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Speed Freak

The new McLaren MP4-12C became the world’s greatest supercar by chucking out most of the rules that have governed such mean machines for generations. It’s scarily fast and uncommonly comfortable, a car meant for everyday driving that also happens to boast a technology so ahead of its time that it was banned by Formula 1 racing. It’s the most advanced automobile ever made. And we got to drive it.


THERE ARE RULES TO MAKING A SUPERCAR. It must be laughably impractical—not your second car, but your fifth, or ninth. It must be extraordinarily flashy and unusually beautiful or striking in appearance (which helps to convey an idea of its ungodly price point to the uninitiated). It must be capable of carrying its owner at speeds of at least 200 mph, and be cramped, inefficient, confusing and intimidating to drive. And perhaps most crucial, it must have a sexy name—Murciélago (Spanish for “bat”), Carrera, Scuderia, Italia, Cobra—evoking something that moves quickly and with menace, or transporting the mind from Cap Ferrat to Monaco, where a young Brigitte Bardot just happens to be hitchhiking in capri pants.

These rules, which have served the automotive avant-garde well for many years, are assumed inviolable. So what can you say about a car with a name reminiscent of a deskjet printer that’s actually comfortable to sit in and not all that unfriendly to drive? Purists may call it an affront, but the fact is, the new McLaren MP4-12C represents the biggest leap forward in supercar technology in a generation. You could argue that it’s the supercar, socialized. It certainly seemed so to me, when I was out tooling around in one on the Jersey Turnpike, moments before I got perhaps a little too comfortable and stomped on the gas. But more on that in a moment.

MORE THAN FIVE YEARS IN THE MAKING, this is the first road car produced by McLaren Automotive since the furiously fast—and crudely powerful—F1 was unleashed 20 years ago. The 12C was conceived by the small English company, headed by eccentric multimillionaire Ron Dennis, as a direct attack on the Porsche 911 GT2 RS and the Ferrari 458 Italia, cars that cost more than $200,000 and flirt dangerously with what any supercar enthusiast would call perfection. “In that price bracket and segment, the only thing we could do was bring notably better performance and feel than the competitors,” says Paul Burnham, the vehicle dynamics manager on the 12C.

This meant looking to the technology used by McLaren’s Formula 1 racing team, founded almost 50 years ago. The two worlds hardly seem compatible—while the 12C’s $230,000 price tag may appear gargantuan, that amount barely covers the cost of a gearbox on one of McLaren’s Formula 1 race cars—but history is full of examples of race technology filtering down into street-legal production cars. The rearview mirror, for instance, was invented for the Indianapolis 500 in 1911; paddle shifters on the steering wheel came out of a Formula 1 car in 1986; and a panoply of safety innovations, from seat belts to chassis crumple zones, were all track-tested in front of paying crowds before they landed in your Chevy Celebrity.

McLaren hopes the next such crossover will be a technology known as “brake steer,” which it first deployed in Finnish driver Mika Häkkinen’s car during the 1997 Formula 1 season. Designed to prevent understeer—in which the front tires plow straight ahead when they should be turning—brake steer causes the left-hand brakes to apply more pressure than those on the right, effectively steering the car when the steering wheel can’t. Häkkinen notched his final victory with this radical technology at the 1998 Australian Grand Prix, a fast, 16-turn track in Melbourne’s Albert Park. At the following race, in Brazil, Formula 1 officials banned brake steer, deeming it an unfair advantage.

Brake steer remained on the shelf until Burnham and his 160 fellow engineers set about conceiving the 12C. “Brake steer was lifted straight off the race car,” he says. “As a technology, it was so far ahead of anything that’d been deployed in the consumer market it was still by all rights cutting-edge.”

But while brake steer is unprecedented on the roadways, it’s useless if the car isn’t light enough to benefit from it. That’s where materials make all the difference. According to Burnham, “the single most important innovation to come from [race cars] is the use of carbon fiber.” Much of the 12C, including all of the driver’s cockpit, is made from carbon fiber. “By using carbon, we can reduce the weight of the car,” Burnham says, “which improves the performance and, most important, the efficiency of the car.”

