By on December 20, 2014

mclaren1

When it comes to junior “supercars”, the Ferrari 458 is as good as it gets. So why is it in second place, with this significantly less well-rounded and well-realized McLaren on top of the podium? Mostly, it’s focus, and preference. The focus is courtesy of McLaren; the preference is all mine.

I’ve argued in the past that McLaren significantly misunderstands why people really buy these cars, and the 12C bears that out. It’s chock-full of awesome racing-tech stuff about which customers could not care less. For example, it has a carbon-fiber MonoCell tub, just like the original McLaren F1 supercar. The climate controls are on the doors and the center console is as narrow as the Android device that serves as an all-in-one infotainment screen. The purpose is to keep the polar moment of inertia low, which makes the McLaren easier to rotate (turn) than the competition. That’s not the kind of difference that most drivers will notice. They will, however, notice that the Android system crashes relatively often, even in the updated 650S model that I drove earlier this year.

The 3.8-liter twin-turbo V-8 makes more power than the normally-aspirated mill in the Ferrari, and it makes much more torque everywhere on the curve. It’s quicker in the measured quarter-mile, running a 10.8 in some magazine testing and a 10.31 in private hands, but even that significant gap between the 12C and the 458 fails to convey how much faster the car is around a racetrack. When the Ferrari is making majestic sounds and kicking ass, the McLaren is whooshing away like a Dyson vacuum with a noisy belt — and dropping the Ferrari like the Italian car has the E-brake on.

There’s a remarkable amount of stagger, with a 235-width 19″ tire in front and a 305-width 20″ tire in back, and it has the inevitable limiting effect on the 12C’s ability to get around the racetrack. Yet even with that handicap this is a viciously fast car. Most people will go their entire lives without steering something that turns lap times like the 12C. Until recently, there wasn’t any such thing as a street-legal car that could come close to the 12C’s pace. Supposedly it’s faster than the fabled McLaren F1 around pretty much any racetrack you can find. (The 650S, of course, is faster still.)

The price of this pace is a chassis that is simply more prickly and provoke-able than what you get in the 458 or Gallardo. In fast turns, it doesn’t feel nearly as buttoned-down as the other two cars and you’re always conscious of the weight behind you. The ESC doesn’t feel fully baked and turning it off reveals the vicious nature of that twin-boosted engine, which is always ready and willing to put the tail farther out than you can readily catch. If the Gallardo feels like it was designed to keep the driver safe, and the 458 feels like it was designed to flatter the driver, then the McLaren feels like it was designed around a required laptime and the driver’s peace of mind was never even a consideration. If you make a mistake, this automobile will bite you in less time than it takes to draw a single terrified breath.

Though this is nominally a competitor for the junior supercars, not the Aventador or F12berlinetta, the 12C delivers an overall vibe that’s closer to the latter. The dihedral doors, which add drama to every arrival and departure, show off the MonoCell’s high and wide sills. The proportions are visually extreme even if the actual footprint is very similar to that of the smaller Lamborghini. The vaguely unfinished feel of the interior is pure supercar, as is the supreme difficulty of reversing and parking. What a shame, then, that it just doesn’t look that special. “Generic” is the word. Luckily, the 650S rectifies that and then some, grafting the insectile P1 nose to the 12C body in a marriage that is happier than the description suggests.

What makes the McLaren the winner of this eight-car roundup is simple: it feels the most special, the most unusual, and the most exotic. It demands more from the driver than the seven other cars combined and it provides the greatest reward for mastering its foibles, both in terms of raw lap time and in terms of delta separating the inept and the invincible. If you had one car and one lap to see what a driver was made of, the McLaren would be obvious choice in this group.

When it’s right, it’s right. The airbrake will scare the shit out of you the first time you really use it — when deployed at 130mph it will shake the entire car like it was a child’s toy — but it works. The brakes always play ball and you can trust them. The corner entry requires precision, the midcorner requires patience, but when you get the power on at just the right time you feel like $MC_LAREN_DRIVER_OF_YOUR_CHOICE as the 12C warps the scenery ahead of you in Millennium Falcon fashion and the other “supercars” around you simply wilt like last week’s roses. The acceleration, particularly at aerodynamically significant speeds, seems to not respect the laws of physics. I’ve been in 800-horsepower Porsche Turbos that didn’t move like this above the 100mph mark.

