Review: 2012 McLaren MP4-12C

It’s like a Sprint Cup car for the street!

Probably not how McLaren was hoping its new supercar would be described, but since the company is also the sole supplier of engine control units for NASCAR’s new fuel injection systems, fair game.

Instead, the folks from Woking, England, would prefer that you associate the MP4-12C with its storied history competing for the Formula One championship. In truth, it is a more fitting correlation, but since I know you kids like the stock cars, I thought I’d try to bring things closer to home. I also tested the McLaren at Auto Club Speedway, where NASCAR nation convenes in a couple of weeks, so the timing seemed right.

The MP4-12C marks the start of a fully-fledged road car program from the company behind the 241 mph McLaren F1, of which 106 units were built in the 1990’s. The new car will be produced in the thousands and sold through a worldwide network of full service McLaren dealerships, with more models to follow.

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An odd combination of purity of design and technological complexity, the MP4-12C was created with a simple goal: to be the best supercar in the world. Not just on the track, or mountain roads, but also the commute to work.

Low bar, right?

McLaren says the $231,000 MP4-12C is 90 percent functional, 10 percent beautiful. As function only has so many forms, this might explain why it has something of a generic mid-engine sports car look about it at first glance. Delve deeper into its details, however, and you quickly uncover its unique charms.

See: Photos of the McLaren MP4-12C

Slide a hand under the top rib of the side air intake scoop and sensors embedded under the skin unlock the door, which opens up and out like a butterfly wings. The absence of a handle improves aerodynamics, lowers weight and is sure to cause nightmares for the first emergency responders that encounter it.

Slip over the wide sill of the lightweight one-piece carbon fiber tub that forms the core of the MP4-12C and you’ll find yourself seated close to the middle of the chassis for that single-seat race car feel. The center console is so thin to accommodate the position that the display for the infotainment system is installed portrait style in order to fit. Hope now that your cozied-up passenger practices good hygiene.

Nicely finished, but less of a runway model than that of a Ferrari or Lamborghini, the interior of the MP4-12C is business with a bit of style. The gauge cluster puts the tachometer straight ahead, digital ancillary gauges to the left and right, no muss, no fuss.

Look past it for a moment and take in the IMAX-quality view out of the deep and wide windshield, the vista framed by tall fenders with sharp creases on top marking the middle of the wheels. Again, think Formula One, and then press the start button.

From the rear you’ll hear the 592 hp 3.8-liter twin-turbocharged V8 come to life. Like many exotic car startups, when McLaren built the F1 it used an engine supplied by another automaker to save money, in that case BMW. This time around it had one engineered to its precise specifications. The low-profile mill is housed in an aluminum subframe along with seven-speed dual clutch auto-manual transmission, also unique to the MP4-12C.

Pull the right paddle behind the steering wheel (or push the left, as they are two ends of a rocker) to engage first gear and you’re off.

Or are you? The landscape passes by, but there’s something missing. Where are the bumps and jars you instinctively brace for in a car like this? Did someone switch the labels on your multivitamin and Demarol bottles again? I hate it when that happens.

No. The MP4-12C’s killer app is a double wishbone suspension with active dampers that are interconnected by a spider web of hydraulic lines. This allows it to do without the rock hard anti-roll bars high-performance cars typically rely on for extreme handling while offering a range of compliance that starts somewhere near that of Lincoln Town Car’s.

With it, the seams in California’s concrete highways become lines. Speed bumps merely speed. This is not an exaggeration. There are SUVs that don’t ride as well as the MP4-12C.

Even as you switch through settings from Normal to Sport to Track, the hydraulic actuators are always on the lookout for imperfections and ready to loosen things up as they see fit.

That candy striped curbing at the apex of Turn 1? What candy striped curbing?

Meanwhile, as you tear through curves, fluid from the compressed shocks on the outside of the car rushes toward the ones on the inside to pressurize and prepare them for the rebound when you straighten out or turn in the opposite direction.

This sort of thing worked so well in Formula One racing it was banned. The same goes for the MP4-12C’s launch control, which is said to be capable of getting it to 125 mph in less than 10 seconds.

Belive it. On the loose surface of the infield road course at Auto Club Speedway the MP4-12C elicited no wheelspin, simply shooting the car forward with an accelerative force that only seemed to increase with rising speeds.

Slam on the brake pedal and the wing at the back of the car pops up to a 90 degree angle, not so much to work like a drag-inducing parachute, but to move the center of air pressure aft to press down on the rear tires and increase traction, allowing them to help out more in slowing things down. The stopping power is fierce, the car straight and true. If you do this sort of thing often, fade-free carbon ceramic brake rotors are available for $13,130.

Crank the wheel for the next corner and, if you don’t hit it perfectly, the inside rear brake is used to help rotate the car the same way a mogul skier uses a pole. It’s unobtrusive, effective and, after McLaren tried it on its race car in 1997, also illegal in Formula One. The racing version of the MP4-12C has likewise been stripped of it and the rest of the street car's driver aids to adhere to the regulations of the FIA GT3 European Championship series it competes in.

The MP4-12C is truly a bowl of forbidden fruit, and a very tasty one at that. At speed, it has the small, unimposing feel that drivers of recent Lotus models are familiar with, and very different than that of its Italian and German competition.

Although you can turn it all the way off to get silly, the stability control lets the car slide further than you would on a properly fast lap, while the quick, hydraulically-assisted steering makes it easy to correct things when you do. In the hands of a skilled wheelman, like McLaren’s Chief Test Driver, Chris Goodwin, it’s a beautiful thing to see. With me at the controls, let’s just say the bodywork remained unscathed. Although with more time, who knows?

I would’ve gladly accepted it, too. A side benefit of that cushy suspension is reduced fatigue. You don’t notice it until you get out and realize that you’re not in pain or drenched with sweat as you often are following a session in a car of this caliber.

Also, there probably won’t be any angry neighbors to deal with in the aftermath. While the sound of the engine is pumped wonderfully into the cabin via an induction tube, the note coming out of the exhaust is barely that. No car this powerful is also this quiet. Spectators will be unimpressed.The MP4-12C one step short of supercar perfect, then.

Maybe McLaren should try to put a little more NASCAR into it, after all.


2012 McLaren MP4-12C

Base Price: $231,000

Type: 2-door, 2-seat rear-wheel-drive coupe

Engine: 3.8-liter twin-turbocharged V8

Power: 592 hp, 443 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 7-speed dual clutch auto-manual

MPG: 15 city, 22 hwy