Test drive: McLaren 12C Spider
October 30, 2013
It’s interesting how a little context will shape one’s opinions. Turns out I’d been an accidental fan of McLaren for years. Before the name became synonymous with Formula 1, and before the release of the iconic F1 supercar in the 90s, there were slotcars. Yes you heard me, slotcars. Going through some old Kodaks, I realized I’d in fact been driving scaled down, electric McLarens since the 70s … putting me years ahead of Tesla in terms of electric vehicle development. So upon learning I’d be driving the full-scale version of McLaren’s 12C Spider, I was as pleased as Scottish schoolboy in September.
Okay, before we get into the fantastic brilliance that is McLaren’s 12C Spider, let me go on record by saying this car is fantastic and brilliant. Until now, Ferrari’s F430 was top of list for road attack vehicles of an exotic nature, no more. Not only is McLaren’s F1-inspired 12C light years ahead of anything I’ve ever driven in respect to suspension, power management and gearbox performance, it's also a legitimate urban commuter that could conceivably be used as a daily driver, insurance requirements notwithstanding.
The ride, courtesy of McLaren North America and Pfaff Toronto, was part of an experience celebrating McLaren’s 50 years in business. It allowed yours truly some quality seat time in the 12C Spider as I too celebrate my 50 years. Coincidence? I think not. Nothing solves a mid-aged crisis like a 616 hp McLaren with Formula 1 genetics.
As brilliant as the car is there are a few minor complaints, which in no way would deter me from acquiring the 12C were I able. One issue is the myriad of control stalks on the steering column. In total McLaren has placed six levers on the column, three per side, not including shifter paddles. The shift paddles by the way, are positioned at 3 and 9 o’clock. For someone who is used to driving at 10 and 2 like myself, this position requires some adjustment, otherwise you'll find yourself continually having to move your hands down the wheel to blip the gearbox.
Another minor issue with the 12C is the unconventional steering wheel design. Beautifully wrapped in leather with carbon fiber spokes, it's ideal for guiding the 12C about, but the grip of the wheel is for some reason tapered on the trailing edge towards the dash instead of being round. I'm not sure what the rationale was behind the design, but after driving the car for 48 hours I found it to be oddly uncomfortable. On the very positive side, the 12C’s variable-rate, electro-hydraulic rack and pinion steering setup, in my opinion, is as close to perfection as one can get in a road-going supercar.
But all these minor concerns vaporize like blurred road lines as soon as McLaren’s award winning twin-turbocharged M838T V8 engine kicks-in. Featuring over 1,100 bespoke parts, the all-aluminum engine specifically designed for the 12C weighs just 200 kg (440 lb). Thanks to a dry sump oil system and a flat plane crankshaft configuration, the mid-engine V8 sits low in the body giving the car a relatively low center of gravity. The 3.8 liter engine produces 616 hp with 443 lb.ft of torque and according to McLaren, the car has 80 percent of peak torque available below 2000 rpm. Another reason why the 12C’s power band is so absolutely huge. Did I mention the car has a top speed of 329 km/h (204 mph)? Good to know next time I’m at the Nürburgring.
Overall the 12C Spider weighs in at 3,033 lb (1375 kg) – not super light, but still impressive. A weight distribution of 42 percent up front and 58 percent at the rear makes for an old-school rear engine weight bias that translates rather well under spirited ventures. The car is squat at only 1.2 m (3.94 ft) tall, making ingress and egress interesting for all occupants, and measures 1.9 m (6.2 ft) across the hips and 4.5 m (14.7 ft) long. These specs translate into a car that feels very much like a track-bred piece when pushed.
The 12C’s 7-speed gearbox is another bit of race-inspired brilliance. The so called “Seamless-Shift Gearbox” apparently pre-loads the next gear, which in turn delivers some of the fastest, and most seamless shifts I’ve ever experienced. Driving about Toronto’s varied urban and country roadways allowed me to try the gearbox out in its many settings. In partner with the V8’s expansive power range, the gearbox is fantastically adept at throwing out lightning shifts in performance mode when called upon. And trust me, I called on them a lot during my time behind the wheel.
Out by the city’s industrialized waterfront area I had the opportunity to try the engine and 7-speed gearbox out in a more spirited fashion. With 0-100 km/h (62 mph) times of 3.3 seconds (3.1 on Corsa tires) the 12C communicates power so directly and effectively that you can almost hear Bruce McLaren giggling like a school girl as the car revs up to 7000 rpm.
An added bonus is the absence of turbo-lag. McLaren says it achieves this seamless boost using one turbo bank that’s adjusted to come on a little earlier. Unlike a sequential turbo arrangement, the 12C system uses both smaller turbines, which spin up faster and support higher RPMs, and slightly different wastegate adjustments. This setup that feels like “pre-spooler” technology makes turbo-lag, the evil power procrastinator, almost non-existent.
