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Battle of the spiders: Ferrari vs McLaren

  1. The tang of bitter adrenaline sits barely swallowed from a short but intense drive in 
a Ferrari 458 Spider up a bumpy mountain road, and with a nervous system so aggressively rewired that my heart appears to be ringing and my ears pumping, it’s hard to imagine 
that anything can better the wanton nuttiness of a naturally aspirated Ferrari V8 at nine thousand revolutions per minute, unfettered by a roof.

    But then I slip into the ergonomic masterpiece that is the cabin of the McLaren 12C Spider, drive the same road with the same level of commitment, have to reswallow my own lungs, and decide that nothing beats that either. Uh oh. It should be simple.

    After all, it’s the question that raises its head at the end of any head-to-head car battle, the one that asks - should the lottery numbers miraculously align on Saturday night - which one would you choose? Which, when you take into account the whole panoply of abilities, is best? But this time, sat on a rock above the terrifyingly expensive real estate of Monaco, at the end of a wiggly little ribbon of badly maintained French road, I’m stumped. The McLaren 12C Spider and Ferrari 458 Spider are so finely matched, both so insanely brilliant, that in this particular fight, I’m the one that’s ended up punch drunk and incapable of deciding. It’s like trying to choose your favourite thumb.

    Pictures: Justin Leighton

    This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazine

  2. A blatantly unsatisfactory conclusion, because we’re talking about war here. And in this case, there will be no prisoners taken or quarter given. The corporate entities of McLaren 
and Ferrari might try very hard to ignore each other, citing technological, aesthetic and conceptual differences until their collective breath runs short, but, out here in the real world, we’re watching two companies slug it out for territory and sales. The coupe versions of the 458 and 12C have fought each other to a standstill, the new-age hypercar hybrids that are the P1 and LaFerrari are waiting in the heavyweight wings, and here we are, sat with a pair of coupe convertible Spiders, wondering how to be definitive.

    First, it’s probably worth laying out a few facts. These two cars are both circa £200k coupe convertibles with a V8 engine cradled in the middle. Both have seven-speed, dual-clutch, paddle-operated gearboxes that drive the rear wheels, clever differentials and sophisticated traction-control systems.
 Both will hit 62mph from a standing start in under 3.5secs 
and around 200mph when allowed their head, give or take 
a few increments between committed frenemies. Those new-wave ‘boxes mean that both are as adept at in-town boulevardierdom as a family hatch (an important consideration in a Spider, where exposure is necessarily both to the elements and the public), and both are surprisingly practical, offering both luggage space and near-identical roof systems that fold
in an elegant mechanical origami in around 15 seconds. They even weigh within 4kg of each other. See what I mean? This is starting to sound like a supercar battle in which the winner will be decided based on who has the best warranty package. Here’s the kicker, though. Drive the two cars back to back on the same day, on the same bit of tortuously rumpled blacktop, and
you soon realise that, while these two hairy Spiders might be ostensibly similar, they are effectively completely different.

  3. In an effort to explain what’s going on, we have to start
at the beginning, with the blood and bones. Underneath, the 12C is McLaren’s take on a race car for the road, what it calls 
a carbon-fibre MonoCell, bracketed with aluminium frames to hang important things like wheels and suspension. A chassis so stiff that it requires no extra bracing to cope without a roof. The 458, on the other hand, is an aluminium jigsaw variously extruded and heat-formed using processes nicked from the aerospace industry, strengthened to cope without the keystone of the top bit. In both cases, the actual roof is non-structural, meaning that the car will handle identically roof up or down, and neither has suddenly gained a huge amount of weight.
The Mac weighs just 40kg more than the coupe; the 458,
a similar 50kg more than its hard-top brother.

  4. Out on the road, the 12C feels all but identical to the coupe. Even the worst thumps fail to upset it, and there’s 
a real feeling that you give nothing away for the extra air-conditioning. The Ferrari is also impressively rigid, but,
on the same road and at similar speeds as the 12C, there’s the ghost of a wiggle through the frame. Not enough to upset the steering - it’s more something you feel through the seat of your trousers - but enough to sense when compared with the rock-solid little Mac. Both have excellent steering, the Ferrari a little more intense, turning absolutely from the wrists, the paddles long, elegant scythes mounted to the steering column. The 12C is slightly slower, a forearm rotation that carries the paddles with the wheel, but incredibly accurate when placing the car. And both cars have carbon-ceramic brakes that would make the Tooth Fairy poor if you fail to wear a seatbelt.