Compared to the Audi and the Lamborghinis, the interior is cheap and fragile. Compared to the Ferrari, the engine sounds like a Kitchen-Aid and the interior electronics are roughly equivalent to a prepaid-service smartphone. It doesn’t look like anything so much as it looks like nothing in particular. In my experience, women prefer the Lamborghini Huracan to this or any other McLaren with approximately the same amount of fervor they’d apply to talking their way out of accompanying you to a Dream Theater concert.

Doesn’t matter. If you had the racetrack all to yourself, for the whole day, and nobody was there to watch, and the only thing to be gained was the satisfaction of driving well, you’d choose this one in a heartbeat. Res ipsa loquitur, man, and the 12C speaks with the racer’s voice.

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44 Comments on “Supercars To Go, First Place: McLaren 12C...”


  • avatar
    ZCD2.7T

    Jack: between this and the 458 Speciale, which do you prefer, and which do you think would be quicker around a track?

    • 0 avatar
      CoreyDL

      So, you didn’t read the article. The very.first.paragraph.

      When it comes to junior “supercars”, the Ferrari 458 is as good as it gets. So why is it in second place, with this significantly less well-rounded and well-realized McLaren on top of the podium? Mostly, it’s focus, and preference. The focus is courtesy of McLaren; the preference is all mine.

  • avatar
    FormerFF

    Sounds interesting, but would it be worth the $329 plus insurance that Xtreme Xperience gets for three laps?

    Has Dream Theater replace Rush as the official woman-repelling band?

  • avatar
    Speedygreg7

    Jack….do you have any observations about the lack of a limited slip differential or the lack of anti-roll bars in this car? I suppose the electronics take care of traction and the cross linked suspension eliminates roll and keeps the unloaded rear wheel on the ground.

  • avatar
    1967mgb

    I agree that the McLaren should be number one. I think that it would provide the most entertainment of all by watching women wearing short dresses getting out of it. But what do I know..

  • avatar
    j3studio

    We almost certainly will never be in the market for one of these cars (we prefer bigger, cheaper, and less refined American iron), but I really enjoyed this series. Thanks for the insights, Jack.

  • avatar
    carguy

    I am sure the 12C is a great car but the depreciation compared to the Ferrari makes it a much more expense proposition. Unless you buy it used, of course, in which case its probably the best value near-super car you can buy.

    • 0 avatar

      I once stopped into a menswear store. There was a 575 Maranello parked outside. There was only one other customer in the store, so I started talking with the guy about his Ferrari.

      Ferrari owner: “Great car but you take a beating on the depreciation.”

      Me: “You’re driving a 575 Maranello. Tell me that a car’s depreciation really is a financial factor in your life.”

      Ferrari owner: [laughs heartily].

      I’ve always liked the big front engined Ferraris. That’s really what I think of when you mention Ferrari road cars, the grand tourers like the Daytona and 575. If I’m not mistaken, the Dino was the first midengine Ferrari road car and it was not even sold as a Ferrari.

    • 0 avatar
      MBella

      Do we really know the depreciation on these will be worse? It’s not like Ferraris are known for their re-sale value (F40 excluded). I would think that many parts that will fail on the McLaren over time aren’t unique to it.

      • 0 avatar
        hgrunt

        Ferraris are red hot on the market right now. If you have a 458, you’re unlikely to lose any money selling it, because there are plenty of people looking to skip the build queue.

        Additionally, it’s rumored the 458 replacement, or an update, might get the turbo V8 from the California. Apparently the Speciale is getting special attention from collectors for this reason.

    • 0 avatar
      05lgt

      I’m not sure about depreciation. Not enough used sales to know, but The mentioned F1 from this maker went the other way, selling for appreciated values many years after the initial sale.

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    I think Leno would agree with this pick!

