Dan Edmunds, Director of Vehicle Testing
The twin-turbocharged 3.8-liter V8 engine wedged low behind our seat howls and barks as we crack off rapid-fire upshifts down a short interior straightaway at Auto Club Speedway in the 2012 McLaren MP4-12C.
The braking zone for a left-right chicane comes up insanely quick, but the binders are unperturbed and the steering carves with immediate precision. In no time we're back hard on the gas as the big rear tires catapult us toward the exit curbing and the corner beyond.
Any intimidation we carried with us into the cockpit of this exotic supercar drains away before this, the first flying lap, is complete. Beyond mere speed, our confidence in the McLaren's unwavering grip and balance has ratcheted up so quickly that our focus has already begun to shift to finding the fastest line around the circuit.
Who knew that a 592-horsepower supercar could be this intuitive?
Let's Do Launch
McLaren's clean-sheet M838T twin-turbo engine is a 90-degree dry-sump V8 with variable intake and exhaust valve timing. In addition to 592 hp at 7,000 rpm, it produces 443 pound-feet of torque over a broad plateau between 3,000 and 7,000 rpm. That it does this without direct injection and variable-nozzle turbochargers is a surprise.
It's connected to a sublime seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual transaxle, the first one of these we've gone gaga over, and not just because it has a near-bulletproof launch control system.
The launch initiation sequence is simpler than most, and soon we've got one foot hard on each pedal — there are only two — waiting for the two conventional turbos to build boost and arm the "ready" light. At the opportune moment we jump off the brake and hang on as the two wet clutches in the automated manual transmission take turns dishing out the first four gears.
Days later we bring the same car to our own test grounds and repeat the trick with our normal hot shoe at the wheel and our test equipment strapped inside, and just like that the 2012 McLaren MP4-12C becomes the quickest production car we've ever tested.
The first few yards are deceptive because the rear suspension doesn't squat much and the tires don't come close to breaking loose. In short order, however, the McLaren's rapidly disappearing LED brake lights flash just before our ears pick up the sound of the engine slowing down.
Then the radio crackles: "That was 3.5 seconds to 60 mph (3.2 with 1 foot of rollout as on a drag strip) and 11.0 seconds to the quarter mile at...131.5 mph."
To 60 mph, at least, the MP4-12C is merely the quickest rear-drive production car we've ever tested: all-wheel-drive machines like the 2013 Nissan GT-R Premium and 2010 Porsche 911 Turbo have managed 3.1 and 3.2 seconds respectively in past outings.
But 0-60 is a freeway merge, not a competition. Their start line advantage erodes to a 0.1-second loss at the quarter-mile as the 3,209-pound McLaren bears down on them and flashes past with a trap speed that smothers the 911 Turbo by 6.1 mph and the portly GT-R by a full 7.4 mph.
Meanwhile, you'll pay Uncle Sam no gas-guzzler tax because the MP4-12C is EPA-rated at 15 mpg city, 22 mpg on the highway and 18 mpg combined.
All of the above is helped by the McLaren's lightweight construction. The MP4-12C's main chassis section is a pure carbon-fiber MonoCell "tub" that weighs just 165 pounds. Aluminum trunions support the engine and rear suspension, and a deformable aluminum crash structure supports the nose and front bits.
Each corner is supported by a double-wishbone suspension and an electronically adjustable coil-over damper. An additional "z-bar" heave spring in back is a version of something seen in racing that allows the use of soft individual springs at the corners while retaining the ability to withstand crushing levels of downforce.
And then there's the unique and elegant hydraulic roll control system, as described in our McLaren MP4-12C suspension walkaround. McLaren calls this ProActive Chassis Control, and it features three damper and roll stiffness settings — Normal, Sport and Track — that correspond to increased fluid pressure in the hydraulic circuit.
Two in One
The grip and balance seen at the speedway translates to very little body roll on the way to 1.03g of stick on the skid pad and 73.2 mph through the slalom on the standard Pirelli P Zero rubber. A thin layer of understeer is often present — even with the ESC in Track mode — but turning the well-tuned ESC system off for more action doesn't automatically open the door to faster times.
Understeer isn't an issue on the racetrack, where trail braking initiates McLaren's turning brake, an ABS algorithm that drags the inside rear brake going into corners to kill understeer; the effect lingers on the way out to discourage wheelspin.
McLaren will happily sell you a second set of stickier R-compound P Zero Corsa tires mounted and ready to go on another set of ultra-lightweight forged alloy wheels if you have a spare $11,420 lying around. We don't, so we're stuck imagining how much better all our performance numbers would have been with the gooier rubber.
The handling was expected, but the usual stiff-legged ride penalty associated with supercar track prowess simply isn't here — especially in normal mode. Isolation over most types of cracked pavement and rough asphalt rivals that of most sport sedans.
Still, no one will mistake a McLaren for a true luxury cruiser, which is good for the street cred. A smattering of low-level harshness and the occasional low-speed nose bob is nothing to lose sleep over.
The MP4-12C is easily a daily driver, exotic supercar or not.
That impression extends to the inside, where every component, every surface, every lever and switch reminds you that you got what you paid for. This is nothing like the stark interior of a racecar. Our Alcantara and leather interior ($2,290) is simultaneously comfortable and stylish, and the carbon-fiber interior upgrade ($4,000) looks stunning alongside it.
And you won't find any embarrassing parts bin faux pas in here, such as the Dodge Ram navigation unit we spied last year in the all-new 2012 Ferrari FF. Seemingly, McLaren has made everything from scratch to a high degree of finish.
Once you slide past the dihedral doors and the carbon chassis, the MP4-12C's cabin is spacious and relatively easy to see out of, though the front and rear parking sensor option ($2,060) is a welcome addition. The driving position is ideal, the immaculate steering wheel perfectly placed and there's even enough headroom for tall guys wearing a helmet. At first it seems odd that power seats and seat heaters are a $3,430 option, but racers built this car. In that sense, seat heaters are not only optional, they're frowned upon.
But there are a few misses to the interior design and functionality. The optional Meridian Premium surround-sound system ($4,795) doesn't seem to be well tuned to fit the dynamics of the cabin. The Bluetooth and navigation were not yet active in our car because those subsystems are still undergoing final development.
And we could certainly do without the Ice Silver elite paint that costs $5,410 but doesn't flatter the car. Probably because it reminds us of a Honda Civic Hybrid.
The 2012 McLaren MP4-12C starts at $231,400, including destination charges. The Ferrari 458 starts in the same ballpark and the more familiar Porsche 911 GT2 RS is over $10 grand more expensive. Now that we've spent time in one, we can say the 2012 McLaren MP4-12C is an amazing car that deserves to play in this price range.
That's even true if you factor in the options that drive the price of our test example up to $292,810. Yeah, more than $30,000 in carbon-fiber upgrades seems like a bit much, but all the cars that play in this space have an options list that will melt your printer's toner cartridge.
Deservedly, the 2012 McLaren MP4-12C is already a success. Some 250 of these have already been delivered to our shores, and the current wait time is said to be 8 months for anyone who jumps in line today. If you can play in this price range you owe it to yourself to take a close look.
As for us, we're waiting for the next opportunity to not wrestle with one on the track. McLaren's new 592-hp twin-turbo V8 engine seems destined for bigger and better things. It seems possible that more powerful variants might come to a track near us in the not-too-distant future. Or at least we hope so.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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