Thursday 18 October 2012

First drive: McLaren MP4-12C Spider

We already know what this is, don't we?
You do. But that's not going to stop me running you through this car, because you need to read all about it. It's the Spider version of McLaren's MP4 12C coupe. And it's utterly brilliant. Better than the coupe, and possibly better than the Ferrari 458 Spider, too (although we're clearly going to need to get them together to have a definitive verdict on that...). Yes, it does cost £195,500, but you really, really want one of these.
Not pulling your punches then?
There's really no point, although I am now going to talk you through the workings of that opinion. The 12C Spider uses the exact same carbon tub (Monocell in Ron Dennis-speak) as the coupe, and also gets all the 2013 model year upgrades, including a power hike to 616bhp (from 592bhp) and - arguably more important - a fully working proprietary sat nav system.
Sat nav? Really?
Yes, and it's great, with simple graphics and a portrait-orientated screen that makes you wonder why other firms don't do the same. But let's get back to the carbon tub and roof: because both hard and soft-tops were developed in parallel and use identical underpinnings, both are equally stiff.
So there's no loss of rigidity?
Precisely 0 per cent. Contrast that to the Ferrari 458 Spider, which Ferrari says is 30 per cent more prone to twisty forces despite extra strengthening that adds 75kg to the kerbweight. The McLaren has gained just 40kg and that's all in the roof mechanism.
They have almost identical roof mechanisms, too, don't they?
Indeed, both were co-developed with Webasto. It's a great system - a two panel roof that tucks away beneath the buttressed lid in 17 seconds. And unlike the Ferrari, the 12C's can be lowered on the move, though only up to 19mph. If there's a drawback it's that the motors do seem to be working quite hard (i.e. noisily) to move what are very light SMC plastic panels. But it's a beguilingly jerk-free operation, and roof up or down the Spider has a bit more about it than the coupe.
So it's better looking?
To these eyes, yes. Or at least more interesting, due to the complex shapes. But it's the thought that McLaren has put into it that I love. There are a row of buttons on the door edge that are only usable when the door is open at its weird angle. Two are labelled 'tonneau' and open and close the roof cover independently of the lid itself. Open it up and tucked into the hollow of each buttress is a rolled-up bag. Unfurl it and you'll see it's fitted to mould the shape of the roof hollow. So provided you keep the roof up, you can use these bags to boost storage space by 52 litres. Useful...
Can we discuss the small matter of 616bhp now?
OK, I agree that the subject of practicality isn't that interesting, but given that McLaren's research shows that 12C owners frequently use their cars for daily driving, this sort of stuff matters. Anyway, the engine - well, we need to start with another element of the roof actually, the sliding rear glass.
The rear window functions as a windbreak, preventing the cabin getting too blustery when the roof is down (it really doesn't though, as the airflow is so well dealt with). With the lid up, the rear window can still be operated, although now it has a different function - as a volume control for the engine. And it's remarkable what difference it makes. Put everything up, isolate the cabin and the Spider is as refined as the coupe, but lower that unbelievably effective rear glass and volume levels spike dramatically. With the rear down, the 12C is as loud and proud as you want it to be, all growling menace from the 3.8-litre twin turbo. It's not as strident as the Ferrari, but if you value distinctive, nape-prickling engine noise, then this is the mode to drive the McLaren in - roof up, glass down.
So it's fast, is it?
Intoxicatingly so. Because of the minimal weight penalty, on the stickiest Pirelli P Zero Corsa tyres (optional, and intended for track days) both record the same 3.1sec 0-62mph sprint. Flat out, the Spider's marginally higher (by 4mm) roofline means it's ‘only' capable of 204mph, rather than 207mph.
It's massively flexible and massively potent - honestly, as fast as you'd ever want or need a car to be. But it's the way the Spider handles the power that's so, so impressive.
Because it manages it every bit as well as the coupe. The common carbon structure is so beneficial here - there's not a trace of shake through the steering column on rough roads, no blurriness when looking in the rear view mirror (not that rear visibility is that good), and no chassis tremor whatsoever. It is every bit as good to drive as the coupe. Every bit, but with the added bonus of some extra weather if you so choose. It's so agile, so punchy, so entertaining and the removal of the roof seems to have brought with it a hint more personality, too.
There must be some drawbacks?
OK, it's not easy to get in and out of. With the coupe, the flip-up doors don't intrude as you have to negotiate the roof, but here, with the roof down, they seem curiously able to jab you on the chin or in the eye. The cabin itself is brilliant - refreshingly different, beautifully constructed and with clever functionality and ergonomics. Personally I'd also like a bit more underthigh support from the seat, but that might just be me.
We get the picture - you like it. Now tell us, what's going on with the last picture in the gallery?
Um, yes, a man in a white suit did put in an appearance. Stig sort of materialized out of the floor of a pit garage like something out of Terminator, was handed the keys and proceeded to burn his way through four rear tyres and a pair of fronts (estimated value £3000) in approximately 25 minutes. But you'll have to pick up the next issue of Top Gear magazine (on sale 7th November) to read about his exploits in the McLaren Spider...


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