That massive hunk of steel in your driveway is slowly corroding into obsolescence -- both figuratively and literally. About the time that rust finally eats through the floorboards of your shiny new 2012 model, you'll be able to purchase -- no, afford -- a plastic car.
Set aside any preconceptions of Happy Meal toys, sporks, or Saturns, because this isn't your typical plastic. The cars of the future will be made of carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic, a material that is stronger than the metals it replaces. Carbon fiber is durable enough to be used for the entire structure of the car -- not just the body panels -- and it is lighter than steel and aluminum, allowing automakers to build more efficient and better-performing vehicles. Also, it doesn't corrode.
McLaren delivered the first carbon-fiber production car twenty years ago with the three-seat, million-dollar F1. That car was followed by equally extreme exotics like the Ferrari Enzo and the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren, but carbon fiber won't be exclusive to six- and seven-figure supercars much longer. Innovation, investment, and expansion in the composites industry have pushed down manufacturing time and cost while increasing availability. Outside the auto industry, the high-strength composite is now used in Boeing's 787 airplane, NHL hockey sticks, and even bicycles for the recreational rider. The price of entry for a carbon-fiber car is about to plummet. In 2013, BMW intends to introduce the electric i3, which mounts a carbon-fiber passenger cell on top of an aluminum frame and should sell for less than $50,000.
Of the 271 cars on sale in America today, only the Bugatti Veyron, the Lamborghini Aventador, the Lexus LFA, and the McLaren MP4-12C boast carbon-fiber tubs. This elite group, which totals 2836 hp and $2.9 million, is at the peak of automotive technology, yet it also represents the imminent democratization of carbon fiber. Even among these cars -- the most exotic, most expensive in the industry -- there is a variety of construction techniques and a $1.7 million price spread. At this pivotal moment for composite vehicles, these four cars are leading the change.
McLaren MP4-12C: The Start of Something Great.There was never any question that McLaren's return to road-car production would include a carbon-fiber chassis. The folks in Woking simply don't know anything else. Every car they've built in the past thirty-one years, whether for the road or the racetrack, has carbon fiber at its core.
McLaren introduced the automotive industry to the high-strength composite with Formula 1's first carbon-fiber monocoque in 1981. Building the MP4/1 racing car, though, required more composites expertise than any motorsports outfit possessed, so production was outsourced to Hercules Aerospace. Eleven years after the MP4/1, McLaren was first with carbon fiber again -- this time with a production car designed around a list of superlatives: the highest power-to-weight ratio, the best-handling supercar, and the fastest production car in the world. Achievement was accompanied by progress: McLaren by then had its own composites facility where the handmade F1 chassis was constructed.
McLaren's carbon-fiber mastery is readily apparent in the new MP4-12C. While the two cars were built for different times, different prices, and different purposes, the contrast between the F1 and the MP4-12C highlights how far carbon-fiber technology has advanced. Piecing together the F1's composite chassis back in the 1990s took 3500 hours; today, manufacturing the MP4-12C's tub requires just four hours. McLaren can move that quickly because it is the only automaker to manufacture the monocoque as one piece. Every other company is essentially gluing its cars together like Tamiya models. This technique gives McLaren the ability to produce 4000 MP4-12Cs every year, whereas Lamborghini will build about that many Aventadors over the car's entire lifetime.
At 3210 pounds, the MP4-12C is the lightest car in this supergroup by a 350-pound margin. That fact is made clear by just how eager it is to change directions compared with its composite brethren. While the other cars here need to be coaxed through turns, flicking the McLaren around feels like intuition. Swapping antiroll bars for a sophisticated active hydraulic system that links all four dampers has created supernatural handling abilities. The MP4-12C rides like a Mercedes-Benz S-class on the straights yet swings through corners with more body control than a Pilates instructor.
The twin-turbo V-8 packs a 592-hp wallop that is much larger than its 3.8-liter displacement would suggest. Although it's perfectly adept at metering out power, it has neither the high-strung emotion of a normally aspirated eight-cylinder nor the sonorous smoothness of a V-12. Upshifts from the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic are satisfyingly quick, which highlights how not quick multiple-gear downshifts can be. And of all the supercar quirks you'll find in this quartet, none is as aggravating as trying to convince the McLaren's touch-sensitive door handle that you should be allowed inside.
For a company with so little production-car experience, it is astonishing that McLaren has built a car this good. And if the MP4-12C is any indication, there are even more good things to come from Woking as it develops an expanded lineup to challenge Ferrari. One editor postured that the MP4-12C is the car that Lotus should be building. With Lotus's future uncertain, you could also turn it around and say that McLaren is the new Lotus. With its sharp technical focus, aversion to weight, and divine dynamics, the MP4-12C delivers a driving experience that few can replicate.
Like concrete, but not quite so heavy
Just as thousands of metals can claim to be steel, carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP) is a term with broad meaning. The defining characteristic, though, is fairly basic: strong, slender fibers of carbon are enveloped in a resin that is cured to become a rigid part. The fundamental mechanics of CFRP are similar to steel reinforcement rods placed in concrete. While the resin is responsible for the solidity of the part, the carbon fibers add critical strength. A CFRP part typically weighs 50 to 70 percent less than a steel part that can withstand the same forces, but carbon fiber doesn't have the elasticity of the metals it replaces. That means the material cracks, rather than bends, when it fails. For that reason, many of today's carbon-fiber cars use aluminum crash structures in the front and rear to dissipate energy in the event of a collision.
BASE PRICE $231,400
ENGINE 32-valve DOHC twin-turbo V-8
DISPLACEMENT 3.8 liters (232 cu in)
POWER 592 hp @ 7000 rpm
TORQUE 443 lb-ft @ 3000 rpm
TRANSMISSION 7-speed automatic
STEERING Electrohydraulically assisted
SUSPENSION, FRONT Control arms, coil springs
SUSPENSION, REAR Control arms, coil springs
BRAKES Vented discs, ABS
TIRES Pirelli PZero
TIRE SIZE F, R 235/35YR-19, 305/30YR-20
L x W x H 177.5 x 75.1 x 47.2 in
WHEELBASE 105.1 in
TRACK F/R 65.2/62.3 in
WEIGHT 3210 lb
WEIGHT DIST. F/R 42/58%
EPA MILEAGE 15/22 mpg
0-60 MPH 3.5 sec
TOP SPEED 205 mph