"Being 'as good' as everyone else," says McLaren Managing Director Antony Sheriff, "is not good enough." That's a statement of some intent. And we believe it. After years of reading, listening to and seeing the propaganda surrounding McLaren's supercar we had come to believe it.
As a result, we spent two of the three days of this test waiting for the 2012 McLaren MP4-12C to do something truly spectacular. In the end, it did. We'll get to that later.
Meantime, to the start of our test: McLaren headquarters, where our test MP4-12C is waiting. We won't dwell on its looks, as their success is entirely for you to decide and will play no part in this verdict. The 12C, like all McLarens from the past three decades, utilizes a carbon-fiber tub chassis. In its midsection sits a 3.8-liter twin-turbo, flat-plane crank V8 making 592 horsepower and 442 pound-feet of torque from 3.8 liters and two turbochargers.
Those figures are stunning, no doubt. But it's not as if Ferrari's engineers were sitting on their thumbs before work was under way on the McLaren.
That the 2011 Ferrari 458 Italia feels two generations better than the F430 that preceded it may not be entirely coincidental to McLaren's arrival in this arena, but Ferrari is a company that has been making this sort of car for a long time, and is rather good at it. So while the 458's figures are outshone, the 12C's mathematical advantages are only single-figure percentages most of the time.
The 458's 4.5-liter normally aspirated V8 is 30 hp and 44 lb-ft down to the McLaren. The 12C is claimed to reach 62 mph in 3.1 seconds, the 458 in 3.3 seconds and there's just 3 mph between them at the top end. McLaren claims a far lower weight than Ferrari, yet the 12C tipped our scales at 3,229 pounds, only 44 fewer than the 458.
These are far from game-changing statistics. Besides, they're not everything. "Faster" doesn't mean "better." We'll do well to remember that and will come back to it later.
Still, we've rolled with the hype so far, so it's a bruising realization that the MP4-12C is, well, just a car.
As such, it has the foibles any new car might. It's ludicrous to expect anything else, really. It has doors that don't close properly without a slam, an engine that's uninvolving to listen to much of the time, slightly too-plasticky switches for the separate chassis/powertrain modes (three of each: Normal, Sport and Track), and brakes (carbon-ceramic options on this test car) whose effect is hard to modulate at low speeds.
Still, one thing becomes quickly apparent: The 12C's ride is sublime. It has coil-sprung double wishbones all around and oil-filled dampers, but instead of conventional antiroll bars, the dampers are adaptive and their oil can be shared and pressurized across the car to reduce body roll, or slackened off in a straight line to allow for a superior ride quality. It's not an understatement to say that, at times, the 12C's ride is as isolated as that of an S-Class Mercedes-Benz .
The 458 Italia has always ridden well, too. It, too, has adaptive magnetically controlled dampers, and as such can also afford relatively soft antiroll bars. Each individual wheel is still allowed a liberal amount of suppleness.
We know, we know, ride quality in a supercar. Meh. But it's relevant if you want, as McLaren did, to make a supercar that is usable on a daily basis. You can see out of the 12C well, there's a decent front-trunk, the seats are comfortable and the cabin environment is, generally, ergonomically sound. It's an interesting interior: less flamboyant than the Ferrari's and very straightforward.
In the Ferrari you sit higher, the car feels wider and there's more going on inside. Neither car's cabin is superior. The McLaren has a nicer steering wheel with paddles that are small, firm and fixed to the wheel. (They're meant to copy those of Lewis Hamilton's weekend wheels, but he never has to take his F1 car around a mini-roundabout.)
The Ferrari has column-mounted paddles that are larger and easier to reach on-lock. They're preferable to the 12C's, but with them comes a wheel overly laden with switchgear. Small points, maybe, but important. The wheel is your main interface with a car and too many companies insist on reinventing it.
It's something to ponder on the freeway, as is some noise through to the McLaren's cabin when it hits larger road irregularities. Blame the major-league stiffness of the carbon-fiber tub and a construction that McLaren describes as "hollow." As in, like a kettle drum. It amplifies tire noise, too.
Even so, the McLaren is the long-distance supercar of choice. It steers with an oily slickness and a beautifully graduated feel from straight ahead, whereas the Ferrari is set up to feel more alert and more alive at the expense of stability. It's one of a number of ways in which you get the impression the Ferrari is trying to impress: to encourage you to have a good time. You might be driving to the shops, but damnit, man, enjoy yourself. Leave the McLaren's gearbox in auto and it eases around with little fuss, engaging 7th on the dual-clutch transmission at well under 1,000 rpm. The 458 can't wait to let you hear its exhaust blare.
Supercars at Home?
What do we learn at Brands Hatch? That a motorcycle track day, a very greasy surface and Druids hairpin make for some amusing photos, but this is not a place where two near-600-hp supercars find their element.