The other side of the 12C’s gearbox/engine persona is the diversity and range it brings to the table. Driving up and down Toronto’s Bay Street flaunting my ride with the gearbox in auto-mode, I found the car could easily be used as a daily driver. Unlike other exotics where gearboxes are anything but well-behaved in auto-mode, McLaren seems to have done the impossible and made a performance gearbox that could easily be mistaken for something out of a Mercedes or BMW.
Further to the 12C’s long list of desirable traits is McLaren’s Proactive Chassis Control (PCC). Developed in Formula 1, the PCC system is comprised of linked hydraulic dampers that adeptly manage the car's roll and ride stiffness, enabling the 12C to transition from an agile thing of beauty, with flat supercar handling characteristics, to an inner city commuter capable of handling imperfect roadways with comfort and ease.
Drivers are given the choice of Normal, Sport and Track Modes, which are adjusted by a knob on the center console. I tried all three and found Normal to be perfect for showing off around the city as the 12C soaked up Toronto’s nefarious tram-tracks and irregularities with ease. But for the most part I left the car in Track mode just in case I had the urge to really drive. Again, we see McLaren’s Formula 1 experience carrying over to real world application with undeniable success.
Another stroke of wizardry is Brake Steer technology, something I had no idea the 12C Spider was equipped with until after I’d driven the car. The Brake Steer technology is designed to "manage traction, minimize mid-corner understeer and control oversteer when cornering at speed” according to McLaren. This outlawed bit of Formula 1 engineering was outright banned when McLaren was caught using it in their MP4-13, as it gave the team a significant braking and handling advantage in the corners.
The system takes into consideration speed and steering angles, then “calculates” best braking pressures to the back inside wheel, causing the car to “pivot” around that point rather than just steer through. Something that came in very handy when I was negotiating Wendy’s drive-thru in an effort to acquire the #7 Chicken Grill combo. Of course I would never allow crumbs into the 12C so I left it outside, watched over by Toronto’s finest.
Aesthetically, the car is a photographer’s wet dream. With the exception of the nose, which I find a bit piggish on profile, the 12C Spider is capable of causing a wide range of individuals (i.e. business persons, Wendy’s customers, Toronto law enforcement officers and Niagara Falls tourists) to turn their heads and open their mouths in an unflattering way. But photos are worth a thousand words, so check the gallery for the full visual experience ... though it's fair to say that the car is far more dynamic and stunning in person than it is on screen.
The 12C’s two-piece roof is like the rest of the car, an exercise in lightweight form and perfection. With a small electric window located behind the passengers, air and engine noise can be allowed into the cockpit space, but should one desire the full open air experience, then flick that switch and 17 seconds later the top is down. The top can be raised or lowered at speeds of up to 19 mph.
With the top down, air turbulence and wind noise in the car was actually acceptable. Even at higher speeds, the cockpit stayed reasonably hospitable thanks to some clever wind tunnel engineering. The climate system is designed to compensate when the roof is down, redirecting airflow and fan speed. The 12C’s Meridian audio system is also responsive to the topless scenario, adjusting volume and tone to individual speakers to ensure output is similar under open or closed conditions.
Inside the 12C, unlike some supercars (I'm thinking Ferrari), the seats are comfortable enough for 3-4 hour drives yet supportive enough for more enthusiastic driving. Legroom and headroom is excellent. Temperature gauges on the dihedral doors are ergonomically odd and perhaps a little distracting, but they do help to free up space on the center console. The driving position is also excellent, as is visibility.
It’s also worth mentioning McLaren’s carbon fiber monocoque, or passenger tub, which was a world first in Formula 1 in 1981. Carbon fiber passenger cages are not only lighter than steel or aluminum, but they provide significantly better torsional qualities. This is important in most convertibles, because with the all important roof piece missing, chassis flex becomes an issue. With the help of the carbon fiber monocoque, chassis flex between the 12C Spider and coupe remains almost identical.
On paper, with all these Formula 1 influences at play, one would expect a car that was clinically bereft of personality and about as appealing to drive in the city as a go-cart. But no. Somehow Team McLaren, with the input and direction of Chairman Ron Dennis and Design Director Frank Stephenson, managed to produce what in my opinion may be one of the best all-round road cars in the world. That’s taking into consideration Asian, German and American performance models and exotics like Lamborghini and Ferrari. Mind you the 12C’s lack of luggage space and hefty price tag makes the argument a tad more difficult, but given the choice of this or a Ferrari 458, I would take the 12C hands down.
After watching McLaren’s Courage, the company’s hauntingly beautiful video short that recreates that fateful day in 1970 when founder Bruce McLaren was killed after his 8MD Can-Am racer came apart at 170 mph, I found myself driving the 12C with more appreciation and respect. There seems to be an almost palpable sense of history to McLaren’s cars. Does the 12C Spider live up to expectations? Yes, it does.
Buyers interested in a 12C should take into context that second hand McLaren F1’s are currently running in the range of $7 to $10 million. Thus the idea of dropping US$270,000 on this near perfect supercar of a thing could be seen as (almost) seem economical.
Special thanks to McLaren Toronto for supplying the 12C.