First Drive: McLaren MP4-12C

Is it possible for something to be too good? Could Zooey Deschanel be improved if she didn’t have that manufactured-manic-hipster-pixie personality? Is a Big Mac still a Big Mac if you take out the gherkin?

Cars are sold on having character, an indefinable trait that can make your trousers tingle and your heart race.

Alfa Romeo’s have so much character that it is widely agreed that unless you have owned at least one you can’t have a proper appreciation of motoring for pleasure. The Alfa Romeo 166 doesn’t do anything well, but you lust after it in way that nobody has ever done for a BMW 520d.

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In contrast, the McLaren MP4-12C does everything well. Remarkably well, in fact. From looking pretty in the sunshine to demolishing the miles of tarmac ahead, there is very little you could question as being anything but optimal.

McLaren MP4-12C 2013 FrontThe scissor doors open dramatically, but they exist to allow you easy access to the cabin. Slide in to the driver’s seat and you can easily reach the handle, a gentle pull allowing the perfectly damped door to gracefully lower and lock you in safely.

Press the start button and the 3.8 litre twin-turbo V8 fires up, a low rumble behind reminding you that there is over 600 bhp of power to play with.

Out on the road the rumble remains subdued, the car relaxed and compliant. It is a remarkably easy car to drive normally, with huge amounts of torque available almost entirely across the rev range. Cruising at 40 mph in third, fourth or fifth gear made little difference to performance on the road, with any sudden downshifts required being fired off with nothing more than the flick of a finger on your left hand.

The ride quality is simply superb. Not superb for a supercar, but superb full stop. The McLaren absorbs bumps remarkably well, keeping all but the most severe of surface changes hidden away from the driver, yet never leaving you feeling removed from the road.

McLaren MP4-12C 2013 Exhaust DetailIt’s a trick few manufacturers have managed to pull off. You might expect something similar in a Mercedes S-Class, but when combined with performance that sees you lapping a race circuit as quick as any touring car, or cruising down the autobahn the wrong side of 200 mph, it’s freakishly impressive.

Forget the 0-60 mph time of 3.1 seconds, forget the fact that it will run on to hit 207 mph, it’s the cars ease of use that astounds most. The MP4-12C is as comfortable going to Waitrose as it is powering down to Monte Carlo.

Of course, it’s still a supercar. A very useable one, but one that you will want to see used to its maximum capability. With track time limited, it was tricky to push the 12C right to the edge of its envelope, but there is no doubting the potential displayed.

Moving the twin rotary selectors below the start button, marked Powertrain and Handling, from Normal to Track changes the cars characteristics entirely. The relaxed but smooth gear changes sharpen, the box swapping ratios quicker than you can blink with no let up in the power available. The engine responds instantly, as if plugged directly in to your right foot. The suspension stiffens perceptibly, the computers switch on to work the chassis and tyres harder.

Putting my foot down, the low rumble behind explodes in to a shrieking wail, the perfectly moulded seat back compressing as my torso is pressed back hard. I didn’t attach any timing equipment, but 3.1 seconds does sound reasonable for the 0-60 time, but then you remain pressed back in the seat as all 616 of McLaren’s horses propel the car towards the horizon.

McLaren MP4-12C 2013 DashboardThe technology on board flatters the driver, even when being intentionally obtuse. I lift of abruptly while travelling round a curve at 135 mph and nothing happens, the car just slowing gently as the revs fall away. There’s no let up in grip, no sideways movement, just controlled direction.

On the bendy bits the steering is excellent, with just the right amount of feel. Gone are the constant reminders of tiny imperfections of the road, information that adds nothing to making swift progress, leaving an editing of reality that still allows all the important data through to your fingers.

Drop down a couple of gears, turn, power and then change up. It sounds effortless, and it really is. After experiencing the MP4-12C, I get the impression that I’ve explored no more than 50% of its capabilities.

McLaren MP4-12C 2013 RearHowever, as brilliant as it is, the car left me feeling slightly cold. As fierce as the power is, as sharp as the steering is, and as cosseting as the cabin is, there is no sense of drama, nothing to really get the pulse racing. It’s as if it was entirely designed by engineers, with every bit of the car behaving as part of an optimised package, rather by designers who would be tempted to add superfluous but dramatic touches.

I admire and respect the car and the team behind it, but my trousers weren’t tingling. Finally I understand what nearly every reviewer means when they say the McLaren is the measurably better car, but the Ferrari 458 is the one to buy. It’s so difficult to fault the 12C that it is possibly just too good, there seems to be no chink in its amour.

Apart from the cup holders. They’re useless. But is that enough to add that indefinable character? Perhaps the car’s a grower, perhaps in time you can become one with the car, so can I borrow one for longer please McLaren?

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Phil Huff

Phil is a motoring writer for print and web, failed racing driver, car hoarder and banger rally competitor. Nominated for the Headline Auto Rising Star award and a MGMW member, Phil freelances for outlets as diverse as Diesel Car magazine, DAD.info and Cambridge Magazine, amongst many others. He also maintains a fleet of unloved motors, but spends most of his time driving an old Corvette.

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