The McLaren MP4-12C convertible is the best sports car I’ve ever driven.
That said, let the grumbling begin.
I’ll start with the not-so-good stuff. The McLaren Spider is aimed at an elite market, with a starting price of $268,000. It’s rarer than the metal indium, so chance of seeing one — let alone driving — is slim.
Like most supercars, it is wildly impractical, with no storage area and seating for only the driver and one medium-sized passenger. Nor does it offer a pure driving experience like a 1960s Porsche 911 or a Lotus; there’s simply too much technology going on underneath the carbon-fiber skin for that.
Lastly, while my Creamsicle-orange test car looked plenty cool, it was nowhere near as dazzling as its most-obvious competitor, the fabulous Ferrari 458 Spider, another open-roof supercar with better name recognition.
(McLaren is a British company best known for Formula One racing. It currently offers only the MP4-12C models and an even pricier car, the $1.15 million P1.)
So, that’s the bad news done with.
The superlatives begin with this: the MP4-12C Spider does everything you would expect from a supercar, only better. It’s more comfortable, more maneuverable and more capable of scorching both road and racetrack. To top it off, you can take the top off.
There’s supposedly no such thing as a convertible that handles as well as a coupe. (It’s an engineering thing dealing with body rigidity.) And yet the convertible McLaren does.
I spoke to several professional racecar drivers who have tested both. One thought he could detect a slight weight difference in the Spider. Maybe.
My first day with the McLaren Spider took place at the Monticello Motor Club in the Catskills as part of a track program for journalists and potential customers. They paired us with a pro driver in the passenger seat.
I was teamed with David Donohue, a renowned racer whose father, Mark Donohue, raced Formula One and perished in a crash in 1975. Once Donohue got comfortable enough to see I was no novice, he started pushing me to drive harder and faster.
By the end of the day, I was going around Monticello faster than I’d ever driven a production sports car at this track.
While the twin-turbo 3.8-liter V-8 with 616 horsepower and 443 pound-feet of torque isn’t class leading, it is deployed to a most devastating effect.
The car’s utter brilliance shines best on the performance edge where, sadly, few owners will experience it. In fact, I was using techniques I’d only ever used in specialized racecars. To truly get the best out of the McLaren, you have to drive at nine tenths, something I wouldn’t be willing to do without having somebody like Donohue on board, coaching and egging me on.
Most modern sports cars are stuffed with computers that second guess a driver’s input and smooths out mistakes. They’re geared to saving the driver from himself, not making him faster.
The McLaren, which uses technology gleaned from its F1 program, is engineered to sling you through corners faster, and brake much harder, than other cars. You need to know the proper driving techniques to get the most of it.
Yet a great sports car isn’t the sum of its feats on the track. And it wasn’t until I convinced (actually, begged) the company to give me a car to take on public roads that I realized its specialness.
First I tooled the Spider around the streets of New York City. With the transmission in automatic and air conditioning going full blast, it dealt surpassingly well with the city’s pothole vagaries and extreme summer heat. The suspension didn’t even jar.
The next day I took it out on winding, secondary roads, the kind of tarmac that most customers would point to on a summer Sunday. In sport mode, the car clamped down to the road as if the tires were digging into asphalt. I’ve never felt a car more buttoned to the road.
With the top down, I could easily talk to my passenger without needing to raise my voice, and we randomly darted over winding roads like an orange will-o’-wisp, heedless of physics. The McLaren meets next-to-impossible demands.
Thanks to a special hydraulic system, there is no side-to- side yaw as you corner, nor does the nose dive when you brake. I knew this from the racetrack, but to experience it on regular roads heightened the odd sensation.
My passenger was impressed — but he would have been equally impressed by the Ferrari Spider — more, possibly. To really get the essential “itness” of the McLaren, you have to get behind the steering wheel.
Only by driving it hard, on different surfaces, can you understand what a phenomenal machine it is.
The 2013 McLaren MP4-12C Spider at a Glance
Engine: 3.8-liter, twin-turbo V-8 with 616 horsepower and 443 pound-feet of torque.
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual.
Speed: 0 to 60 mph in three seconds.
Gas mileage per gallon: 15 city, 22 highway.
Price as tested: $319,000.
Best feature: Ability to commandingly shine in every driving situation.
Worst feature: Isn’t as beautiful — or exotic looking — as one might hope.
Target buyer: The supercar buyer who expects wonders.