Road Test: Time flies by in McLaren's new MP4-12C supercar
One day; in fact, mere hours. That's all I had with one of the most exciting new cars in years. Yes, I guess that's more than most people would enjoy with the new McLaren MP4-12C, but for a full review of this new supercar, I'd prefer to have more time with it to pass along to you, dear readers.
In fact, this isn't even the car that you'd buy in the new Dubai showroom - it's a pre-production model, the only one available to the local media here. But I'm assured by the McLaren staff that the basic car is exactly what is available, save for excessive wind and hydraulic pump noise filtering into the cabin. Oh, and a limited infotainment system. But the rest is the same, so I'm told - the chassis, the handling, the engine, all the stuff that matters.
So, what do I do? Drive. Drive hard, fast and all day long. Drive towards Hatta, drive towards the twisting, open roads that this car was made for. It's exhausting work, but it's all for you.
My initial disappointment at the time allotted is dulled somewhat when I first set eyes on the car, though. It's low, sleek and that bright orange really lets its curves shine in the sun. The front headlights have a neon-look LED surround reminiscent of the car's logo, while the tail lights are cleverly hidden in black accents at the rear; the mid-mounted, twin-turbo V8 is on show under a glass bonnet behind the passenger compartment. Its optional black wheels look good with the orange body and are 10kg lighter than stock, and this one has optional carbon ceramic brakes. The scissor doors open with a swipe of your hand under a body crease - get it wrong and you won't be able to get inside.
Inside, the seats are sparse and a little short under the legs, but supportive and relatively comfortable. The 12C was designed to be a real sports car that can be used every day, but the carbon fibre tub that forms the chassis has wide sills that make ingress and egress a bit of a chore, and it also takes up a lot of space in the cramped footwell.
That infotainment system on the vertical-layout screen in this pre-production model is the same as the showroom cars save for a lack of a sat/nav system, but the way it works impresses me. Its layout and operation is minimalistic yet futuristic, like something you'd see in a sci-fi film.
Yeah, but does that matter when you're driving? Trundling out of the showroom and onto the open road, I'm keeping it in the normal suspension and drivetrain modes for a while - the ride is firm but not jarring, while the engine is kept to a drone that permeates into the cockpit. The gearbox is on automatic and the shifts from the double clutches are smooth; for a supercar, the 12C can be a tame puppy if driven as such.
But all it takes is a stab at the throttle to know it's more than that. The high torque and horsepower send the car shooting forward at an alarming rate. McLaren says 100kph comes in just 3.3 seconds and from regular motorway speeds to a lose-your-licence rate is just all too quick and easy. The fence posts on the straight roads heading south-east of Dubai turn into a blurred, solid wall in between the radar cameras, and back to fence posts just as quickly as I hit the brakes hard. In the mirror I see the rear wing shoot up as an air brake, putting more weight on the rear wheels. It helps to make the 12C just as startlingly good at braking as it is in acceleration - no squirming.
I take a short break at the Hatta Fort Hotel for a coffee and a review of what I've experienced; it's not a car I'd want to drive every day, what with the ergonomics, though it's not exactly unbearable, either. But the 12C was built for much more than the commute to the office.
Back in the car and I switch the suspension and powertrain modes to sport; both have three settings of normal, sport and track, which can be changed independently of each other. They incrementally firm up the suspension for a sportier drive and remap the engine and gearbox. I put that to manual mode and use the paddles behind the wheel - they take a hard pull to change cogs, but you get the hang of it. And I feel the difference of the modes on the twisty country roads off the motorway.
The sport suspension mode is not a huge jump from normal, but the car stays flatter in curves. The powertrain change, however, is most noticed by the furious noise from the engine - it opens a valve in the exhaust for easier breathing and better sound, though it's still not the most satisfying V8 snarl out there - more of an angry drone. But it does help raise my adrenaline as I push it in some of the more open curves; maybe the rocky ditches at the edge of the asphalt also help with that, too. As my speed and courage increase, I'm finding the chassis rock solid, and the steering, which seemed a little jittery on the straight motorway, now shows its strength with tight, precise turns that transmit so much information on what the front tyres are doing. The braking, the power, the gearbox are all working so well that I soon realise I'm not even coming close to the 12C's potential; you just can't do that away from a full-on race track, and you'll easily find the edge of your own abilities far before those of the car.
Coming back, I try out the track mode, and I can't keep it on very long - the suspension makes the car feel like a buckboard on even the smoothest of roads, which this one is definitely not. I feel less in control around the curves because of it, and find sport much more enjoyable. With full confidence in those carbon ceramic brakes, you can really push it hard; it's pure exhilaration.
But the sun is setting, and my time with the MP4-12C is almost over. Pulling back into the hotel car park, I enjoy the crackling of the engine as it cools, and I think about the only thing I really don't like about this car - the seats. They are electrically operated and move back when you get out, but every time you get in you have to activate the memory setting. The company says it did everything to shave the car's weight (1,434kg), so why even have electric seats in the first place? The salesman tells me the memory settings are for when you loan it to your brother-in-law, but I wouldn't be loaning this car out to anyone. Manual seats, please.
But that's a small problem in an otherwise brilliant piece of work. Another coffee later and I'm back in the cockpit tamely pointed towards Dubai. I've put in a full day of driving more than 300km in the 12C, and yet, I want more - and by more, I mean a race track.
3.8L, twin-turbocharged V8
Gearbox seven-speed DSG
Power 592hp @ 7,000rpm
Torque 600Nm @ 3,000-7,000rpm
Fuel economy, combined
Updated: December 15, 2011 04:00 AM