Matt Davis, European Correspondent
Before today, debates on the performance of rear- and midengine cars generally boiled down to Ferrari vs. Porsche. But now, the 2012 McLaren MP4-12C threatens to stand alone beyond either. To quote the less-than-humble McLaren boss, Sir Ron Dennis, "It is the best-handling sports car in history."
And he should know.
Dennis was the team principal of the McLaren Formula 1 team between 1981 and 2009 and is the executive chairman of McLaren Automotive — the company responsible for the legendary McLaren F1 and SLR McLaren. When Dennis says a car handles well, we're willing to listen.
But to see for ourselves, we joined McLaren at the 17-turn, 2.9-mile racing circuit at Portimão in southern Portugal. There we experienced the full range of driving conditions — dry track, damp track, good and bad public roads and the car's comfort and track setups. It was demonstrated, in no uncertain terms, that McLaren has achieved a breakthrough.
Greater Than the Sum of...
Accomplishing world-beating status demands a world-beating powertrain and McLaren delivers with its 592-horsepower 3.8-liter twin-turbo V8 and rear-mounted, Graziano-built seven-speed twin-clutch gearbox. The massive power is a product of high boost (21.8 psi) and a nauseating 8,500-rpm redline. There's a long shelf of torque (443 pound-feet) extending from 3,000-7,000 rpm.
But perhaps the greatest point of contention surrounding the MP4-12C's specs was McLaren's choice to use an open differential and brake-steer technology borrowed from Formula 1. Traditionally, the idea of using the brakes to go faster has been a failure. McLaren's brake steer system operates on the inner rear wheel in fast corners. It observes steering angle and predicted trajectory with the goal of eliminating understeer and wheelspin at exit. And it works — seamlessly and invisibly. We were able to polish off most of Portimão's curves without breaking the customary sweat.
The seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, too, is a joy to operate. Because the shift paddles are mounted on a rocker, the driver can favor one hand over the other to perform both up- and downshifts — pushing on one paddle or pulling on the other — to accomplish the same shift. In Track mode, the shifts aren't just fast, but smooth. This is aided by the use of the Pre-Cog function where the shift paddle is preloaded so that when the shift is requested (with a full pull at around 7,500 rpm on upshifts), it's instantaneous — thanks to years of Formula 1 field testing.
Leave the transmission in Automatic mode with all "normal" settings engaged, and we were just as impressed with its functionality over southern Portugal's variety of roads as we were by its ability to dominate the track.
The Physics of Speed
Despite McLaren's encouragement to wean ourselves off the need for carbon-ceramic brakes, our test cars on track had the optional carbon stoppers and they are magnificent. Still, the standard two-piece iron-aluminum rotors — 14.6-inch front, 13.8-inch rear — get the job done.
The brakes are aided on the track by an air brake that substantially increases deceleration of the 2,945-pound machine. A fore/aft weight distribution of 42.5/57.5 — nearly identical to the Ferrari 458 Italia — makes the dynamics even more lively. The McLaren, with an 0.8-inch-longer wheelbase, is 1 inch shorter overall. Its well-planned interior, however, buys space and shrewdly shifts human mass to the middle.
McLaren offers multiple weight-saving options that are capable of reducing the car's weight to 2,868 pounds. They include "superlight" wheels, carbon sport seats (Recaros are standard), Pirelli P Zero Corsa tires, a carbon splitter and diffuser, a sport exhaust and the aforementioned carbon-ceramic brakes.
Every element of the McLaren works together to create a lower polar moment of inertia than any Ferrari or Porsche. Bending and twisting rigidity are higher than any model from those brands as well — two qualities which manifest themselves in the MP4-12C's handling. Getting the new McLaren to do whatever we wanted it to do was easier than an Ariel Atom or Lotus 2-Eleven track toy, only here those dynamic qualities are joined by all the refinement and substance required in this segment. A risky statement, maybe, but also a powerful differentiator.
Besides the car's insane powertrain, McLaren built sophisticated chassis control into the MP4-12C, which it calls Proactive.