    A light smear of first blood to the 12C, then. But when 
the Ferrari blazes into life and runs through the gears, you’ll forgive the 458 anything. Because this is one of the best sonic experiences in motoring, bar none. A naturally aspirated, 562bhp, 4.5-litre V8 engine that revs to a stratospheric 9,000rpm and sounds entirely happy banging off the limiter. And the way that it makes power is so deliciously linear that it allows you to place and play, to metre and orchestrate, with complete confidence. This is a car that melds traditional reactions with modern technology in the best way. It is, 
quite blatantly, stunning.

  5. The McLaren’s V8 is smaller in capacity, but makes up for its lack of displacement with the addition of a pair of turbos. And make up the deficit it does, by some margin. Now producing 616bhp - 50-odd bhp more than the 458 - the 12C also manages the kind of torque figures that only forced-induction engines can provide. With 600lb ft at its disposal from 3,000rpm to 7,000rpm, the 12C leaves the 458 with very few places to hide in terms of raw grunt.

    The trade-off comes with the delivery. And noise. Those turbos might make the 12C’s mid-range an avalanche rather than the 458’s surge, but they also take time to muster, and you’ll have to wait until past 3,000rpm until you can feel the force. And at full throttle, the 12C makes a very raw, race-car sound -
all white noise and rapid expansion. It’s definitely louder and more evocative than the early coupes, but tends towards the effective rather than the soulful. And there’s a whole orchestra of other noises involved in the 12C opera: a cymbal crash as the wastegate clears when changing hard, or roll off the throttle gently to make the same dump valves coo in an 
oddly metallic way, like stepping on a robot pigeon.

  6. The 458 reacts faster to the throttle, feels more immediate, more linear, even if it hasn’t got the punch-in-the-forehead boost in the mid-range of the McLaren. And yes, that’s probably also an effect of the 12C having such a ridiculously massive amount of extra, turbine-fed, free-range torque on offer - you just can’t mitigate that much extra thrust without hamstringing it and missing the point - but the Ferrari feels finer-boned, more delicate as it builds. More involving. The Ferrari picks the lock and slips between the physics - the McLaren just kicks in the door. A draw.

  7. The Ferrari is also more nervy in certain situations, easier to upset, especially under braking over bumps. This makes 
it more lively than the eerily stable 12C, but whether that’s 
a plus or a minus is probably down to personal taste. After
all, at the kind of speeds you’re making these cars feel ‘nervy’, you’re also looking at turning yourself into a molecule-width roadside appliqué should you misjudge. The truth is that the 12C’s inherent stability is the characteristic that makes it such a weapon, but also makes it feel slightly - just a little bit - aloof. Run a decent set of bumps, of which there are many
 on the roads around here, and the way the little McLaren 
taps lightly from one to the other is borderline witchcraft.

    A dancer’s gait. Not quite a Lotus Evora level of chassis balance over rough stuff, but not far off. Obviously there’s a suite of cleverness helping the 12C retain its startling poise, from hydraulically interconnected active damping to control all sorts of wayward factors like roll, pitch, heave and squat - which sounds like a set of prison-yard exercises, but isn’t. Barrel awkwardly into a corner and hit the brakes a bit too hard, and nothing really happens 
- which is a massive compliment. The 12C just flips up 
its airbrake, sits back and levels off. It’s actually quite natural-feeling, but odd at the same time, the expected transfer of weight and balance never quite changing as
much as you expect. That airbrake adds around 80kg of
 drag when fully deployed, balancing the 12C front-to-back 
as you brake hard and the car starts to tip onto its nose. As you turn, the hydraulically linked dampers control roll and pitch, aided by Brake Steer, which gradually retards the inside rear wheel in line with the steering angle. What it means is that the 12C dares you into faster and faster entry and exit speeds, building your confidence. It works. You’ll end up 
with the kind of pace that’s restricted by sightlines and imagination rather than engineering.