  • avatar
    05lgt

    Thanks for this series of ranked reviews Jack. While I’ll never own any, it’s a thrilling fantasy. If the XX ever sifts to the top of my b-day present to myself list I’d chose the 458. I know I’d have a better ride with more assistance.

    Have Any of the B&B been on the customer/student side of this? If I go for multiple 3 lap outings, would you recommend different cars for the breadth of experience or repeats in the same car to better improve my abilities?

  • avatar
    05lgt

    Thanks for this series of ranked reviews Jack. While I’ll never own any, it’s a thrilling fantasy. If the XX ever sifts to the top of my b-day present to myself list I’d chose the 458. I know I’d have a better ride with more assistance.

    Have Any of the B&B been on the customer/student s!de of this? If I go for multiple 3 lap outings, would you recommend different cars for the breadth of experience or repeats in the same car to better improve my abilities?

    • 0 avatar
      FormerFF

      I’m thinking of going in April.

      I see there are deals to be had that make it a little more affordable proposition, If you’re wanting to improve your skills I think one of the all day or multiday drivers education events would be better, where you’d get a lot more laps in something less expensive with much lower limits. Maybe Jack can chime in here with a recommendation.

  • avatar
    sandmed

    Jack, this was one of your best series that I’ve read. I’d love to know how you would rate the Lexus LFA against this group.

  • avatar
    Beemernator

    Those colorful wheels reminded me of the Lancia Stratos with its golden wheels. The Stratos had a reputation for being a beast that was not easy to tame. The interior was cheapskate and mostly a bunch of Fiat bits. From the article, it sounds like the 12C is the modern day Stratos.

  • avatar
    akatsuki

    I am not a US car guy, but it would still have made sense to have a Stingray or Z06 in the mix.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    So shocker that the car with the smallest organisation supporting it actually comes in 1st place!

    You’d hardly ever get that in a magazine test.

  • avatar
    319583076

    “The climate controls are on the doors and the center console is as narrow as the Android device that serves as an all-in-one infotainment screen. The purpose is to keep the polar moment of inertia low, which makes the McLaren easier to rotate (turn) than the competition.”

    Actually, Jack, additional mass near the vehicle envelope increases rather than decreases the polar moment of inertia. The effect should be that it takes more effort to change direction than if the mass were concentrated near the axis of rotation.

    Think about a spinning ice skater: the skater spins faster with his/her arms pulled in and slower with his/her arms extended. The polar moment of inertia is greater with extended arms. Perhaps McLaren engineers did the above to increase stability? It certainly does not improve “ease of rotation”.

    Or, think about the mid-engine car. The engine is located near the axis of rotation and this does reduce the polar moment of inertia which would mean greater directional change for less mechanical effort than a traditional front-engine car.

    Also, any benefit from locating controls in the door has to be small simply because the mass of the controls compared to the mass of the chassis/body, tire/wheel/brake/suspension, and driveline components are orders of magnitude greater.

    I dunno if something was lost in translation or if the McLaren people told you something dubious, but in any case, it’s simply not true.

    • 0 avatar
      05lgt

      Not if the driver and passenger are heavier than wiring and ducting. And I stepped on a scale this morning, so…..
      Jacks right.

      • 0 avatar
        319583076

        You’re both wrong.

        You’ve inferred that Jack is implying the changes he explicitly stated result in seats closer to the auto centerline – reducing the polar moment of inertia. You tell me how much closer the seats in the McLaren are than those in the Ferrari 458, and I’ll tell you how much difference that makes.

        If the goal is reducing the polar moment of inertia – the climate controls could be located on the dash, along the centerline, with perhaps less wiring than locating them in the doors. If the idea is that McLaren is so hard-core awesome and committed to performance, why are there climate controls to begin with? Also, there’s no reason to have a center console with this layout.

        If you tell me the McLaren layout is a performance design, I’ll tell you that the front speakers in my XJ Cherokee are in the doors for the same reason…to locate my fat a$$ such that the polar moment of inertia is decreased and thus, cornering is improved.

        • 0 avatar
          niky

          Today’s big center consoles with their myriad of audio and climate controls are mostly big pieces of plastic filled with empty space and some wiring.

