Initially, I left the transmission to its own devices, and it did a better job of impersonating a proper automatic gearbox than most. But it’s not the way to drive a supercar, so I switched the system to manual. The SSG really does what it says on the tin. Fast and seamless, it makes full use of the healthy torque curve to give you one long, sustained blast of acceleration from zero to top speed. This is epic stuff.
It has been a whole year since I last drove the Ferrari 458 Italia, but my memory of this equally amazing car is still crystal clear. While the McLaren V8 beats it for torque and perceived potency, the naturally aspirated Ferrari engine is snappier to respond, with a more visceral sound and feel.
However, against the stopwatch the McLaren is simply faster, and as accomplished as the Ferrari’s chassis is, the McLaren’s is better, especially on the bald limit where it seems almost impossible to make it misbehave. With the electronic nanny disabled, a drift in the McLaren is exactly that. In the Ferrari, it can snap you around in a heartbeat if you’re not on top of it when it finally lets go of the tarmac.
There are times when a new car redefines the rules, and in ride quality, the MP4-12C does just that. As we trundle along the perimeter roads of the airfield, I’m amazed at the car’s supple ride and handling ease. Bounce and rebound control in Normal mode are worthy of a good sport saloon like a BMW M5, with a secondary ride that takes the edges off sharp bumps. Ramping up the pace, the primary ride and body control over long-wave undulations prove to be spectacularly good.
Like all cars that have three suspension settings, the McLaren’s best overall mode is the middle one: Sport. The extra bit of damper control removes any hint of softness over crests, reduces body roll in fast corners, and gives an extra dose of precision to the steering when turning in to a bend. The light and ultra-stiff carbon tub creates a stable and strong structure so the suspension can thus be calibrated for performance and comfort with little compromise.
I briefly put the suspension in Track mode, but just a few hundred feet told me that the enhanced bounce stiffness was eating into the ride comfort on less than perfect surfaces. While this setting is not as aggressive as some, it simply offers no performance advantage on a real-world road, while detracting from the serenity, balance and traction offered by the superbly judged Sport setting.
Some say the power steering is too light. I’m negatively sensitive to cars with over-light steering and have driven cars whose steering is really too light, others that are too heavy, and the odd one that is just plain nervous. The McLaren is none of these. Thus, I found it easy to take this car to the limit of adhesion through a slalom on the airfield runway straight off the bat, and never had cause to think about it on either road or track.
Pushing harder and harder on the Top Gear test track, the MP4-12C seemed to get better the faster it went. Driven with real purpose, in Sport and then Track modes, it astounded with its front-end grip, its ability to deploy its awesome power and its intuitive balance. Understeer is minimal and of the stabilizing kind, unless you really pile into a tight bend carrying far too much speed. Aided by its Brake Steer electronic wizardry helping to negate understeer and aiding traction out of bends, this is a car that helps an average driver and makes a good one look like a hero. Even at the limit, with the safety systems loosened up, the MP4-12C seemed like it would never run out of talent. Eventual breakaway at the rear is so progressive, so well telegraphed compared to other mid-engine cars, you’d have to be fast asleep to not catch it.