There are two chief command clusters on the narrow center console: "H" means handling and it sets the suspension, steering and stability control for Normal, Sport or Track; "P" means powertrain and has the same modes for throttle mapping, gearshifts and management of the intake plenum tone inside the cabin. At the center of the H cluster is the "Aero" button for fixing the air-brake rear wing at 15 degrees. The transmission is locked in Manual mode if you press the "Manual" button at the center of the P cluster. But before you fiddle with any of these controls, you'll need to punch the "Active" button right at the center of all things near your right hand.
As expected on any track, we immediately selected the settings with the Aero and Manual buttons lit. The McLaren's adaptive dampers with hydraulic roll control perform sensational duty under the highest lateral g-forces with no help from mechanical antiroll bars front or rear. In the same sense, there is no nosedive under torturous braking, nor any lift while exploring launch control.
With things kept so constantly level, we were liberated to seek out every talent of the MP4-12C, and discovered that its chassis does require some getting used to. Like a trophy truck dancing though the whoops, there's a sense of isolation here that belies the available control. The car sticks to the tarmac at all four corners on big Pirelli P Zero tires — 235/35 ZR19 front, 305/30 ZR20 rear. Initially we were overwhelmed with the chassis' abilities, but soon enough got on with the business of accomplishing all the things that its competition can't.
Take a Stare
To most, the MP4-12C is not the most astonishingly beautiful design in its class. Many at McLaren, including Design Director Frank Stephenson, freely admit that certain angles can challenge the eye. They've also already heard every possible "It looks a lot like a..." comment, so they're unflappable on the topic. For us, it is most influenced by the original McLaren F1.
The brash treatment of the twin side intakes catches our eye. They gulp in cooling air at a ferocious rate to gust over the longitudinally oriented radiators flanking the V8.
The rear fascia looks as if it's from a different design school than the rest of the car. But, even here, the Bugatti-like air brake pops straight up under the hardest braking and it becomes one of the most captivating rear ends around.
Every such discussion about the car as it sits still comes to the point that you have to drive it and it then becomes a most beautiful thing. The McLaren people certainly think so, and even humble chief test-driver Chris Goodwin told us, "There's no other car that could do that section that quickly," after scorching through the very technical first sequence of curves at Portimão. There's a definite beauty to that.
While a Nürburgring Nordschleife lap time has not been made public yet, McLaren personnel are saying that recent testing on many of the world's most significant tracks puts the MP4-12C comfortably ahead of any current competitors. Top speed so far has been recorded at 210 mph at Nardò in southern Italy, while 0-60 acceleration on standard P Zero tires is claimed at 3.2 seconds with the standard tires and just 3.0 seconds with optional P Zero Corsa rubber.
McLaren claims the 0-125-mph time in cars using the Corsa tires and the other lightening options is just 8.9 seconds, significantly humbling all current Ferraris, Porsches and Lamborghinis. It's even quicker to this speed than the Enzo. If these numbers hold, only the horribly expensive Bugatti Veyron remains faster.
While the biturbo exhaust sound of the MP4-12C doesn't make us cry from happiness, there's always the sport exhaust option. And, in any case, just switch the P cluster to Track mode and a resonance tube from the intake plenum pipes more sound into the cabin.
For this first partial calendar year McLaren will build roughly 1,000 units — about a third of which are destined for the States. By 2015 things will be operating full-tilt to produce 4,000 units annually, spread over this and two other models. MP4-12C deliveries in the U.S. begin by early September 2011 at the nine anointed showrooms nationwide (plus one in Toronto, eh).
And as McLaren has racing in its blood, there are very ambitious factory and privateer racing plans not far down the road, beginning with the MP4-12C GT version currently testing. All 2012 McLaren MP4-12C buyers can sign up for a new McLaren Owner Experience that will teach them how to squeeze all the juice possible from this world-beater.
And, based on our initial drive and McLaren's insane acceleration claims, there's plenty of juice to squeeze.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored press event to facilitate this report.
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