McLaren MP4-12C, the daily supercar

Posted by: Shelton Kwan onApril 2nd, 2012

It’s been nearly 14 years since McLaren produced a road car completely in house for the public. The first time ever a car made not only for Europe, but also for North America. There were projects that had some McLaren Automotive DNA, most recently the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren. The first Ford Mustang SVO was created in conjunction with McLaren. The last of the Buick GNX’s were modified by McLaren (the US company founded by Bruce McLaren to support his Can-Am racers). None of these cars were 100% McLaren, which is what makes the MP4-12C so special. And we got to drive it.

If you’ve followed my writing over the years, you would know that I’m the biggest McLaren fan on the continent. I follow every F1 race live before sunrise, cheer on Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, wear McLaren watches and shoes, dress in McLaren gear like a typical douchebag to the point where it’s borderline embarrassing. So the chance to drive the new McLaren… let’s just say it’s a notch on the bucket list. With that being said, my job is to be as unbiased as possible in this writeup. Good luck with that.

The first thing I noticed about the car was how small it was. In pictures, the size looks closer to a Corvette. In reality, it’s smaller than my Porsche 911. Pictures don’t do this car justice whatsoever. In person, the lines are more aggressive, but still conveying the sense that every curve is there because the CFD simulations and wind tunnel testing says so. Design driven by technicality, with a touch of emotion. That’s not entirely a bad thing, but many will criticize that it’s not exotic looking enough. We’ll get back to that.

Jumping in the driver’s seat, as with every gullwing scissor door car I’ve driven, requires a bit of acrobatics for the untrained. It’s not as bad as some cars, definitely easier to get in and out of than a Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG, but it surely isn’t the ideal car to take a girl out on a date. Women with short skirts will be exposing a lot trying to get into the passenger seat for the first time, which I guess would make it an ideal car to take on a date. Of course, this is a driver’s car, and every piece of instrumentation, controls, is slightly angled, aimed and wrapped around the driver. And now, my first criticism. The way the monocoque is shaped, there is not much room for your left foot. I have size 12 feet, and I had to readjust the position so that the left foot didn’t interfere with my right foot on the brakes. Took a minute or two to get used to. As with any exotic, rear view is limited, and without backup cameras, it was a bit nerve wracking backing out of the parking lot onto the street.

Out on the road, the biggest surprise was how soft the car was in the normal mode. I’ve owned cars that punish the spine on a simple drive to the grocery store, so my description of soft might not be the same as someone who drives a family hauler. The best comparison I can make would be a BMW 335 in terms of ride quality. I did not expect an exotic to eat up bumps the way it did while still offering cornering forces that would embarrass most sports cars. Accelerating through the rev band, the sound was fairly tame too, which meant that I needed to change the powertrain and suspension settings to Sport.

It’s a completely different car in sports mode. The suspension tightens up, now closer to a 911 Turbo in terms of stiffness, the exhaust bark of the 600hp 3.8L twin turbo V8 is much more pronounced at high rpm’s, and the double clutch gearbox drops the clutch a little faster and harder on changes. Surprisingly, cornering felt about the same as normal mode, but turn-in was much sharper. Credit goes to the suspension and computer tuning department at McLaren to make the Normal mode perform the way it does while riding as smooth as it does. In track mode, the suspension stiffens up even more and the traction control backs off a bit, allowing a bit of sideways fun.

On a 0-100 run, which takes a blazing 3.3 seconds, there was absolutely no fuss. A bit of turbo lag at our higher altitude, but not worse than any other turbo car off the line. The computers perform an excellent job of managing traction, minimal wheelspin, just delivering the maximum amount of power that the 305/30-20 tires can handle. Each gearshift pounded into the next gear without any loss of power, the limited slip and traction control system ensuring that the car tracks perfectly straight. Hard on the carbon brakes for the next turnoff, the rear wing flips up and acts as an airbrake, reducing the already poor rear visibility to zero, giving you a completely valid excuse when you get pulled over 20 blocks later. Sorry officer, I didn’t see you back there. The carbon brakes, in conjunction with the air brake, hauls the car down fast. I misjudged every single braking point early by buslengths in my short drive.

And with that, criticism #2, which can be looked at as a compliment. The McLaren MP4-12C is a car that drives you, much like the GT-R, albeit significantly faster. It’s so easy and effortless to drive it fast that it instills a lot of confidence, and when you run out of confidence, the computers will save your ass. Over the years, my driving preference has swayed back and forth between cars that can help you drive consistently at the limit, and cars that takes 20 laps before you can sneak in a lap anywhere close to the limit. Today, I prefer cars that you have to learn, rather than cars that will let you nail a hot lap after 10 mins behind the wheel, hence, the criticism.

One of the interesting features of the MP4-12C is the gearbox’s pre-cog function. Much like a DSLR’s shutter button, the shift paddles has a half press to signal what gear you want next (lower or higher), allowing slightly quicker shifts. In reality, I couldn’t tell the difference between using pre-cog or not. The car knew exactly what I wanted to do, especially if you’re driving hard, just like any other dual clutch gearbox.

Near the end of the drive, I made my way through some city traffic, which let me get a sense of driving this car in the city. The dual clutch gearbox isn’t the smoothest one out there in city driving, slightly clumsy on shifts, which was a lot like the first generation VW DSG’s. This is not the first dual clutch exotic that’s exhibited this behavior, the Mercedes SLS AMG had the same issues, which was ironed out with a software update, so hopefully this will be addressed in the future. Another oddity, nobody knows what a McLaren is in North America. Driving around in a Ferrari, every gold digger is looking over wanting a piece of the action. In a GT-R, every kid is taking pictures of you like you’re a rock star. Not so in the McLaren, people have no idea what it is, and writes it off as just another sports car. And to me, that’s a good thing. Not so much if you are looking for a gold digger, or impressing young boys.

Overall, an absolutely amazing car, although slightly clinical. The McLaren MP4-12C is nearly the perfect daily drivable exotic that one day will end up in my garage. If you’re looking to add one to your stable, head on over to McLaren Toronto, there are a few allocations left this year for some lucky owners.

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