          Drivers aren’t.

          An extra three or four kilograms of wiring (which, honestly, is all you’re looking at… notice the door cards aren’t any thicker than they’d be otherwise (at most it’s an inch thicker), and the center console is about three to four inches narrower than in other comparable cars) is a decent sacrifice to keep a hundred or more kilos of driver and passenger a few inches closer to the centerline of the car and to eliminate a few kilograms of useless weight in terms of center console plastic.

          Note also that the android touchscreen is oriented vertically for the same reason.

          • 0 avatar
            Jack Baruth

            319583076, I’m not sure what I’m failing to convey properly here.

            If you compare a McLaren to a Lamborghini or Ferrari, you will see that the driver and passenger are much closer together. Depending on whether you’re comparing it to an SLS or a Murcielago or a 458, the McLaren’s two occupants are between ten and four inches closer together.

            This moves the very heavy passengers together, reducing the polar moment of inertia, just like the skater with her arms in that you described. The climate controls are moved to the doors, where they occupy the space that would be occupied by the passengers were they farther apart. The climate controls weigh essentially nothing.

            I don’t know if I can make it any clearer. The McLaren has people and transmission and engine as close to the center of the car as possible. If you go sit in an Aventador, you’ll see that such a consideration never entered into the minds of the engineers.

          • 0 avatar
            319583076

            If you meant to say the seats are closer to the center of the car, and thus the polar moment of inertia is decreased, you should have said that. What you did say was that (in part) adding mass to the doors reduces the polar moment of inertia which is false.

            That’s how you could have been more clear.

            I realize that I’m picking nits, but I’m an engineer and these sorts of things are important to me.

        • 0 avatar
          stuki

          The purpose is not simply to be so “hard core” that no comforts are included. Nor solely to centralize masses, although that plays a part. But, in addition, the idea is to give the driver more of a (central single seat) race car feel, by locating his ass closer to the rotational center/balance point of the car, instead of on some outrigger.

          From a pure on track performance standpoint, none of these cars make all that much sense; since faster, lighter, less compromised track cars can be had, WITH the truck required to transport them to the track, for less money. So, in addition to being objectively fast cars, another core design objective for these, is to feel racy and special even when driven at, say 6/10ths on the street.

  • avatar
    petezeiss

    Orange on white….
    Finally! THAT’S what’s been nagging me about this car.

    It’s like a McLaren for Jeremy!

  • avatar
    act

    I’d love the t-shirt for guessing your ranking correctly, but I would settle for some track instruction from you, Jack. Of course I would expect to pay for that privilege…

  • avatar
    mnm4ever

    I would have gotten the order right but I mixed up the Lambos when I typed it up on my phone! I knew Jack would never pick the AWD over the RWD car no matter how fast it was, and I knew the McLaren would be the top choice. Of course I wouldn’t have been first anyways, others guessed the finish order before I did!

  • avatar
    FormerFF

    Xtreme Xperience came to town last weekend, I got to drive the 991 GT3 and the R8. Had a great time, will go back someday. If you’ve ever wanted to drive on a track, or drive one of these cars, you should do this.

    If you decide to go, I have a few tips for you. First, don’t pay full price. XX occasionally puts on sales, check their Facebook page frequently. Alternatively, there are Groupons out there as well, but those are a little less flexible. When you do sign up, do get the ride along, which is given in either a Mitsubishi Evo or a Mustang GT. It’s very helpful in getting a little idea where the track goes, as well as being fun.

    Both cars that I drove were in excellent condition.

    The day I want, additional drives were available at a discounted rate. Depending on how busy they are, you may be able to get an additional drive or two, particularly if you’re not stuck on any one particular car. I suspect it would be helpful to be signed up for one of the earlier sessions if you were wanting to get more drives. All these cars have an enormous amount of acceleration, most likely more than you’ll be able to use at most of these tracks. The instructors are very helpful at talking you through the course and will probably wind up trying to get you to go faster, not slower.

    Three laps goes by pretty quickly. The experience is expensive and short, but worth it.

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