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Cabrio of the Year: 12C Spider

  1. I have never quite understood the widespread accusations of dullness levelled at McLaren’s MP4-12C supercar. I think it springs from timid cultural conventions.

    The thinking seems to go that the phenomenon of The Supercar - by which we really mean the Italian supercar - comes at a price; a price that those of us admitted to the inner sanctum accept as a rite of entry. We even boast about it. Supercars come with awkward boots, shocking blind spots, low-speed cussedness, stupid options lists, quirky transmissions, terrifying repair bills following minor mishaps, baffling control logic, and all the rest of it. The McLaren doesn’t really offer any of this, and therefore must be ‘a bit boring’.

    Photos: Lee Brimble

    This article originally appeared in the December 2012 edition of Top Gear magazine 


  2. But hang on. “My supercar is great to drive, works properly and is easy to own” is not the ranting of a pub dullard. There’s a deep and largely unfamiliar pleasure to be taken in a truly high-performance car that works exactly as advertised. And in any case, it doesn’t quite work perfectly, but we’ll come on to that.

    Battling my way up Europe’s highest paved road in the Sierra Nevada, I am reminded of everything I found deeply satisfying about the McLaren the first time I drove it, on Top Gear telly. The fidelity of that gearchange, the even weighting of all the controls, the ease of driving really quite fast, the intelligent way the reconfiguration of the engine output and chassis set-up is separated. It’s all good. It’s great fun mocking Ron Dennis’s po-faced Wokingshire anal retentiveness about detail, but do you know what? He might be on to something.

  3. And now, as we would normally say of Dacia, there’s GOOD NEWS! The McLaren MP4-12C has been improved. First up, it’s now available in this Spider form, with the accepted folding hard-top. As the car was conceived from the outset this way, there’s no compromise in rigidity or even bootspace, and the weight penalty of the various motors and rods that effect the transformation is just 40kg. The roof, which can be raised on the move at speeds of up to precisely 24.8548mph, is one of the fastest in the business, lowering completely in just 17 seconds. Ambient temperature apparently has a small impact on the exact time, and I don’t really know why, but I’m bloody impressed that they are in a position to tell me that. They’re thorough, this lot.

    The name has changed, too. Recognising that MP4-12C sounded a bit like one of the upgradable components of a desktop PC, McLaren simply calls the car the 12C. So this is now the McLaren 12C Spider. Given time and a general bolstering of confidence - and because this is the only car the company currently makes - it will become known as the McLaren Spider. The normal car will be the McLaren.

  4. That daft and faintly ritualistic way of opening the doors has gone too. There is now a discreet button to press, and it works every time, saving you from the embarrassment of mincing about like a bad kerbside mime artist performing a routine about a giant invisible iPhone. This change, apparently, was “in response to customer requests”; the request probably being, “Please get rid of that stupid door-opening system or I’m buying a Lamborghini.”

    There’s more. Power is up several notches from 592bhp to 616bhp, the sound of the exhaust can be altered independently of the setting selected on the power knob, and the gearchange software has been mildly tweaked for even more synaptic reactions. The 12C Spider does, however, lose 1mph in outright speed to the coupe, which may have kept Ron awake for several months.

  5. Finally, and after a year or more of foot-shuffling and “Don’t know, Sir”, the touchscreen central pod now incorporates satnav. This is one of the things onto which I wanted to come, as promised earlier.

    McLaren’s satnav has been the maths homework of the supercar world, in several ways. Determined to develop its own software instead of buying perfectly good off-the-shelf stuff, it has undoubtedly involved quite a lot of maths. And, like all maths homework that I ever did, it’s not finished.

  6. It’s not just that it sometimes crashed and locked me resolutely into a small village even though I’d long since roared off into the mountains. The angle of the screen is such that with the roof down and the sun anywhere overhead, you simply can’t see it. This means you have to cup a free hand around it to make out the picture, leaving you with no free hand to touch the screen. And while the rest of the electronic interface is simpler and more logical than a Ferrari 458’s, the satnav is convoluted.

    I don’t really want to go on about this. Yes I do. Developing your own satnav software in a world already oversupplied with excellent satnav software is a bit like trying to cook your own Indian food. It takes ages, and it’s still crap compared with the stuff from the nearest restaurant.

  7. Still, it’s good to know that even Ron Dennis is fallible, and that even his supercar can have exclusively supercar-like foibles. Although there’s always a chance that he did this deliberately to confound his critics.

