Somewhere in the Car Development chapter of the Automobile Product Planning Bible, it's written that small cars shall grow ever larger, that hulking SUVs shall grow ever manlier and that exotic cars shall grow ever more glamorous.
Exhibit A in the supercar class is the new McLaren 12C Spider. Two years after the first closed-top MP4-12C rolled off the production line, McLaren decided that it was time for a major up-grade. Of course, it would have been difficult to improve substantially on the performance of the coupe, which already featured 616 horsepower -- and a top speed north of 200 mph -- in a remarkably tidy mid-engine package weighing a mere 3,161 pounds. So the company chose to go the hedonist route, offering open-air devotees a convertible to meet their exhibitionist needs.
The Spider features a two-piece retractable hardtop that stows automatically under a tonneau cover at the push of a button. Because the 12C is built around a carbon-fiber tub, no additional structural support was necessary, so the roadster is heavier than the coupe by only 88 pounds -- the weight of the retractable hardtop motor and a rerouted exhaust system.
Despite a premium of $26,450 -- bringing MSRP to $268,250 -- McLaren expects the Spider to account for 80 percent of its sales. So the company recently brought a bevy of Spiders to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana for prospective customers to sample. But first, local journalists were to be granted some seat-time in the cars.
Auto Club Speedway is a D-shaped two-mile oval that's on the Sprint Cup and IndyCar schedules. The SCCA and other clubs race on a configuration that incorporates about half of the oval and an interior road course. To safeguard the Spiders, McLaren chose to forgo the oval -- where speeds of 170 mph would have been possible entering Turn 1 -- and restrict cars to the interior road course. This is like booking Megadeth to play a gig and then forbidding the band to crank the amps past 5. Then again, it significantly reduces the possibility of disaster.
Before driving a car, I ogle a bare chassis that McLaren has set up in the garage to showcase the elegant simplicity of the 12C. Rather than a unibody, the car is built around a one-piece carbon-fiber tub that weighs 165 pounds. A stout aluminum subframe bolts to the rear bulkhead and cradles the bespoke engine and proprietary transmission. Every component, down to the delicately sculpted wishbones, seems to be designed and made to the exacting standard of a leading Formula 1 manufacturer.
In many respects, ironically, the McLaren looks more arresting as a naked chassis than it does clothed in its understated, largely aluminum bodywork. If the Lamborghini Aventador is the winner of a wet T-shirt contest and the Ferrari 458 Italia is a supermodel in stiletto heels, the 12C is a very hot librarian. I'm not sure that's entirely by design. But it's in keeping with the company's all-things-to-all-(rich)-people philosophy. "We call it the 'and' car," says technical special-ist Simon Andrew, meaning that the 12C is equally adept on road and track.
The key to the car's adaptability is a suspension -- double wishbones and coilovers -- that uses hydraulically interconnected shock absorbers, each linked to a separate accumulator charged with nitrogen. Not only does this allow drivers to adjust suspension settings from Normal to Sport to Track, but it also takes the place of traditional antiroll bars, which enhance racetrack performance at the expense of a punishingly stiff ride. And, in fact, a brief street drive confirms that the Spider feels more composed -- and less oppressive -- on public roads than the 458.
But I'm more interested in its performance on the track. So after opening the dramatic clamshell door, I slide carefully into a narrow compartment with predictably comfortable seats and unexpectedly good visibility. The twin turbos attached to the 3.8-liter V-8 rob the engine of some of its aural appeal, and even with the so-called Intake Sound Generator (a resonator that amplifies engine noise) on the Track setting, the McLaren emits none of the intoxicating ferocity of a 458.
Then again, the turbos and the flat-plane crankshaft help the engine generate 616 rampaging horses and a wham-bam 443 lb-ft of torque. I'm eager to see how this translates into acceleration, so my first task is to sample the Spider's launch control system. At a full stop, I activate the Track mode and punch the Launch button. This prompts an Awaiting Throttle message on the instrument panel. Left foot on the brake, right foot buries the throttle.
The engine winds out to about 3200 rpm while a Boost Building message lights the screen. I feel like Jenson Button awaiting the start at the Monaco Grand Prix in a McLaren MP4-28. After a few seconds, the "Boost Building" light goes out and the car hurtles forward. McLaren quotes a 0-60 time of 3.2 seconds and several testers have managed a 2.8. Although I did not time my launch, my initial impression is an extreme Whoa! -- like watching the jump to hyperspace in "Star Wars" for the first time.
The racetrack experience isn't quite as impressive. Not because the car is disappointing; on the contrary, it's amazingly poised under duress, with minimal body roll and weight distribution that promotes neutral handling characteristics. But the circuit is frustratingly Mickey Mouse, consisting mostly of tight right-angle corners and no straights long enough to let the Spider reach the high-speed regime where its diffuser and air brake would be most effective.
The dual-clutch seven-speed transmission, designed by McLaren but built by Graziano, produces the seamless shifts we've come to expect from DSG gearboxes. Still, I make it only to 4th gear on the front straight. Then I lean on the gargantuan brakes, which are cast-iron but effective enough to throw me against my seat belts. Even when I get into the ABS, the car feels supremely planted, thanks partly to what are known as Z bars, or heave springs, that prevent the rear end from rising -- and losing grip -- under heavy braking.
I can kick out the tail at will in 2nd-gear corners. This is a testament to not only the engine's torque but also a stability control system that allows a satisfying level of hooliganism in Track mode. Normal and Sport modes are more restrictive, naturally, but I don't find out until after my stint that you can turn off the stability control altogether by hitting what Andrew calls "the Nintendo button."
After another 4th-gear blast down the back straight, I whistle through a high-speed chicane and brake for the decreasing-radius right-hander that's reviled by virtually everybody who races at Fontana. But here, I'm pleasantly surprised by the Spider's willingness to carve down to the apex I usually miss. The reason? The car's stability control system applies the brake of the inside rear wheel, which dials out understeer and improves turn-in -- a piece of clever technology that's been outlawed, paradoxically, in F1.
Racetracks usually expose the flaws in street cars, no matter how impressive they are on the road. But driving the Spider at Fontana made me appreciate just how capable the McLaren is -- not an F1 car for civilians, but a pretty damn good facsimile thereof.