The Clarkson review: McLaren 12C Spider (2013)

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When I first reviewed the idiotically named McLaren MP4-12C, I said it was better in every measurable way than the Ferrari 458 Italia. But that it lacked sparkle, panache, zing. That it was too technical and too soulless. And that, given the choice, I’d take the Ferrari.

Other reviewers came to the same conclusions, and as a result McLaren acted fast to address the situation. The company made its car more noisy and tuned the exhaust to make it sound dirtier. It gave the car even more power. And it fitted door handles that actually worked. Very nice. And, most of all, it cut the roof off to create the more sensibly named 12C Spider. The effect of this amputation has been dramatic. It’s like one of those stern-looking girls you sometimes find in adult films who simply by letting their hair down are transformed into complete sex bombs. Britain loves convertibles. We buy more of them than almost any other country in Europe, and it’s easy to see why. Because the sun on these islands is a rare visitor, we don’t want to waste the days when it’s here by sitting under a metal roof. We want to savour it, because we know tomorrow it’ll be gone. I know the rules, of course. No man over the age of 38 can drive a car with the roof down when he can be seen by other people, as it sends out all the wrong messages. You think you look good on the high street, sitting in the sun. You think you come across as suave yet carefree. But to other people it looks as if your gentleman sausage no longer works properly. I don’t care, though. I love to drive a car with the roof down. I love the noise and the sense that it’s just you hurtling through time and space; that you’re not actually in a car. In fact, when you’re in a convertible and the roof is down, the sensations are so vivid, it doesn’t matter what the car’s like at all. Worrying about handling when your hair is being torn out is like worrying about your ingrowing toenails when you are being attacked by a swarm of killer bees. This is a good thing because as a general rule convertibles do not ride or handle or go anywhere near as well as cars that have roofs. That’s because today the chassis of a car is its bodyshell. The front and the back ends are joined not by two huge rails, which used to be the case, but by the floor and the roof. Taking 50% of that connection away means you have to add all sorts of strengthening beams that a) add weight and b) are never really a satisfactory substitute. Soft-top cars never feel stiff. Much like many of the people who drive them. The McLaren, however, is different. Because the spine of the original was so rigid, no strengthening beams have been added at all. That means no extra weight — apart from the electric roof mechanism — and no compromises. As a result, this car feels exactly the same as the hard-top. Which is to say, it feels magical. As if it’s being propelled by witchcraft. No car in the world has better steering. It’s very light, which suggests there’s no feel. But in fact there is so much that when you run over a wasp, you can tell whether it was a male or a female. This means you can feel the precise moment when grip is about to be lost. Which means you always feel completely in  control. You’re not, though. A computer is. You can turn it off, if you are a space shuttle commander and you have half an hour to kill, but there’s no point. Because it will let you take diabolical liberties before it steps in, like a well-trained butler, with a gentle helping hand. It’s the best traction control system I’ve yet encountered. And it’s almost never necessary. Fitting a car this well behaved with an electronic restraining bolt is like fitting the Archbishop of Canterbury with an ankle tag. It’s pointless. Because the spine is so stiff, and because there are no anti-roll bars, there’s no physical connection between any of the wheels — it’s all done electronically — so the cornering speeds of this car are simply immense. Around a track, I know of no road car that could even get close. If you have a Ferrari 458, do not attempt to keep up with a McLaren 12C. You will be either humiliated or killed. And here’s the clincher. When you have finished tearing up the laws of physics and your neck hurts from the cornering G-forces and it’s time to go home, the 12C is as comfortable as a Rolls-Royce Phantom. Even though it will corner at Mach 3, the lack of anti-roll bars means it simply glides and floats over bumps and potholes. As I said, witchcraft. As a piece of engineering, then, it’s fabulous. Jaw-dropping. Mesmerising. But as a car? Hmmm. There are one or two things that would drive you mad. For instance, every time you open the butterfly door to get in, the side window will take your eye out. I must also say that if you are tall, the cockpit is a little tight. And the sat nav doesn’t work. It always thinks it’s where you were two hours earlier, but that’s not really the end of the world, because with the roof down you can’t see the screen anyway. There’s more too. Almost every feature is adjustable. You can even alter the volume of the wastegate chirrup. But only if you are six years old. Because when you go into the system menu, you’ll find the typeface is in 2pt and you won’t be able to read it. Not without putting on a pair of reading glasses and peering into the binnacle, something that’s not advisable when you are in a 600-plus brake horsepower soft-top and you’re doing 200mph. These things may be enough to drive you in the direction of the Ferrari. But remember, that comes with a steering wheel that’s unfathomable and electronic readouts that make the McLaren look as though it’s been made by Playmobil. I’m afraid, then, that if you buy either of these cars, it will infuriate as often as it exhilarates. It was always thus in the world of the supercar, though. It has been suggested by some that they are similar in other ways too and that choosing between them is difficult. But that’s not so, actually. They may look the same, cost about the same and have the same basic design parameters. But they are completely different. The McLaren is like a three-star restaurant. The food is immaculate, the service impeccable, the loos impressive and the temperature just so. Every detail is spot-on, and to give the place a bit of character, there’s now a maître d’ who has a twinkle in his eye. The Ferrari, on the other hand, is a loud Italian joint full of shouting and massive pepper grinders. They’re both restaurants, then. And they’re both bloody good. But they are not remotely similar. As a result, I cannot tell you which is better. You have to choose what you want, and don’t worry, because whichever way you go, I promise you this: you’ll end up with a masterpiece.

Verdict ★★★★★

A convertible without compromise


McLaren 12C Spider

3799cc, V8, turbo
617bhp @ 7500rpm
442 lb ft @ 3000rpm
7-speed automatic
0-62mph: 3.3sec
Top speed:
24.2mpg (combined)
Road tax band:
Band M (£1,065 for first year)
L 4509mm, W 2093mm, H 1203mm