“Keep it under 180,” my chaperone riding shotgun informs me as I roll on the power exiting turn 5b and rocket up the rising back straight.
That’s km/h not miles, appropriate as I’m both in Canada and driving a British car. The facility is Canadian Tire Motorsports Park (formerly Mosport) and the car is none other than the truly awesome, though poorly named, McLaren MP4-12C.
|1. A twin-turbo 3.8L V8 engine makes 616 hp at 7500 rpm and 443 lb-ft from 3000 to 7000 rpm.
2. McLaren boasts a 3.1 second 0-62 mph time and a 10.8 second quarter mile with a top speed of 207 mph.
3. Pricing starts at $229,000 for the coupe and $268,250 for the Spider.
4. McLaren was the first company to use a carbon fiber structure in a Formula 1 car and in a road car: the iconic F1.
At a bit over 100 mph it’s hardly your average commute, and it takes the 12C significantly less time to get to that velocity than a family sedan does to hit highway speed. McLaren claims a 3.1 second sprint to 62 mph with a top speed roughly double what I’m at: 207 mph.
It’s not hard to believe either, with that 180 showing on the digital speedo long before I can even see the braking zone at the end of the long back straight.
Those statistics, however, are only a fraction of the McLaren’s capability and appeal. Driving the car is certainly one way to appreciate its magic powers. The other is to understand it. The best way is to do both.
Standing around trackside a McLaren engineer explains the carbon fiber, aluminum and magnesium structure of the car. With a pure carbon fiber tub making up the core of the machine it weighs just 3,200 lbs.
One of a handful of vehicles using a similar construction, the more impressive feat is the hydraulic suspension setup. The spring rates used on the car are roughly a third of what you’d expect to find in a car of this level in order to achieve truly world-class levels of performance. Instead the job is handled by a selection of custom hydraulic shocks, four odd black balls (their contribution not entirely clear), a pump mounted just ahead of the passenger’s feet, and yards of tubing attaching diagonal points of the car. To simplify the process, it essentially works by matching the suspension at one corner to the one at the diagonal corner, limiting pitch in the chassis and neutralizing the car’s balance. And balance, which essentially equals grip, is key when pushing a car to its limit at a race track.
In fact, the system is so good the MP4-12C doesn’t require sway bars.
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To best feel the difference in the unique chassis settings, adjustable via the driver’s seat using a three mode (Normal, Sport and Track) dial, an auto-cross course proves beneficial, trading high-speed and smooth driver inputs for lower velocities and quick responses.
In the confines of a tight course of orange pylons the difference between each setting is dramatic.
But before any of that happens I open the wild scissor doors, which have such a fluid movement they seem to almost rise on their own. The interior reveals itself as a true piece of auto exotica.
Despite the six-inch wide carbon fiber side sills it’s not that difficult to slide over into the 12C’s orange stitched seats. Adjusting them is, however, odd, with driver controls on the front of the seat and to the right, with movements fore and aft controlled counterintuitively by pressing a button up or down. Hardly an issue, this complaint is solved by simply setting the ideal seat position once… and never letting anyone drive it but you.
Definitively exotic, the controls and layout are incredibly unique with an almost iPhone-like screen at the top and two control dials at the bottom on what is called the Active Dynamics Panel.
Identical, with settings for Normal, Sport and Track, the one on the left, marked H for Handling, controls the suspension and stability control while the one on the right, marked P for Powertrain, adjusts throttle pressure, the 7-speed dual-clutch transmission’s shift times and the level to which the car’s ECU will let the revs rise before a shift is required. Early models also used this second dial to operate the level of engine noise pumped into the cabin through what McLaren calls an Intake Sound Generator; though for 2013 that vehicle attribute can be operated independently.
A sign that even the purists at McLaren have to please poseurs, this allows for the car to sound its most hard core, even when in a soft setting. Then again, perhaps a car like this should always sound extreme, even when driven slowly.
One of the few gripes to be made about the car are these control dials that feel remarkably low grade, both in the materials used and the way they slide into each setting. Ferrari’s Mannetino has a much more enjoyable and substantial feel and clicks into place like metal on metal with a soft rubber stop.
Even in the Normal setting the 12C feels like a sports car, and while I’m on a flat surface, I’m assured it rides surprisingly smoothly on the street. Click into Sport and it comes alive with a stiffer feel and more responsive pedal.
As dramatic as that change is, the Track setting seems to amplify the car tenfold. Push the throttle and the acceleration is blistering. Even just a touch and it’s so sensitive you’ll feel like you’re now piloting one of the brand’s F1 cars. Plus, no longer does the transmission (when in automatic mode) shift to second at a premature time. Rather, it revs all the way out the peak power output at 7500 rpm, giving you every last pony the car’s F1 engineers managed to fine tune out of the twin-turbo 3.8-liter V8 engine.
Better yet, it doesn’t feel turbocharged. The highlight of a well-built naturally aspirated engine is that it offers both a linear power band and linear throttle response. Both of those qualities are achieved in this turbocharged package. Like with the suspension, the engine is even more impressive when you know how it works.
In Track mode on the auto-cross, it feels as though the steering ratio has been sped up as well. It hasn’t. You’re just moving that much faster.
Also noticeable is how little body lean there is, even when pitching the car hard left and right around the cones.
With a proper appreciation for the car and the engineering behind it, I’m no longer avoiding pylons but rather the car-crushing walls that dot CTMP’s periphery.
Here on the 2.459 mile road course the 12C feels just as responsive and, as absurd as it sounds to say, more powerful than its 616 hp engine. Many cars will jolt you forward from a stop. Few can do so with the same thrust at 100 mph.
In Track mode, matching the acceleration is the sound. The Intake Sound Generator hits your ears like an audible punch – and that’s when wearing a helmet to lessen the blow.
There is a down-side, however. McLaren engineers were able to tune the engine to take out the turbocharged characteristics. They were even able to make it sound fantastic inside the cabin, but outside it’s less dramatic. Certainly far from dull, it has nowhere near the audible presence of a loud Italian exotic. As the Brits would say: pity.
Behind the wheel, however, there’s no feeling of anything but the thrill of piloting one of the word’s most amazing machines. And as a testament to just how capable it is, rather than the pass or two usually permitted at such events, we lapped the ultra fast track repeatedly, adding speed and heating up those carbon ceramic brakes – though they refused to fade.
Perhaps that’s because slowing the car isn’t just the job of the binders. In addition, it has what McLaren refers to as an Air Brake. A functional piece of aerodynamics the rear spoiler pops up to an angle of 31 degrees under hard braking over 59 mph. Once up, the wind pushes the lower part of the brake down further increasing the angle to 69 degrees. The result is both reduced stopping distances and improved overall stability.
It’s wild to watch it in action, flying up at amazing speed. Again, it’s even more impressive when you know how it works and when you understand that by having the natural force of the air push it from 31 degrees to 69 degrees, engineers avoided needing a larger hydraulic pump to get it all the way up.
Knowing why the McLaren MP4-12C is so good certainly adds another level of appreciation for this from-scratch British exotic. Thankfully, however, you don’t need an engineering degree, or even a general understanding of how a car works to appreciate the near euphoric levels of joy it can deliver. As the saying goes, ignorance is bliss.
Unfortunately, appreciating (and by that we mean owning) the 12C does come with one big qualification. Want a hint? It’s six figures long and starts with a two.