Indeed, the McLaren supercar gets a surprising 18 mpg average. Compared with the Lamborghini Aventador (13 mpg) or the Ferrari 612 Scaglietti (11), it might as well be a Nissan Leaf. (Well, almost.) And while that fuel economy, coupled with an interior that doesn’t hurt to sit in, may seem damnably practical by conventional supercar standards, that’s very much the point. “Here’s the thing about the 12C that we reckoned was most important when we were designing it,” Burnham says. “We needed it to be a realistic, comfortable, everyday car. Most supercars drive like hell, but they also feel like hell when you’re driving them. We wanted something that could be smooth if a customer needed it to be.”

Which of course led to my next question: “Can I borrow one?”

PARKED OUTSIDE MY APARTMENT on a perfectly still early-summer morning is a “papaya orange” 12C, a wedge of carbon fiber with a posture so athletic it appears to be speeding while I’m standing beside it idly sipping an iced coffee. The driver’s-side door opens vertically, like a blade on a pair of scissors. The interior is unburdened by gimmickry. There’s a large red button that fires the engine. There are paddle shifters on the wheel, and a driving-mode dial with three settings: normal, sport and track. The seat—hand-stitched leather and faux suede—hugs my frame delicately. I feel almost coddled.

The 600 hp twin-turbo V-8 engine is a highly modified evolution of a V-8 that Nissan developed in the Indy Racing League. How fast is it? To find out, I fire up the engine, which purrs quietly; select the normal driving mode; and make my way to Bear Mountain State Park, a hilly network of winding roads 50 miles north of New York City. The ride in normal mode is smooth: controlled, balanced, disappointingly similar to the silky ride of a Cadillac CTS. It’s enough to make me wonder, This is a supercar?

The chassis rests on the 12C’s pièce de résistance, the hydraulic suspension system, a complicated network of hydraulic pistons that adjust the ride each time the car goes over so much as a pebble. “This gives the driver tangible benefits every time he’s in the car,” says Burnham. “It allows us to offer serious comfort when needed, and it can tighten up for the track. It’s the game-changer.”

When I get to the on-ramp of the New Jersey Turnpike, I switch to sport mode, come to a complete stop and then slam on the accelerator (radically undermining the gas mileage). Yes, the 12C is fast. Very fast. According to McLaren, in the time it takes you, the average reader, to finish this sentence, the 12C will have accelerated from zero to well over 100 mph. That’s unfathomably fast for just about anyone but a race car driver, and McLaren achieves this speed by keeping the weight down and by using the big-bore V-8 and a radical Seamless Shift Gearbox, or SSG.

About that gearbox: The SSG is technology that resembles that found in the F1 racer (the actual racing technology is so secret that McLaren won’t acknowledge it uses any gearbox at all). Regardless, it could come from a Philip K. Dick novel. Here’s how it works: When I’m driving along the roads of Bear Mountain, with their tight turns and blind driveways, I’m using the paddles on the wheels to shift up and down—a lot. When I apply light pressure to one paddle, it sends a message to the transmission’s computer signaling whether the next shift will be up or down. By predicting my moves, the gearbox can prepare, shaving fractions of a second off the shift. This is very important in a Formula 1 race, where companies like McLaren will spend millions to gain a 10th of a second per lap.

I focus on the brake steer on a couple of radical turns near a trailhead on Seven Lakes Drive. It works. In fact, I’m traveling at such a high rate of speed that the brake steer is actually practical, which violates the first rule of supercars, but which is nevertheless appreciated. The turns are tight and fast, but smooth, not at all violent.

Finally, there’s the wing, which is an integral part of any sports car. Normally, the wing (or spoiler) produces downforce in the rear of the car. Sometimes the downforce presses the rear tires into the tarmac to improve traction; other times, as in the case of the early Audi TT, the wing is deployed at a certain speed to keep the rear of the roadster from floating off the ground. In the McLaren, the wing creates downforce when required, but it also has active hydraulic pistons that push it up to act as an air brake when you need to slow down—fast.

Which I do. I am, after all, a responsible adult. A father, a professional, a reasonably productive member of society, with a practical streak that grows wider each day. Still, as I make my way home in normal mode, the hydraulic suspension forgivingly erasing the bumpy New Jersey roads, I find myself scanning the cockpit. If I had a few hundred grand—I don’t, but if I did—is this something that could work? Is there room for, say, a car seat? Of course not. It remains a supercar. Perish the thought.

But then again, rules—even the inviolable ones—are made to be broken.

Mike Guy, former Hemispheres editor in chief, is the editorial director at The Fix. His writing has also appeared in Rolling Stone, Details and Men’s Journal.

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