At a press conference at its ultra-modern facility in Woking, England, McLaren Automotive took the wraps off its MP4-12C supercar — actually, it was Vodafone/Mercedes/McLaren F1 team drivers Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button who did the honors. The two have already test-driven prototypes [see video below], and put in orders for their personal cars. Being an F1 driver has its perks.
The MP4-12C will be the first McLaren-branded road car since the legendary F1 (produced from 1993 to 1998); more recently, the company produced the Mercedes-McLaren SLR. The production car’s appearance is essentially unchanged from the prototype we saw last fall — in fact, it’s even the same color: what McLaren executive chairman Ron Dennis refers to as “our traditional launch prototype color of orange.”
The mid-engine 2-seater will use a compact, twin-turbo V-8 that McLaren designed together with Ricardo; it will be built by Ricardo in England. At 3.8 liters, the engine revs to 8500 rpm and spins out 600 hp and 443 lb-ft of torque. A 90-degree V angle and dry-sump lubrication allow for a low engine height and thus make for a lower center of gravity in the car. The only transmission offering will be a 7-speed dual clutch automatic. The rear-wheel-drive car uses a system McLaren calls Brake Steer, which brakes the inside rear wheel to aid turn-in. A system dubbed Proactive Chassis Control allows the control-arm, coil-sprung suspension to function without anti-roll bars; the adaptive dampers with three firmness settings are connected hydraulically. Ceramic rotors are optional; there’s also an airbrake, as seen on the F1 and the Mercedes-McLaren SLR, that automatically extends under hard braking. The airbrake also can be deployed by the driver to create additional downforce.
Obsessing about weight
McLaren engineers speak almost obsessively about minimizing weight. Given the MP4-12C’s estimated curb weight of 3000 pounds (more than 200 pounds lighter than a Ferrari 458 Italia or a Lexus LF-A), it appears that this obsession has paid off. The car’s single-piece carbon-fiber central chassis tub certainly gave the engineers a head start; it’s supplemented by aluminum extrusions at the front and rear. The body panels are aluminum and plastic. The MP4-12C’s relatively compact dimensions also help it stay trim: at 177.5 inches long, 75.1 inches wide, and 47.2 inches tall, it’s a bit smaller than most competitors, although it sits astride a relatively generous 105.1-inch wheelbase. McLaren engineers also point to less obvious weight-saving measures: radiators located alongside the engine (rather than up front) to lessen the amount of tubing and coolant required; exhaust pipes that exit straight out the back, allowing them to be shorter and therefore lighter; the single windshield wiper, which saves the weight of the second wiper mechanism; a lithium-ion battery; and aluminum rather than copper wiring.
A more conventional cabin
Unlike the F1, with its center-located driver’s seat flanked by two passenger’s chairs, the new car uses a standard, two-seat layout. But McLaren preserves a bit of the centered-driver feel by using a slim center console, allowing the two seats to sit closer to the center of the car — and closer to each other — than is normally the case. This arrangement demands that the touch screen be vertically, rather than horizontally, oriented; it also spurred the designers to relocate the climate controls to the door panels. The gauge cluster features a central tachometer, as in most Porsches, and a digital speedometer. In contrast to current practice, the steering wheel is free of buttons and switches.
How much and how many?
The company expects to build 1000 examples in the first year, with one-quarter of production heading to the United States. Eventually, the goal is to build 4000 cars annually, which will be accomplished by adding variants of the MP4 12C but also by introducing additional models. The price is expected to be in the range of 125,000-175,000 Euros (roughly $200,000), which is a fraction of what you would have paid for a McLaren F1 back in the day — except that car wasn’t even sold here. The MP4 12C will make it to the states; it should roll into U.S. dealerships (there will be 8 at launch) in May or June 2011.
Why a sports car?
The MP4 12C will be largely hand-assembled at the same high-tech facility that currently turns out the company’s Formula 1 cars. But McLaren is building a new assembly facility on the same grounds, to support its plans for additional production. Dennis characterizes the move into street car production as one that will assure the company’s long-term survival. He points out that since McLaren entered F1 racing in 1966, more than 100 of its one-time competitors have disappeared. “Staying exclusively an F1 team is, I believe, a sure road to extinction,” he says. “Our pedigree and history and our brand can definitely support an entry into the sports car field. This is an essential next step to making McLaren a pure brand.”