a motor can fully satisfy all subjective criteria as well. In short, is this a car that’s going to make your knees tremble when it starts and make you hunt for tunnels, just so you can hear its sound bouncing off the walls? If not, an important trick has been missed.

Naturally, gears are shifted by paddles alone, and there are seven ratios which are likely to be stacked to promote performance rather than cruising ability.

I don’t doubt that the result will be the quickest car in its class. We know already that, on road as on track, the major competition will come from Ferrari. But with the MP4 boasting more power and torque and carrying, at worst, no more weight than the 458 Italia, the battle of the stopwatches should already be resolved in Britain’s favour.

But this is just where the competition starts. I am sure that with the stiffness of that carbon tub and talents such as those at McLaren, they can make the MP4 as impressive in the corners as it will undoubtedly be in a straight line. I’m sure, too, that all the experience gleaned from many years making Mercedes SLRs in Woking will ensure the MP4 is built to the exacting standards required.

What is less easy to predict, yet no less potentially prejudicial to the car’s future, is how successful McLaren will be in looking after the 1000 new customers it hopes will buy an MP4 each year. This is a car people will use every day and each one will have a very high level of expectation about how quick, easy and pleasant it will be to have the MP4 serviced and repaired. It will not be an ultra-rare and esoteric slice of automotive exotica for which allowances in this regard would naturally be made.

In reality, 1000 cars per year is a difficult volume to manage. Marques like Bentley, Maserati, Lamborghini and even Rolls-Royce which have in the past produced cars in approximately those numbers have all radically changed their businesses in order to make more. McLaren will do the same, and over time is aiming to build up a 4000-units-a-year business with up to five distinct models of which the MP4 is merely the first. That will make it only a little smaller than Ferrari, spreading their decades-old rivalry from track to road.

In the meantime, I wish McLaren all the best for the MP4. I like the way it looks and am excited by the potential of its engineering.

And I look forward to seeing how the likes of Ferrari and Lamborghini rise to the challenge it presents. It could be that many great supercars will be born as a result of the MP4, and by no means all of them McLarens.

*****

BMW mixes power with fuel efficiency

This may look like a 3-series BMW of no great distinction – it is in fact a minor miracle. It’s a 320d that’s so fuel efficient, its consumption and emissions (68.9mpg and 109g/km respectively) are identical to those of a diesel Citroën C1 city car. But unlike the C1, whose 1.4-litre engine will muster 55bhp and take you to 96mph, the BMW 320ED has 163bhp and will do 140mph. It takes 8.2sec to reach 60mph from rest, which is not only nearly twice as fast as the C1, but faster than any 2-litre diesel car in its class.

There are no smoke and mirrors here, no hidden hybrid drive. All BMW has done is worked hard to reduce internal friction in the engine, raised the gearing, fitted low rolling resistance tyres and aerodynamic wheels. And its best trick, a dual mass flywheel that makes the engine so smooth you’re encouraged to drive it at revs so low other diesels would threaten to stall, isn’t even reflected in the official figures.

At present the 320ED (for Efficient Dynamics) is available only as a manual saloon, but the technology is so compelling the people at BMW would be idiots not to roll it out across all compatible ranges. And they are anything but idiots. They’ve built a 140mph executive saloon with the CO2 emissions of a tiny shopping car. Methinks the days of the internal combustion engine are not quite so numbered…

*****

Honda ponders merits of Civic Mugen

There are some hot hatchbacks out there, some mad ones, but only one that’s entirely unhinged, and it is this – a Honda Civic Type R set upon by Mugen. The changes are huge. A near-race version of its 2-litre engine raises power from 197 to 240bhp. There’s uprated suspension, a Mugen limited-slip differential, Mugen-developed brake calipers, wheels so light each one saves 5kg of unsprung mass, plastic panels for the bonnet, bumpers and wings, and inside the front seats have been replaced by Recaros and the rears removed. The result is a 1162kg car, a saving of 105kg.

It will be some time before I forget the sound of the engine as it heads for 8800rpm and the astonishing traction and grip provided by the diff, suspension and hybrid road and track Yokohamas. Yet while I’d baulk at having one as an everyday car, as something to provide transport to a track day and an endless laugh while you’re there, there is much to be said for it.

It has two problems: first Honda has not yet decided to make it, and secondly, if it does, it will cost at least £30,000. Mugen argues that if you took a normal Type R and turned it into this car, it would cost £40,000. Honda says production is ‘very likely’ but will be limited to around 25 cars. But if customers get the chance to tailor the car to their wishes, so that it could be a road car with explosive performance or a pure track machine, it may be onto something.

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