AS REPUTATIONS go, McLaren’s is pretty much as good as it gets. Unlike most of its counterparts McLaren has created road car projects following on from its daily grid at the front of the F1 grid, not the other way round. And the only other road car in its back catalogue is the F1; a £634,000 all-carbon missile built without compromise, a car that cracked 240mph and held several world records – including the title of the world’s fastest production car – for over a decade.
Only now have the final production-specification cars reached the road, and the prospect of road car project number two is a hugely enticing one when you understand that it was designed and is built with the same near-fetishist attention to detail that goes into its racing cars. As a simple example, one of the many weight-saving measures is the use of wiring that is hexagonal in cross section rather than round; that saves you 4kgs.
But the most important measure is the carbonfibre chassis or MonoCell in McLaren-speak. They claim a saving of 75kgs over a comparable aluminium structure, and what that does for strength too is massive; you can actually drive a bodiless chassis as all the panels bar the roof have no bearing on the car’s integrity.
That body is a thing of functional beauty however, and rather than grabbing attention for the sake of it you can see why there are scoops, vents and curves where they need to be. The rear wing is discreet when it is stowed, it pops up only when needed (or if you want the extra downforce) or when it is acting as an air brake. It doesn’t follow fashion, it follows function, and it appeals to the head and the heart as a result.
You get the same impression from the snug cockpit. There’s a low-key centre console (even though everything is beautifully finished) with a slick touchscreen panel in the centre that takes care of most functions. The view out is superb, and the driving position gets you in the mood, particularly the gearshift paddle which is actually one piece across the back of wheel – just like in the F1 cars.
Finger the starter button and the McLaren-designed 3.8-litre twin-turbocharged V8 fires up quickly and with a characterful blare – forget anything you’ve heard about it being too quiet – and with the automated transmission in D it rumbles away with total ease. Sedate driving on local roads shows that the MP4-12C can do comfortable and quiet. The Active Dynamics Panel is a pair of switches on the centre console, one for Power and one for Handling. With them all turned down the ride is tightly controlled but comfortable and the engine is aurally present but doesn’t disturb. You notice the easy torque available with just the lightest brush of the throttle and the measured, consistent response from the steering, but beautifully judged; it’s possible to forget for a moment that you’re driving something capable of over 200mph which is exactly what you need should you be lucky enough to drive one every day.
But some track action is the only way to find out what the McLaren can really do, and handily McLaren arranged some laps around the Top Gear test track at Dunsfold. Even with everything still switched to its lowest setting, the MP4-12C attacks the straights and bends with vigour. In a straight line the performance is delivered with silken brutality, a purposeful roar from the exhaust and each gearchange firing through in a fraction of a second.
Instead of traditional anti-roll bars the MP4-12C has adaptive damping, but this is much more than the marketing gimmick you find on some cars. Roll is remarkably absent regardless of the setting yet the ride comfort never diminishes. Turn everything up to Track mode and the unmuffled roar from the engine sounds borderline illegal, the gearchanges snap through even quicker and the body remains incredible composed and level however hard you push.
And you will push hard, because the MP4-12C is working hard to help you out. It has a brake steer system that applies measure braking pressure to an inside wheel as you enter a bend. You can feel it working but at no point do you feel that the car is doing all the work for you, instead you’re just left feeling like a hero and that you’ve extracted every possible ounce of performance from the car.
This is not a car for everyone, aside from the sticker price. It doesn’t shout about its performance, it doesn’t have the outrageous curves of a concept car to attract impressionable young ladies and it does the boring everyday stuff extremely well. And yet when you decide to exploit all it has to offer it displays a monumental ability to flatter and thrill the driver whilst simply demolishing the most challenging of roads. This is a car that will keep on giving, years after you’ve signed on the dotted line. Above all, it’s a car for and by those who really understand what driving is all about.
FACTS AT A GLANCE
McLaren MP4-12C, £168,500
Engine: 3.8-litre petrol unit producing 592bhp and 443lb.ft of torque
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch driving the rear wheels
Performance: Top speed 205mph, 0-62mph 3.1 seconds (with Corsa tyre option)
Economy: 24.2mpg combined
Emissions: 279g/km CO2