McLaren MP4 review

McLaren has brought its racecar knowhow to the road with the MP4. And now improved it. Jonathan Crouch checks out the latest version.

Ten Second Review

Advanced aerodynamics, lightweight carbonfibre design, a bundle of electronic driver aids: there's no doubt that McLaren has brought its Formula 1 expertise to the road with the MP4 supercar. But it still needs to demonstrate a clear advantage over its arch-rival, Ferrari's 458 Italia. A package of improvements that include a 25PS power increase to 625PS aim to do just that.

Background

When McLaren takes it upon itself to build a road car, the world tends to sit up and take notice. The main reason is that that this British engineering firm, best known for its exploits in Formula 1 racing, isn't exactly prolific in terms of production model output. McLaren's first effort here was the awe-inspiring F1 of 1993, a supercar which set the extreme standards by which all others have subsequently been judged and precious few have equalled. After a short break, 2010 brought us a second McLaren passenger car, this one completely designed and built in-house. The MP4-12C set out to define its genre with a subtlety and lightness of touch. Where the McLaren F1 was a road-going race machine that competed and won on track with only minor modifications and cost over half a million pounds, the MP4-12C is a more mainstream proposition. The F1 could famously top 240mph and had a total production run that barely squeaked over 100, including track-specified versions. Its spiritual successors are modern hypercars like the Bugatti Veyron the Pagani Zonda and the Ferrari Enzo at prices that can edge towards six figures. But plans at the MP4-12C's 2010 launch to build over 1,000 units per year indicated that McLaren was going to be targeting a humbler position in the market with this car. That's if Porsche's 911, Lamborghini's Gallardo and Ferrari's 458 can be called humble. Since then however, such sales targets have proved hard to meet and the British company has responded with a far-reaching package of improvements that have added more power and excitement to an already enticing recipe.

Driving Experience

This is a two-seater supercar of the classic mid-engined rear-wheel-drive layout and at its heart is a 3.8-litre twin-turbocharged V8 engine. Peak power has risen from the 600PS offered at launch to 625PS, giving this car a useful advantage of around 50PS over its arch-rival, Ferrari's 458 Italia. More importantly perhaps, owners will be better able to hear the engine thanks to the addition of what Mclaren calls a 'Programmable Intake Sound Generator' in the cockpit. There's a massive 600Nm of torque, with the turbochargers set to ensure that most of it is available from just 2,000rpm all the way through to the 8,500rpm red line. Show the MP4-12C an empty airfield and it can pass 124mph in under nine seconds while braking from 62mph requires just 30 meters of road. Sixty from rest takes just 3.1s, the same as the figure achieved by the original version. Indeed, it's only the 0-186mph figure of 26.5s that sees this improved model enjoy any sort of advantage over its predecessor - and then it's only a second quicker. Distributing the power is an F1-style seven-speed paddle shift gearbox with revised calibration in this improved model but still the same connected paddles that pivot in the centre of the steering wheel and move with the wheel as it's turned. A system dubbed Pre-Cog allows drivers to place pressure on the shift paddle, preparing the gearbox in advance so that the gearchange can be executed even more quickly when the paddle is fully pressed. The active suspension system is designed to produce the highest levels of performance but also deliver a comfortable ride. Hydraulic dampers can be set manually or left to adjust automatically to the road and driving conditions.

Design and Build

McLaren's record in Formula 1 suggests it knows a thing or two about aerodynamics and lightweight design. This knowledge is used to full effect on the MP4-12C. Weight has been meticulously purged from this car at every stage of its design and development with the aim of maximising performance and handling. It's built around a carbonfibre MonoCell or 'tub' just like a race car with the whole structure weighing just 80kg. As well as being light, it's immensely strong, bringing major safety benefits and enhancing the rigidity of the car. This design concept has also enabled McLaren to keep the MP4-12C a manageable size. This isn't one of the hugely wide supercars with appalling visibility that can prove so daunting to pilot in everyday conditions. The large windscreen extends low down at the front in a similar style to that of the McLaren F1 and it's also possible to see out of the back which is by no means a given in rival models. Despite being relatively narrow, the car still boasts a well-appointed cabin large enough for two tall occupants. In many respects the exterior design of the MP4-12C are classic mid-engined supercar with the short-stubby bonnet and the curving roof and the lines rising towards the tail. The shape has also been conceived to produce high levels of aerodynamic downforce, however, and the attention paid to the airflow around the vehicle is evident in the huge cooling ducts down the flanks of the car that feed air into radiators mounted adjacent to the engine.

Market and Model

All the talk of weight saving around the MP4-12C doesn't lead you to expect a luxurious cabin environment but the interior of the car isn't the stripped-out carbonfibre fest that you might imagine. The asking price of just under £180,000 gets you dual-zone climate control, electric seats, a premium stereo system, a trip computer, cruise control plus a series of electronic driver aids and settings which are governed by the Active Dynamics panel on the centre console. Amongst the electronic arsenal of the MP4-12C are Brake Steer which automatically brakes individual wheels to improve its responses when cornering and an anti-roll system which uses the adaptive dampers to counteract cornering forces and keep the car flat through the bends. There's a Winter mode which turns all of the electronic supports systems up to maximum assistance while also softening the responses of the engine and gearbox to compensate for slippery conditions. At the other end of the spectrum is a full launch control system and a button to deploy the rear spoiler for extra downforce.

Cost of Ownership

Technologies that McLaren has brought from Formula 1 to the MP4-12C are not purely designed to enhance performance. The lightweight design and aerodynamic efficiency of the car bring big environmental and cost benefits as well. It's reasonable to expect that we'll be seeing features from the car filtering down to other road cars in the future as the desire to improve efficiency become more pressing. The engine upgrade has had no impact on running costs: the CO2 return is 279g/km and the quoted combined cycle figure is 24.2mpg.

Summary

As the first McLaren road car to be created entirely in-house, the MP4-12C gives a fascinating glimpse into how the company sees the future of the high performance sports car. Where the BMW-engined F1 was a thinly veiled race car with lunatic tendencies and the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren combined luxury with its fearsome pace, the MP4-12C is a paragon of efficiency and technology designed to put the cat amongst the pigeons at the lower end of the supercar market. Breaking into that segment has proved to be even more difficult than the British brand expected, hence the useful package of improvements to the model we've been looking at here. The power increase in particular puts clear blue water between the output of this model and that provided by its closest rival, Ferrari's 458 Italia. But you don't buy a car of this kind just on the basis of its spec sheet superiority. Even if you didn't know that this MP4-12C was created by an F1 racing team, you might easily guess the fact from owning one. There's a clarity of vision here that offers up a very special driving experience. Whether it's special enough is something that potential owners will very much enjoy deciding upon for themselves.