Let’s face it: it’s not the best time to be launching any new automotive brand just now, let alone a brand built in Formula 1 and offering only a single, $250,000 product. Throughout the industry, OEMs are abandoning or distancing themselves from motorsport, as the old “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” logic proves to be an ever-fading anachronism. And yet here is McLaren Automotive, launching its first new road-going supercar in over ten years, with the the help of two F1 champs. Can an automotive brand survive selling high-priced symbols of racing prowess, at a time when racing (particularly Formula 1 racing) is becoming ever-more divorced from road car realities? More importantly, can it take on the lions of the supercar world with mere techno-wonkery?
McLaren says there’s room for it to flourish in what it calls the “core market” for sportscars costing between $200k and $260k. Marketing boss Antony Sheriff explains:
By the time the 12C is launched in 2011 we expect the economic conditions to be much improved. We have already seen significant interest in the car and the supply of the 12C will be relatively scarce; in its first year we plan to produce just 1,000 cars which represents only 3.5 percent of the ‘core’ market,
McLaren is keen to point out that “the ‘core’ segment’s growth from 8,000 sales in 2000 to more than 28,000 in 2007 highlights the potential that exists.” This assumes not only that economic growth will return, but that the growth in supercar sales comes from the kind of buyers who understand the McLaren brand and want what the MP4-12C has to offer.
Which is not to say that the new McLaren won’t be a stunning car to drive. From its low-weight emphasis, to its bespoke 600+ hp twin-turbocharged V8, there’s a lot to suggest that the MP4-12C has what it takes to tackle the best supercars on the market on the track. But when you get away from the pointy-headed men who read telemetry for fun and who appreciate the 4 kilo weight savings gained by using hexagonal aluminum conductors instead of circular circular wires, you realize that it takes a lot more than world-class, race-honed engineering to sell $250k cars.
Do any of the MP4-12C’s myriad tricks and features make up for the fact that it has a misshapen blob on it where the prancing horse or raging bull should be? Sure, there are plenty of hard-core enthusiasts who remember when the McLaren F1 was the world’s most all-conquering vehicle, but that was one car. And a neo-F1, the MP4-12C is not.
Besides technology, McLaren brought another important sensibility to the MP4-12C: subtlety. Chief designer Frank Stephenson explains:
Many sports cars and super cars present an ‘in-your-face’, ‘look-at-me’ image that can become wearing and boorish; the ultimate backhanded compliment becomes, “…it was of its time”. Great design, however, is timeless and looks relevant years later. With the 12C we have produced a car that looks great today and will still look great in years to come.
And yet isn’t the “in-your-face,” “look-at-me” image what actually sells supercars in the numbers that McLaren is justifying its business on? A subtle, sophisticated $250,000 car that believes that it’s what’s inside that counts sounds great on paper, but there’s very little to indicate that the supercar market has anything to do with vehicle capability. Status and emotion part men from their money far more effectively than infinitely-variable chassis roll control systems. Besides, the Audi R8 is a subtle-yet-desirable, mid-engined supercar and it costs less than half what the MP4-12C will. In comparison, the Macca seems derivative, anodyne and unnecessarily over-engineered.
None of this should take away from the remarkable achievements that the new McLaren represents. Pushing the technical limits of automotive possibility always produces exciting results, and if the MP4-12C can humiliate Ferrari’s 458 on the right tracks with the right publicity, the McLaren brand could become the new standard-bearer for British race-nutter sportscars. But will it grace the bedroom walls of young boys with its aspirational pornography? Will it pass into the vernacular as a one-word code for a more sophisticated approach to the look-at-me image? Will it stand out in Dubai, Davos or Pudong? If not, McLaren fans could just be waiting another ten years for another road car to emerge from Woking.