In 1992, McLaren entered the production car fold with its infamous F1 supercar. It graced the bedroom walls of most every boy, and became the world’s first carbon-fiber road car, as well as the world's fastest. McLaren’s new P1 hypercar replaces the incandescent F1, but it was the emergence of the 12C back in 2009 that made the brand more mainstream – if you can call a $250,000 car “mainstream.” Debuting as a coupe, the 12C recently lost its roof, morphing into the 12C Spider. This modification, despite most engineers’ best efforts, usually presents a problem.
Taking the top off a car typically compromises its handling, making it soft and flexible rather than taut and stiff. For that reason, the coupe is usually the car of choice for the hardcore enthusiast who yearns every ounce of performance (or for those that sport a combover), while the convertible remains the preferred option for posers. (Or for Justin Bieber.)
The McLaren 12C Spider is different. I tested the Coupe and Spider back-to-back, and the difference is undetectable. McLaren’s on-site tester, racecar driver David Donohue, said, “those that say they can tell the difference, are lying.” What’s more impressive is that McLaren achieved this feat by effectively doing nothing. All credit goes to the hollow carbon-fiber monocoque's stiffness and strength, and the fact McLaren originally designed the 12C with the Spider in mind.
Dropping its lid entirely lightens the McLaren's aesthetics. The 12C Coupe lacked the Italian flair of a Ferrari, but with the Spider, the twin buttresses display Formula One character while emphasizing the 616 hp, 3.8-liter twin turbo V-8 that lies beneath. While most coupe to convertible makeovers look like Jocelyn Wildenstein’s botched facelift, the 12C Spider appears more Demi Moore.
From its birth, the 12C has received acclaim for being an exceptional handler. It spanks its Italian rivals when on-track during comparison tests, and handles highway driving like a GT. It truly has become a supercar you can use for your daily commute, and I know people that do. The cabin remains efficient, compact, simple and purposeful, while exuding exceptional craftsmanship. The driving position, too, is the most versatile and comfortable of any sports car I’ve driven.
Firing the V-8 is like summoning Zeus; it maintains a vague growl while emitting an enriching hum straight from the heavens. For 2013, the 7-speed dual clutch transmission’s “pre cog” feature was deemed too clunky; calibration upgrades eliminate the jolt, making gear changes via the paddle shifters as effortless as hitting the “return” button on a keyboard.
Mashing the gas, the power of the 12C is impressive. A fellow journalist said, “I knew it’d be fast, but I didn’t think it would that fast.” Turbo lag remains minimal, but once you get the revs above 2,500, the 12C rockets like a reverse bungee at a fairground.
Then you arrive at a corner. And they arrive quickly.
One of the many reasons the 12C handles so supremely is its ProActive chassis control, a feature that ditches anti-roll bars and works via double wishbones with coil springs and hydraulic adaptive dampers linked to a gas-filled accumulator. Dropping the roll bars allows the car to maintain its suppleness, with the dampers taking control of the stiffness.
The suspension has three modes: Normal, Sport and Track. The difference is like hopping between three continents; Normal wallows (relatively) on-track but glides along everyday roads, while Track feels as nimble as a go-kart -- only one that hits 60 mph in around 3 seconds. And maxes out at 204 mph.
It’s these go-kart reflexes that make people deem the 12C “easy.” The steering darts precisely like a skier cutting through fresh powder, and the grip level, with additional downforce being produced by the active rear wing, pushes the car to the ground like an overfed elephant sat on ladybug. But these technologies don’t make it easy. Anyone can therefore lap the racetrack fast, but you're simply operating from a wider window of performance.
Now you need the cojones to drive the car to the limit.
And when you do, trust me, you’ll be working the car like Sébastien Loeb (I wish I had a camera facing me in the video so you could see – although you can still get a sense of the car constantly sliding and twitching). By left-foot braking, you turn the car with your feet, using brake steer, blending both the gas and brake pedal to help rotation throughout the bend. Mesh that with the steering and it becomes a full-body dance to balance the car, extracting maximum performance, much like flying a fighter jet.
It's a beautiful feeling, waltzing with a 200 mph supercar.
The 12C comes standard with Pirelli P Zero tires, but for track-goers, the optional P Zero Corsas are a must. The 12C Spiders at Monticello all ran Zeroes, and felt like they succumbed to the car's mechanical ability (the tire pressures were, however, set too high, in my opinion). Tires, after all, are everything; they’re what connects you to the road. No matter how sophisticated the car remains, if you run on poor rubber, the performance will suffer.
P Zeroes are far from poor tires, of course. But the 12C is so advanced it requires the Corsa rubber to do justice, at least if you plan on heading to the racetrack. Carbon-ceramic brakes, too, may be a solid investment for track-hounds, but the ABS kicks in too soon to fully extrapolate the benefit. Regardless, it’s hard to complain about a car as proficient as the 12C. And the ambience provided by the open-top Spider adds a unique visceral depth to the driving experience.
If you drive the car at 80 percent of its capabilities, yes, the 12C feels easy, and perhaps dull to those who don't want to push harder. But when driving the car on the edge, it’s as engaging as any Ferrari 458 Italia or Lamborghini. It’s also faster too.
Does that make it better? Arguably. But a Ferrari’s a Ferrari, and a Lamborghini remains plain madness. A McLaren, however, is a racer; a racer that rewards the unskilled as much as it does the skilled, and lets any driver feel like Ayrton Senna, regardless of talent. And while it may be deemed “clinical” and “sterile” by some, in reality, there’s more passion under the surface than you think.