    Another issue is that the buffeting around the headrest is a bit extreme at high speeds. Yet another is that, owing to the way the door opens and the rake of the windscreen, any 12C is a bit awkward to get in and out of. I’ll be 50 in a few months’ time, and I long ago recognised that I was too old to drive a convertible with any dignity. Now I’m beginning to look too old to leave one with any dignity, or indeed any impression of innate balance. The force that through the green fuse drives the flower is driving my green age, and it’s depressing to discover that driving a supercar reveals it so utterly.

  8. Anyway. We’re up in the mountains, and no one would be able to see my penis if I were driving this car naked with the top down, and, by my own rules, that means I’m allowed to drop the roof. Once it’s down, the ‘tonneau’ part behind the seats can be raised again to reveal a second small boot. The vertical glass between the seats can be raised and lowered independently. Lower it but keep the side windows up if driving fast. This seems to give the smoothest airflow in the cabin.

    The heater is cracking and so are the heated seats. Off we go, then. Select manual control, set the chassis and power knobs to Sport and Track respectively, the McLaren 12C Spider is instantly alive and eager.

  9. The great thing about the 12C is that it’s easy to drive. It’s probably the most benign supercar I’ve ever tried. Again, some would want to be admired for their courage in mastering a Ferrari GTO or the demanding Aventador, but I say cobblers to that. I can challenge myself by learning to play the violin. This is a good-time car and I want a good time. I get it.

    At first, and having recently stepped from the 458, I thought that the McLaren’s steering had become even quicker and more nervous. But I’m assured that nothing in the undercarriage has been changed, so it must just be the air.

  10. What definitely has changed is the engine, the nature of which was always central to the dark mutterings that said the McLaren was a bit boring; the quantity surveyor standing in the kitchen of the supercar party. Various tweaks to engine mapping - God knows what, and for once I’m with Clarkson and literally not interested - have made the twin-turbo V8 really quite barking mad. The exemplary low-range grunt is now complemented by the right sort of noise - a bit grubby, like a dirty laugh from a buxom wench in a period-drama tavern. Or something like that.

  11. This engine - and this is as it should be - defines the essential character of the McLaren and perfectly distinguishes it from Ferrari’s 458. They are very different, and no one should dismiss the Woking operation as Britain’s attempt to have its own Maranello. Apart from anything else, have you ever been to Woking?

    The Ferrari’s engine is fizzy, raspy and brittle. It encourages a foray into its upper reaches. The McLaren motor is gruff and woofly, and likes a short shift so it can growl at you. The Ferrari is like a slightly yappy terrier, the McLaren like a faintly bad-tempered bloodhound. The Ferrari is histrionic, while there’s a bit of floppy-eared harrumphing about the McLaren. It’s slightly friendlier, despite seeming like a more clinical and academic proposition in the first place.

  12. To put it another way, the Ferrari experience is quite cool and a bit artistic. It’s like handling an exquisitely sculpted statue. The McLaren is more like fondling a real human being; warmer and more comforting. This is the opposite of what popular preconception would suggest.

    It’s now no secret - although the man from McLaren didn’t know, so I didn’t mention it - that I recently bought a 458. Even at the last minute, I wondered if the McLaren might be the more knowing choice. I still wonder sometimes, and when a man tweeted me the other day to tell me he’d ordered the car formerly known as the MP4-12C, I couldn’t readily respond with a Ferrari-centric put-down. There isn’t one. The McLaren is a terrific car.

  13. I enjoyed one of those once-in-a-motoring-lifetime experiences driving up the mountains. The road was cut deftly into the rock face as if with one wandering stroke from the divine carpenter’s rebating tool. The cloud that we’d been promised was rolling up the steep slope to my right, driven by the Sierra Nevada’s notorious winds. Then the cloud crossed the road, but didn’t drop into it. I found myself driving along the internal, horizontal side of a tunnel formed like the right-angled triangle of a geometry exercise, framed on the other two sides by the vertical rock face and the slanting canopy of solid white not 10 feet above my head. It was the driving equivalent of what I think is known as ‘piping’ in surfing circles. I’ve never been more pleased to find myself in a car without a roof.

    It was truly magical, lasting for maybe two minutes. Long enough for me to wonder if the experience could have been improved by a different car. It couldn’t, to be honest. The McLaren 12C, in all its forms, is tremendous.

    Maybe the only thing keeping me in a Ferrari is that Ican get out of it more easily.

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