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2012 McLaren MP4-12C Overview

A fixture on the Formula 1 racing circuit since the early 1960s, the British racing firm of McLaren has spent seven years developing the 2012 McLaren MP4-12C, its first production sports car since the McLaren F1. Born under the watchful eye of automotive designer Frank Stephenson, who has worked with Ford, BMW, Ferrari, Maserati, FIAT and Alfa Romeo during his career, the McLaren MP4-12C, or simply the 12C, as the automaker calls it, seeks to straddle the line between souped-up everyday driver and flat-out screaming on-track racer. And thanks to some thoughtful design and technology, the 12C accomplishes exactly that.

In creating the 12C, McLaren (operating under the new official moniker of McLaren Automotive, a sister company of McLaren Racing) relied heavily on its F1 racing heritage. For instance, the 12C's MonoCell one-piece, lightweight, hollow carbon chassis doubles as a safety cell surrounding the driver and helps keep costs down as well. The carbon chassis also provides high rigidity, is easier to repair, and won't degrade like a metal frame.

To ensure optimal performance, McLaren focused heavily on the 12C's weight, the MonoCell being one aspect of that. Other weight-saving measures were optimized in the airbags, steering column, engine size, brakes, exhaust pipes, alloy wheels, cooling radiators, wiring and battery. The automaker calls it a "holistic approach to weight saving." As a result, McLaren notes that the 12C is lighter than its rivals, including competitors from Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche, Audi and Mercedes-Benz.

The McLaren MP4-12C seats two in its cabin, and features a midengine design. Power comes from a new 3.8-liter twin-turbo M838T V8 engine, designed specifically to be compact and lightweight while still producing high performance and a declarative exhaust note fitting for a supercar. The powerplant's numbers are truly impressive, since it pumps out 592 hp at 7,000 rpm and 445 lb-ft of torque at 3,000 rpm. That's good enough to drive the 12C from 0 to 60 in a stunning 3 seconds, and through a quarter mile in just under 11 seconds. Top speed is 205 mph.

Engine features include a dry sump lubrication system and a flat-plane crankshaft, which allowed the designers to place the powerplant low in the chassis. This helps to lower the car's center of gravity, providing better handling and making it more responsive in turns. In addition, McLaren notes, it was the first race car company to place the engine behind the driver and between the axles, which improves weight distribution and traction, and provides better overall balance for steering and handling.

The engine drives the rear wheels through a dual-clutch, 7-speed SSG transmission, which offers drivers a choice of three drive/handling settings, including Normal, Sport and Track modes. Drivers will note immediately that there's no clutch pedal or shift knob. They can engage the engine and shift manually (when desired) using steering-wheel-mounted fingertip controls with a design borrowed from F1 cars. Upon stepping on the accelerator pedal, the 12C moves ahead smoothly, with nary a trace of turbo lag. McLaren currently does not offer the 12C with a straight manual transmission, and the two-pedal configuration further helps to reduce weight, the automaker notes.

One of the 12C's more unique features is its suspension, which was designed for a variety of driving experiences. For example, McLaren notes, it could have used an anti-roll bar to add stiffness to the suspension and minimize body lean, but that would have meant a less comfortable ride during daily driving. Instead, the automaker opted for a system it calls ProActive Chassis Control with Adaptive Damping, in which the dampers are hydraulically operated and interconnected. The idea is that, when needed under heavy cornering, the driver can add stiffness and roll control, but disengage the stiffness when driving in a straight line or around town. This helps improve comfort during everyday cruising but ensures that the suspension stiffens up under aggressive driving.

Another technology borrowed from the F1 racing world is Brake Steer, also an essential part of the automaker's low-weight theme. Effectively replacing a differential, it works with the electronic stability control (ESC) system, applying brakes to the inside rear wheel during tight cornering to reduce wheel spin and understeer, helping to keep the car headed in the intended direction. Drivers can manage the ESC system itself using the on-board Active Dynamics Panel. Automatic, Launch Control, or Winter driving modes give the driver the ability to adjust road grip and change the electronic ride, handling, and transmission setting if the roads turn wet or slippery. In addition, the driver can shut off ESC, allowing the car to perform in true sports-car fashion.

The 12C also comes equipped with an Airbrake, which deploys under heavy braking at speeds over 60 mph. The hydraulic-operated wing adds rear downforce to redirect airflow and ensure stability. Drivers can also raise the Airbrake manually by pushing a button on the Active Dynamics Panel. The 12C comes standard with forged aluminum bell and case iron brakes, though owners can upgrade to ceramic composite matrix brakes. Similarly, 19-inch silver-finish aluminum wheels come standard in the front, while 20-inch wheels are standard in the rear. However, owners can upgrade to lightweight or super-lightweight forged wheels, which help to further reduce weight. Pirelli tires are standard on the 12C.

Inside, McLaren configured the cabin so that the driver sits as close to the center as possible, leaving a wide lip on the outside by the door. It also means that the center console and strip running between the two front seats is dramatically narrow, creating a unique appearance. All the car's inside components, including steering wheel, pedals, and controls, are centered on the driver to provide optimal control and enjoyment.

Because the center strip is so narrow, some controls have been moved outboard, while the 7-inch touchscreen in the center column has been tipped up into portrait mode, a first for the automotive industry, McLaren notes. In addition, the automaker believes it's a more intuitive arrangement for the touchscreen, enabling the driver to read down the screen more easily, like a mobile phone screen. The large, steeply angled windshield provides good visibility out the front, including 6 degrees of "downward vision" from eye level, according to the automaker. In keeping with the car's motorsports pedigree, the steering wheel itself is small and sports-like, and inspired by McLaren's racing background.

Knobs and controls are located to either side of the driver, with climate controls on each door console, telematics in the upper center console, the Active Dynamics Panel in the middle of the center console, and other controls located around the steering column. All are designed to be within easy reach of the driver. Located in the center console are buttons for start/stop, as well as two rotary controls and four push buttons for controlling the various driving modes.

The 12C itself sits low to the ground, with single-hinge, scissors-like dihedral doors that lift upward to allow entry into the cabin. Up front, large air intakes and bi-xenon headlights with LED running lights are among the design features. Large air intakes along the sides channel cooling air to the engine. In the rear, a bank of slats allow hot air to exit the engine, and a thin glass cover over the rear deck provides a view of the engine itself. LED taillights and turn indicators add to the 12C's streamlined, contemporary look.


Rob has been a contributor to CarGurus since 2007, and an automotive test-driver and writer since the early ’90s. He’s test-driven everything from BMWs and Jags to Bentleys and Saabs, with an occasional Range Rover, Ferrari, Porsche or Lamborghini thrown in. He also created the annual Car of the Year and Exotic Car of the Year awards for Robb Report magazine. He currently resides in California.

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