  8. The Ferrari is more electronics-based, combining its E-Diff3 and F1-Trac systems to effectively torque-vector across the rear axle both on- and off-throttle. Combine that with the magnetorheological suspension control on the damping (Ferrari refers to it as SCM2) that deals with the same inherent issues of roll and pitch as the 12C’s hydraulics, and there’s a car that turns and grips nearly as well as the 12C, but with a touch more feedback. It rolls just a fraction more, but the compliance seems to suit a road-biased car. You get the feeling that the Mac would possibly make the 458 Spider feel a little soft for track work.

    Interestingly, the ease with which you can access performance vicious enough to mug your senses is also now laughably simple - just drive them completely into their own traction-control systems. Now, traction-control and stability- control systems used to be a simple prophylactic against crashing, but, in modern supercars like these two, they now offer a very different take on traction management. Set both cars in Sport or Race mode, and you can benefit from very clever people arranging what now feels like semi-prescient suites of electronics. Traction-control systems used to be reactive, waiting until the car had started to fling itself off before either slamming on the brakes, bleeding out the engine power, or a bit of both. The best you could hope for was a stutter in momentum; the worst, a big gopping pause while 
the electronics mitigated and then reinstated the power and torque. Now, they seem to be much more… involved. More interested in maintaining speed rather than simply preventing the potential accident. So, instead of trying to avoid the traction-control system getting involved, you can actively use it.

  9. Obviously, the universe still operates under the same set of rules, so try to take a hairpin at silly speeds, and you’ll still get splashed across the scenery. But line either car up properly, and you can drive hard into the corner on the brakes without activating the ABS, stamp on the power earlier than you think possible and collect a half-turn of gentle oversteer on the way through - all without actively being Séb Loeb. The systems merely mitigate and finesse the traction in, around and through the corner. It makes both cars quite devastating on any road. And it makes them even harder to tell apart.

    The problems start with what you buy one of these cars for. What you expect and believe should be the point. If you want the faster car, then the answer is simple: the McLaren 12C Spider is quicker than the Ferrari 458 Spider. Both are at the upper edge of what you can reasonably deploy on a public road - and even then you have to be judicious and wary of where and when - both more than capable of having fun on a track. The McLaren always has the edge, though, and I suspect that if you were to find a decent circuit and be relieved of responsibility for people coming the other way, then the 12C would happily bully the 458 into the weeds. It really is that good.

  10. Alas, life is never that simple. The Ferrari 458 Spider is more nervous, less planted, harder work. But it is also more visceral at slightly lower speeds, noisier and more reactive from the throttle. You pilot a 12C, but you drive a 458. And that’s when this argument becomes one of personal preference rather than empirical betterness. In fact, it becomes such a circular session of argument and counterargument, pro versus con, subjective versus objective, that eventually it degenerates into a tar pit of intellectual doom that makes you want to hit yourself in the face with a Sisyphean rock. There’s nothing in it, no knockout decider, no coup de grâce. Daddy or chips.

    So I’m going to give you the reasoning behind why I’d buy… the Ferrari. Firstly, I think that the last 10 per cent 
of the McLaren’s brilliance would only become apparent on a race track. And if I were a track-day botherer with enough cash to splurge on a £200k car, then I suspect I’d want something circuit-specific. Secondly, the Ferrari is simply more flamboyant, from the way it reacts to the throttle to the way it yells and gurgles to the way it looks. It’s more 
of an event to drive slowly, better at showing off, less light-under-engineering-bushel, a slightly better Spider.

  11. It’s not a better car as such, but it’s a car that fits my subjective preferences more closely. Weirdly, I’d rather be able to 
say that I owned a McLaren than a Ferrari - a brand bias
I didn’t realise that I carried until today - and there are elements of the 12C that I just can’t help but admire. However, when the decision needs to be made, I prefer 
the idea of the McLaren, but the experience of the Ferrari. And for me, with a supercar, experience is everything.

    It sounds like a cop-out, but the fact that McLaren has 
got so close to deposing the supercar government in such
 a short time, from what amounts to an industrial standing start, is nothing short of extraordinary. The 12C Spider is
 an exceptional piece of engineering. But the Ferrari 458 Spider really is something special, so utterly immersive on the road, a car that knows what it wants to achieve, and nails it almost perfectly. The truth is that I’ve never tried quite so hard to decide between two cars. Ever. And when things are this
 close, it comes down to you, not the empirical measurement. These cars are within a hair’s breadth of each other, and, for once, you might as well just pick the one you prefer the look of. Or indeed, the one with the best warranty package. Right here, right now, it’s as good a reason as any.

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