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Stig vs the 12C Spider

  1. The gloved finger hesitates. This is unusual. The initial contact between Stig and car most often involves a rapid sequence of instinctive jabs, at the end of which the car is stiffened, traction-less and maximally sportified. But a binary debate is occurring over what to do with one particular button. To lower or not to lower.

    Stig’s programming does not permit him to consider the pleasant weather in this corner of southern Spain as a reason to put the roof down. Even the thought of a new level of aural exposure fails to stir Stig from his focus on outright speed. Naively, I believe the two quick kinks on Ascari’s back straight, plus the long, loopy speed curve past the pits will cause his-whiteness to leave the roof up for improved high-speed aero efficiency.

    Photos: Rowan Horncastle

    This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazine


  2. The gloved finger prods; the motors whirr as the buttressed tonneau lifts and the two-piece roof folds itself in half and away. Stig waits the necessary 17 seconds impassively (clearly having failed to take on board that the manoeuvre can be accomplished at up to 19mph), before shooting me a glance that manages to communicate that ‘moving-weight-down-and-back-in-car-is-better’ with nothing more than a small, curt nod. And with a launch-assisted chirrup from the tyres, he’s gone. A short time later, much tyre pain can be heard.

    By my reckoning, I’ve got 15 minutes to tell you about the McLaren 12C Spider before he’s back demanding fresh rubber. The most important thing to note is that the Spider uses exactly the same carbon tub as the coupe - a tub that was designed from the outset to underpin both models, so needs no additional bracing, unlike, for the sake of argument, the Ferrari 458 Spider. There, the weight gain over the coupe is 75kg and the loss of stiffness about 30 per cent. Here, the figures are 40kg and zero per cent. That’s deeply impressive.

  3. The roof itself, like the Ferrari’s, was co-developed with German folding-roof specialists Webasto. It’s neat and smooth, but two things stop it being a total treat - the motors are on the noisy side, and the SMC plastic panels (as well as the roof, most of the back of the car is made from it) feel a bit cheap to the touch. Small points, but worth raising on a car costing £195,500.

    Can’t complain about practicality, though. Yes, I know this is a two-seat supercar, but McLaren’s research shows, of the 1,500-odd coupes sold so far, many are being used every day. Clearly, the firm is doing something right, something it doesn’t want to undermine with the introduction of the Spider. One of the compromises it had to arrive at was the loss of the rear parcel shelf. With only a 144-litre boot under the nose, this clearly niggled the engineers, so they came up with something. Buttress bags. Yes, really.

  4. The rear tonneau can be electrically raised independently of the roof, and inside each hollow buttress is a neatly rolled soft bag. Unfurl them, pack them with squidgy stuff and they’re shaped to fit the vacant roof space. And there you have it - another 52 litres of luggage capacity.

    But enough of the practicalities of this car. The Spider comes with the same updates as the 2013 coupe, which essentially means a bit more power (a 24bhp climb to 616bhp) for the 3.8-litre twin-turbo V8, plus an extra 500rpm to play with at the top end of the rev band. Personally, I think it’s just as noteworthy that this is the first McLaren I’ve driven with working satnav. Like everything else the firm does, it works cleanly and logically, has a simple interface and the portrait-orientated screen makes you wonder how soon others will follow McLaren’s lead.

  5. Time’s up. I watch from the pit wall as Stig completes a final lap, leaving a fug of broadside smoke at each corner. Vapourised rubber and a heat haze chase the gasping Volcano Yellow Spider back into the pits. Things appear to have gone well: the brakes are smoking, the engine’s ticking hotly and the tyres are bald - sure signs of a contented Stig. He swings off to the paddock, heading straight to the source of fresh rubber. He stops by the ramps, climbs out and waits expectantly, arms folded. But what’s this? His head has come up and he stalks off, apparently distracted by the array of racing cars scattered around in here.

    With new tyres attached, I grab my chance and back the Spider quietly out of the garage while Stig gently strokes the roll hoop of a Formula Three racer.

  6. This isn’t my first experience of the car - I drove this one 65 miles up from the coast at some dark hour this morning, and it was utterly peerless. I couldn’t detect a single deterioration from the coupe’s driving experience - it still had the uncannily smooth ride quality, the sharp turn-in and sense of agility that the coupe is rightly praised for. Even thumping into expansion joints, there wasn’t a single kick through the steering or shake from the rear-view mirror. It was remarkable.

    My favourite feature wasn’t even the roof itself, but the electric glass rear window. It’s a wind deflector, really (not that the car needs one, as cabin buffeting is minimal even with it lowered), but I prefer to think of it as a roof-up volume control. Raised, the Spider is every bit as refined as the coupe, but drop the window and the extra volume is shocking. You’d never believe a single piece of glass could make so much difference to cabin insulation.

  7. But you don’t want insulation, you want volume, you want to hear the snargly V8, and the Spider lets you do that so much better. The deep, chesty, gargly growl still isn’t a particularly pretty noise, but it’s a proper accompaniment to the way the McLaren hurls you down the road. Or track.

    Oh ho, this thing is good around Ascari. I’ve never driven another drop-top supercar that’s taken to the track as convincingly as this. Never. It’s utterly solid, stable and trustworthy, has beautiful balance, lovely steering and is deeply, deeply fast. The drawbacks, such as they are, are common to the coupe as well - the brakes aren’t as progressive as they should be, I’d like the seat to have more under-thigh support and the doors aren’t easy to navigate when climbing in and out.

  8. But it sears around Ascari with the confidence and attitude of a genuine racer, yet is notably less uptight than the coupe. It’s more exuberant, doesn’t take itself quite so seriously. It’s hard to put a finger on why this should be since, roof aside, there are so few differences between hard-and soft-top, but it’s a happy thing to be able to report. Incidentally, I love the way it looks, too.

    It’s a freer spirit, the Spider, less bound by convention. Apart from the extra cost (the £19,500 mark-up will be small beer to most owners), I can’t think of a solitary reason why you might have the coupe. This is a convertible that’s won Stig over, for heaven’s sake. And here he comes now, anger at my deception clearly emanating from the helmet. Eyeing the clenched fists, I yield the driver’s seat so he can embark on more tyre torture. The better to concentrate, I’d left the roof up. Stig puts it down.

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