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2012 McLaren MP4-12C - First Drive

Back to the future.

Ian Kuah
Sep 8, 2011

Suspension guru Rhoddy Harvey-Bailey once explained to me that antiroll bars are only there to correct mistakes inherent in a suspension design. I recalled his words very clearly as McLaren Automotive’s MD, Antony Sherrif, explained the philosophy behind the suspension design of the new MP4-12C.

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The MP4-12C eschews the use of antiroll bars because they limit suspension movement as well as axle articulation, thus degrading the ride quality. Instead, McLaren employs an active ride system using hydraulic pressure in its computer-controlled, Tenneco-made active damping system to resist roll. The interconnection of these dampers, front and rear and side-to-side, to control roll as well as dive and squat is a simple and elegant solution that takes advantage of the speed of current microprocessors to effectively sidestep an age-old mechanical problem. A further advantage is that it can be programmed for various modes of operation, with the choice of Comfort, Sport and Track modes at the driver’s fingertips.

Eager to show that their new car can really walk-the-walk, McLaren invited me to drive the MP4-12C on public roads around Dunsfold in Surrey, followed by a maximum attack session on the runways of the nearby airfield where the British Aerospace Harrier VTOL fighter-bomber was once made. It’s also the location of the famed Top Gear test track.

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The MP4-12C uses micro switches embedded under the horizontal surface of the lead-in strake of its carbon-fiber doors. Run your hand under the area where you would expect a handle to be and the butterfly door springs ajar. The angle of the door opening mimics that of the legendary McLaren F1 from two decades ago.

The MP4-12C eschews any such visual showmanship with its straightforward, partially analog instrument pack. The most important display in any driver’s car is the rev counter, and it is central to the McLaren’s instrument layout.

Starting the engine is as simple as pressing the Start button on the console. The twin-turbocharged V8 fires with a healthy growl and settles down to a relatively deep, but quiet, grumbling idle. Forced aspiration muffles the flat-plane crank V8’s voice considerably, and the loud racecar-like bark that some consider part and parcel of the Ferrari and Lamborghini ethos is conspicuous for its absence.

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Where every other manufacturer uses independent left and right paddle shifters, McLaren has chosen a single-piece, F1-style, centrally pivoting paddle to operate its Graziano-made seven-speed dual-clutch SSG (Seamless Shift Gearbox) transmission. Thus, when you upshift by pulling the right paddle towards you, you’ll see the corresponding left side of the paddle move away from you.

In practical terms, this makes no difference to its operation. What does make a difference is the mechanical click and the greater and more positive effort required to select a gear compared to the low-effort micro switches triggered by the paddles of rival systems. McLaren claims this more deliberate movement makes for a more authentic driving experience; this is how the shifters work on their F1 racer.

The 3.8-liter power unit, designed from scratch, is both powerful and torque-rich, with 592 hp at 7000 rpm and 443 lb-ft of torque between 3000 and 7000 rpm. Performance is also aided by the McLaren’s relatively low weight. Tipping the scales at under 3,200 pounds, thanks to its carbon-fiber tub and aluminum and SMC plastic body panels, it is 112 pounds lighter than its chief rival, the Ferrari 458 Italia.

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McLaren claims 3.3 seconds for the 62-mph run. Top speed is 330 km/h, or 205 mph, making it the fastest car in this class.

Mere numbers cannot describe how fast this car feels when you plant your right foot. The twin-turbo V8 produces sensational thrust—strong, smooth and relentless, and although peak power occurs at 7000 rpm, it revs smoothly to over 8000, with the cutout set at 8500.

Initially, I left the transmission to its own devices, and it did a better job of impersonating a proper automatic gearbox than most. But it’s not the way to drive a supercar, so I switched the system to manual. The SSG really does what it says on the tin. Fast and seamless, it makes full use of the healthy torque curve to give you one long, sustained blast of acceleration from zero to top speed. This is epic stuff.

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It has been a whole year since I last drove the Ferrari 458 Italia, but my memory of this equally amazing car is still crystal clear. While the McLaren V8 beats it for torque and perceived potency, the naturally aspirated Ferrari engine is snappier to respond, with a more visceral sound and feel.

However, against the stopwatch the McLaren is simply faster, and as accomplished as the Ferrari’s chassis is, the McLaren’s is better, especially on the bald limit where it seems almost impossible to make it misbehave. With the electronic nanny disabled, a drift in the McLaren is exactly that. In the Ferrari, it can snap you around in a heartbeat if you’re not on top of it when it finally lets go of the tarmac.

