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Britain's world-beater - First Drive: McLaren MP4-12C

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McLaren is about to launch its first road car since the F1 of the early 1990s.

It has one of the least memorable names in supercar history, but we won’t hold that against it. Octane is the first UK magazine to have driven the MP4-12C on both road and track, in Portugal and the UK, and we reckon the new McLaren is at least as good as the products coming out of a certain factory in Maranello.

And it needs to be, because the 12C is the first of a planned range of road cars that will be built in a brand new assembly plant next to McLaren’s fabulous Technology Centre, just outside Woking. Initial production will be about 1000 cars per annum; while that figure will rise significantly over the next few years, the numbers aren’t going to trouble Ferrari in the short-term.

But the car itself will, because McLaren has done its usual thorough job with its first road car since the F1. Performance isn’t lacking, that’s for sure. Although the 12C has a much smaller-capacity engine than the F1 – a 3.8-liter V8 compared with the F1’s 6.1-liter V12 – it’s twin-turbocharged, so it’s good for nearly 600bhp, and will push this luxury supercar from rest to 60mph in 3.2sec and to a top speed of 205mph. Not quite as fast at the top end, then, as an F1 (231mph, or over 240 if the rev limiter’s removed), but certainly quick enough to place it at the front of the grid at its relatively modest asking price of £168,500.

More to the point, the 12C will let you explore these outer limits in relative safety and considerable comfort. It’s a proper two-seater, rather than a compromised two-plus-two, with usable luggage space and thoughtful touches such as coat hooks behind the front seats. A car you can live with, in other words, and with close to a million kilometers of testing behind it, the 12C promises to be reliable, too. Certainly our orange prototype car showed few signs of the gruelling 30,000km it had already racked up in full-bore testing.

But, for us, the most significant feature of the 12C is not its breathtaking acceleration or fine handling. You take those for granted from a company like McLaren. Instead, it’s something less glamorous but much more crucial to the ownership experience: the ride quality. If a car rides poorly, you’re less inclined to use it. With the 12C, McLaren has achieved the Holy Grail of a comfortable ride as well as supercar levels of grip and balance.

It’s done that through a deceptively simple system of interlinked hydraulic dampers that effectively stiffen up in corners to control body roll while relaxing when the car’s travelling in a straight line. You can adjust the ride/handling balance, and the engine/drivetrain performance, via a couple of knobs on the centre console. The knobs have three positions – Normal, Sport and Track – and, while you’d normally only use the last of these in the situation its name suggests, the ride is not unbearable in the Track setting on public roads. We know: we tried it.

Being a flat-plane V8, the 12C makes the kind of race-bred snarl that doesn’t sound particularly inspiring until you really wind it up – but since the red line doesn’t start until 8500rpm it’s no hardship to keep the engine singing. There’s a Formula 1-style steering wheel, thankfully without all the clutter that Ferrari lards onto its equivalent in the 458, and flappy-paddle gearshift to manage the seven-speed auto transmission: hold the left paddle back when you’re braking hard for a corner and it will shift sequentially down through the gears for you.

Talking of the brakes, our test car was fitted with the optional carbon-ceramic discs, and they’re simply fantastic. They’re helped further by a rear air brake that automatically deploys to push the back of the car down on the deck, enabling the rear tyres to play their full part in slowing the car. The carbon-ceramic option will doubtless be expensive but the discs will last for ages and for track use they’ll be a valuable asset in resisting fade.

But there’s much more carbon in this car than just the optional discs: the entire central tub is moulded of carbonfiber, with aluminium subframes to carry the suspension and drivetrain. Carbonfiber construction is a McLaren hallmark, having been pioneered in the MP4/1 Formula 1 car of 1981 and used ever since, not least in the F1 road car; but McLaren has cut the build time for each tub to a mere four hours, whereas it took 300 to make each F1 tub in the 1990s. That opens the door to making mass-production of carbonfiber cars a reality.

Octane is the first magazine to directly compare the McLaren MP4-12C with its illustrious ancestor, the F1. Here's something to whet your appetite.

They say you never forget the first time you put your foot down, properly, in an F1. And they’re right. The 6.1-liter V12 is normally aspirated, so there are no turbos to introduce the merest hint of lag. Long straight, second gear, full throttle and hang on tight.

The F1 lunges forward like an F-16 being given a catapult launch as the exhaust note changes from harsh blare to clean-cut howl, momentarily dipping again and again as you grab third, fourth and then fifth, and the trees are rushing past in an insane blur and a part of your brain is wondering whether the control tower is going to shut you down for making too much noise, and you’re still accelerating, and then suddenly you’re approaching the steeply banked left-hander at the end of the straight and it’s time to come to your senses and back off sharply before you hit the curve...

And so it goes on, for lap after lap until, reluctantly, you decide that the engine has probably had enough opportunity to clean out its pipes and it’s time to switch to the other reason for being here today: the MP4-12C. Even allowing for all the race-car clutter and gadgetry fitted to Nick Mason’s F1, the 12C (surely the only way anyone is ever going to refer to it;  MP4-12C isn’t the catchiest of titles) is a very different animal.

More conventional in some ways – there was never any likelihood that the central driving position would be revisited – and yet quite novel in others, notably in its use of interlinked damping. There’s a family resemblance to the F1 in the cab-forward proportions and the scissor doors, and it’s a good-looking car. Yet…

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