Wales, though, might just give more of an opportunity. Here the McLaren's superb ride translates to an uneven mountain road just as well as it does to a motorway. It glides along the worst of surfaces with a ride that would make most German sedans proud. It is perfectly damped, with a flat body, and a hydraulic power steering system that filters out the worst of the noise while allowing feel to flow through. One exception — that cabin thump over harsh bumps remains here, too, and if you hit a rough spot while the suspension is already loaded, it kicks the steering. Nonetheless, the McLaren is an impeccably composed — and insanely fast — road car. It's reassuring and massively capable.
It is also here where those numbers are at their most pointless. The McLaren is faster — you can feel it. But while 0.2 second to 62 mph can look like a lot on a graph (if you zoom in really close), on the road you are certifiable if you get close to finding out the speed differentials between these two. If one of these two cars is leaving the other behind it on the road, then one has a more irresponsible driver. This is not a criticism, just a fact. Better, on the road, is not quicker; better is more engaging and more feelsome.
The Ferrari's ride is a touch less composed, and its steering too direct just off straight ahead, but it counters with an engine of unbridled brilliance (uninhibited by turbocharging), throttle response that's better than just about any other car on sale and an exhaust note with a sensuality the 12C can only dream of. The twin-clutch transmission is absolutely first-rate, too — every bit the 12C's equal.
Measured subjectively — taking into account all those unquantifiable bits — the 458 is just as impressive. Objectively, it merely holds its own. By objective we include steering, handling, road holding, communicativeness — these things are all quantifiable. And the Ferrari is, objectively, still a terrifically well-sorted road car. It can more easily be coaxed into a neutral-steer cornering stance at half-sane speeds, thanks to more adjustable brakes and a sharper throttle response. It's playful and engaging where the 12C is flattering and inert.
The 12C's pedal feel, slight turbo lag, plus a touch of extra composure means that it corners in a less flustered fashion, more quickly but no more satisfying. After two days of driving, we're surprised at how much we prefer the 458 Italia.
Something Truly Spectacular
It isn't until Day Three at our handling circuit at MIRA (where we finally switch off the stability systems) that the McLaren MP4-12C finally puts clear daylight between it and the 458 in a key area. Excuse the nerdy minutiae of handling here, because it's important.
The 12C, as you may know, doesn't have a limited-slip differential, ostensibly because it's heavier than an open diff. Instead it gets an extension to the Bosch ESP system called brake-steer. The system brakes an inside rear wheel to resist understeer, allowing you to get back on the power earlier during a corner, but unlike most ESP systems, you don't have to be beyond the realms of grip to get it working. Know this and, on a track, the MP4-12C is capable of some astonishing cornering speeds.
If, that is, you've been told how to maximize its performance.
Drive the 12C as you might any other supercar and you'll enjoy a very fast, very unflustered and very enjoyable lap, but the grip will be dominated by the front end. Trail-braking is difficult, then there's some turbo lag that pushes the front end on some more. The temptation is to lift, upset the balance and get back on the gas later. Do that in the Ferrari and it's brilliant but it transitions aggressively between under- and oversteer. In the 12C that technique doesn't really work.
The 12C will ultimately do the same thing, but the technique to achieve it is even more pronounced. Hammer the steering to let the brake-steer system know you'd really like its help now, and then give it some throttle. A lot of throttle. That pushes through the turbo lag and eliminates understeer.
Then, and only then, will the 12C fling itself out of a bend at the sort of pace you wouldn't have imagined possible. And even though it slides a bit in transition, the steering is telepathically communicative and the chassis utterly forgiving. We've never before experienced a corner exit quite like it.
That's what we'd been waiting for. Something, somewhere, to set the McLaren miles ahead dynamically. It has clearly been honed by racing drivers. Perhaps, even, for racing drivers — and nothing else can touch it.
But at the risk of sounding like a victim of the Ferrari's blatant exhibitionism, we'd still take the 2011 Ferrari 458 Italia. This isn't a precision vs. blunt instrument test. Both of these cars are at the absolute top end of the supercar game, and the 458 is a car with deep reserves of ability. It lets you play with it, but is not a toy. Any car that goes, stops and corners the way it does is utterly capable, giving only micrometer-measured increments away to the 12C. On a track we're dealing in percentages you can count on one hand. But as we've mentioned, these are road cars. Outright circuit speed is not entirely the point.
The 2012 McLaren MP4-12C is a technical triumph, a car that engages and impresses in equal measure and is able to travel and corner faster than we thought possible in a supple road car. Truth be told, it is not worse, just different, from the 458 Italia. McLaren evidently knows a thing about making an unbeatably fast, supremely impressive road and track machine. If it floats your boat, the 12C is undoubtedly your car. But for our money, it's Ferrari that better knows how to make a supercar.
Portions of this content have appeared in foreign print media and are reproduced with permission.