There are times when a new car redefines the rules, and in ride quality, the MP4-12C does just that. As we trundle along the perimeter roads of the airfield, I’m amazed at the car’s supple ride and handling ease. Bounce and rebound control in Normal mode are worthy of a good sport saloon like a BMW M5, with a secondary ride that takes the edges off sharp bumps. Ramping up the pace, the primary ride and body control over long-wave undulations prove to be spectacularly good.

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Like all cars that have three suspension settings, the McLaren’s best overall mode is the middle one: Sport. The extra bit of damper control removes any hint of softness over crests, reduces body roll in fast corners, and gives an extra dose of precision to the steering when turning in to a bend. The light and ultra-stiff carbon tub creates a stable and strong structure so the suspension can thus be calibrated for performance and comfort with little compromise.

I briefly put the suspension in Track mode, but just a few hundred feet told me that the enhanced bounce stiffness was eating into the ride comfort on less than perfect surfaces. While this setting is not as aggressive as some, it simply offers no performance advantage on a real-world road, while detracting from the serenity, balance and traction offered by the superbly judged Sport setting.

Some say the power steering is too light. I’m negatively sensitive to cars with over-light steering and have driven cars whose steering is really too light, others that are too heavy, and the odd one that is just plain nervous. The McLaren is none of these. Thus, I found it easy to take this car to the limit of adhesion through a slalom on the airfield runway straight off the bat, and never had cause to think about it on either road or track.

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Pushing harder and harder on the Top Gear test track, the MP4-12C seemed to get better the faster it went. Driven with real purpose, in Sport and then Track modes, it astounded with its front-end grip, its ability to deploy its awesome power and its intuitive balance. Understeer is minimal and of the stabilizing kind, unless you really pile into a tight bend carrying far too much speed. Aided by its Brake Steer electronic wizardry helping to negate understeer and aiding traction out of bends, this is a car that helps an average driver and makes a good one look like a hero. Even at the limit, with the safety systems loosened up, the MP4-12C seemed like it would never run out of talent. Eventual breakaway at the rear is so progressive, so well telegraphed compared to other mid-engine cars, you’d have to be fast asleep to not catch it.

The brakes are spectacularly effective. Easy to modulate and full of feel on the road, the bespoke lightweight steel rotor and alloy caliper system from Brembo/AP Racing saves weight over a conventional design, making the ceramic option seem like an expensive extravagance.

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To test its mettle to the full, I made a simulated emergency stop from 160 km/h (100 mph) on the runway. The McLaren scrubbed speed like a pair of anchors had been thrown out; I removed both hands from the wheel. The car just stopped dead straight with no drama. The built-in anti-dive feature of the active damping, and the air brake effect created by the rear spoiler rising to its maximum angle, help to keep weight transfer in check and enhance braking performance.

However, there are times when sheer power alone is not enough, and if the McLaren beats the Ferrari in the chassis department, it loses points on engine charisma. No turbocharged motor has as sharp a throttle response as a good normally aspirated one, least of all one as brilliant as the Ferrari’s. And even in Track mode, when the MP4-12C’s otherwise purposeful soundtrack is at its best, it is still not as spine tingling as the Ferrari’s.

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In the end, the depth and breadth of the McLaren MP4-12C’s abilities are simply astonishing, and as a complete package, the MP4-12C rewrites the supercar book so convincingly that any rival will be hard pressed to match its unique spread of abilities. While it may be too perfect in some ways for some tastes, the important thing is that it exists. The supercar bar has been undisputedly raised a whole notch higher.

2012 McLaren MP4-12C

Longitudinal mid-engine, rear-wheel drive

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3.8-liter V8, dohc, 32-valve, twin-turbocharged

Seven-speed SSG automated manual

Front and rear independent double wishbones, active dampers, anti-dive and anti-squat

Alloy calipers, lightweight steel rotors

Length/Width/Height (in.): 177.4/75.2/47.2
Wheelbase: 105.1 in.
Curb Weight: 3,161 lb

Peak Power: 592 hp @ 7000 rpm
Peak Torque: 443 lb-ft @ 3000 rpm
0-62 mph: 3.3 sec.
Top Speed: 205 mph
MSRP: $270,000

By Ian Kuah
101 Articles



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