McLaren’s Supercar Is Ferrari-Beating Jet on Wheels

McLaren MP4-12C
A McLaren MP4-12C. The car has a top speed of 205 mph. Photographer: Morgan J. Segal/McLaren via Bloomberg

The McLaren supercar is as close as you’ll ever come to an asphalt-bound fighter jet. I’m screaming down a racetrack straightaway so quickly that I’d swear my silver car actually has after-burners.

I lift off the gas, downshift a gear and kite into a tight U-shaped curve, only brushing the brakes once. A warning chimes in my brain, telling me I’m going to crash into a wall or go into a terrible spin. Too much speed, too complicated a turn.

As tested, this McLaren is $292,800. So that would be bad.

Yet it does exactly what I ask of it, swooping through on wings. It’s so fast, so flawless, into G-force-inducing corners that I only equate it with a war bird, unaffected by earthbound forces like traction.

The McLaren MP4-12C starts at $231,000 and pushes the extreme edge of what a street-legal car is capable of.

Fans of Formula One racing know the name McLaren. Now based in Woking, England, the company has been around since the mid-1960s, created by driver Bruce McLaren. He died on a racetrack in 1970, testing a new car.

Since then, McLaren has only released two street-legal cars to the public, the 1990s F1 three-seater, which hit a then-record of 242 miles per hour, and the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren (a joint project between the two companies, with production from 2005 to 2009).

So, like an extremely tardy debutante coming out for the supercar ball, the McLaren MP4-12C coupe arrives. (Alpha-numeric names are tiresome and the McLaren’s verges on a “Spinal Tap” level of farce. I simply call it the McLaren.)

Ferrari Buyer

Aimed at the same buyer as the Ferrari 458 Italia, the mid-engine supercar is powered by a mighty V-8. McLaren was not going to take the Ferrari by dint of drop-dead sexiness. It’s British, after all.

Most of the magic comes from the technical stuff, of which there’s a lot, gleaned from winning F1 races. This starts from the bottom up. The chassis is made of molded carbon fiber, extremely light, rigid and expensive.

The twin-turbo V-8 gets 592 horsepower and 445 pound-feet of torque. (The $220,000-plus Ferrari has 562 hp.) The McLaren weighs only 2,868 pounds, and it will find 60 miles per hour in 3.2 seconds, using launch control. (Blat! goes the engine, squeak! go the wheels, bang! goes the lighting upshifts. And you’re at 60 on your way to a possible 205 mph.)

California Track

I test the McLaren’s outer limits on the road-course section of a NASCAR racetrack in Fontana, California. I’ve already taken it through town, over bad asphalt and into a windy route into the mountains.

It drives easily in civilian conditions. Leave the seven-speed double-clutch transmission in automatic mode and it buzzes through gears innocuously. (No manual transmission is available.)

Like most supercars, there’s little storage room and no back seats. The amenities (navigation system, air conditioner, stereo) all function fine.

The driving position is the most ergonomic, well-thought-out of any car I’ve driven. Like a jet fighter’s canopy, you can see all around you, able to look through corners and exactly judge the placement of fenders. Wheel and pedal placement is Cinderella-slipper perfect. It’s almost as if the entire car was built around the driving position. (It was.)

The most common complaint is the McLaren isn’t be-still-my-beating-heart sexy. This is true. A simple, dart-like shape, without extra gee-gaws or excessive gills or grills. To those who love Lamborghini embellishments, it vaguely underwhelms.

Hip Factor

The doors do fold up and out, but it feels half-hearted, an exotic embellishment pilfered from the 1980s. The designers were most interested in superior aerodynamics, hip factor be damned.

For good reason: I’m currently getting the scenery-blurring results of those aerodynamics. A young British racecar driver by the name of Dan Buxton is sitting in the right seat, coaching me to get the best use of the McLaren on the track.

This approach is, roughly, brake into corners far later than I’m accustomed, and then come off that brake way earlier than I’m comfortable with.

This is the secret of the McLaren: It is engineered to corner at frightening speeds.

It uses the brakes to help steer. Turn left at high speed, for instance, and a sensor brakes the left rear wheel, helping the car to swivel, and eliminating understeer. You’ll find this technology on other cars like the Audi S4, but I’ve never experienced it used so aggressively.

Fighting Physics

Meanwhile, a complex hydraulic system attached to each wheel helps eliminate body roll under hard cornering and lessens nose dive under hard braking. Basically it fights physics, allowing the car body to remain flatter and in better control.

While explanations of arcane technologies make my eyelids heavy, the real-world result is clear. I swing around faster and faster, braking later and later. The car seems to love it. The faster I go, the better it is.

I get out, sweat sopped and absolutely wowed. Who needs supercar embellishments? The McLaren’s extreme capability is the sexiest thing of all.

The 2012 McLaren MP4-12C at a Glance

Engine: Twin-turbo 3.8-liter V-8 with 592 horsepower and 445 pound-feet of torque.

Transmission: Seven-speed automated dual-clutch.

Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 3.2 seconds or 3 seconds with special racing tires.

Gas mileage per gallon: 15 city; 22 highway.

Price as tested: $292,800.

Best feature: Otherworldly handling.

Worst feature: Underwhelming exterior.

Target buyer: The supercar lover who cares more for extreme performance than adoring attention from onlookers.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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