McLaren's Ferrari-challenger hits the streets
LOS ANGELES -- Despite success in Formula One, Indy Car, Le Mans and Can-Am racing, the McLaren name does not carry the status with car collectors as do the fabled Italian marques.
But with its race-ready, but city-friendly MP4-12C exotic sports car arriving at dealerships, McLaren is challenging Ferrari and Lamborghini at the retail level and making no excuses.
The basics: At the heart of the McLaren is a mid-mounted twin-turbo V-8 that is smaller than a small-block Chevy but propels the car to 60 mph in 3.2 seconds with a top speed of 205 mph. Yet when not being flogged on the track, the McLaren gets 18/26 mpg fuel economy, so buyers pay no gas-guzzler tax.
The two occupants sit in a one-piece carbon-fiber tub that is light, strong and rigid. The front structure can be unbolted from the tub in case of a fender bender, saving huge repair bills.
The MP4-12C has "normal," "sport" and "track" settings for the powertrain and chassis. So if you want the engine to attract noisy attention while keeping the ride smooth, you can.
Notable features: Most of the technology is developed and built internally. The seven-speed, dual-clutch gearbox is produced by Oerlikon Graziano S.p.A. but was designed by McLaren engineers.
The paddle shifters can be "held" going into a slow corner, so that the car continues to downshift while braking and finds the most appropriate gear upon entering the next straightaway.
While other exotics go with ceramic brakes, McLaren offers iron brakes as standard for durability and better around-town civility. Ceramics are optional.
The McLaren's double-wishbone suspension is mated to twin adaptive dampers at each wheel for more direct tire contact during hard cornering and braking.
A rear spoiler deploys for more rear down force and becomes a nearly vertical air brake that moves air pressure rearward for more braking stability. Braking to a stop from 62 mph takes only 100 feet.
The interior layout is consolelike, with controls falling readily to hand. A giant tachometer dominates the instrument cluster, with a digital speedometer nestled near the tach's redline. The air conditioning works well, even in seething California desert heat.
What McLaren says: "There's a lot of technology that's invisible," said Antony Sheriff, McLaren Automotive's managing director. "The interchange between our Formula One cars and the road car is real, because the teams of engineers are sitting 50 yards away from each other."
Compromises and shortcomings: This is not a car that cheats the wind. Engineers could have lowered the coefficient of drag, but that would result in less corner-gripping down force. Purists will decry the lack of a manual transmission, but the addition of a third pedal would have widened the car by several inches. The engine growls heartily, but doesn't have the trademark scream of a Ferrari, nor the shrieking exhaust note of the Lexus LFA.
The market: McLaren plans to sell 1,500 units a year globally. It is considering several variants that would increase the sales target. Among those could be a roadster that could be developed quickly because there are no cross-member structural reinforcements in the MP4-12C's roof pillars.
There also is talk of a downmarket version priced at around $160,000. Eventually, McLaren hopes to sell 4,000 to 6,000 units globally a year, which is Ferrari and Aston Martin turf. The company has nine U.S. dealerships.
The skinny: A stunning entrant to the field, this is the first supercar since the original Acura NSX that feels docile and comported in around-town crawl, yet turns into a lithe, slithery beast when pressed. During the final hour of track testing -- after two days of punishment by hard-driving journalists -- the Pirelli tires were shot and brakes repeatedly hammered, but the car remained completely in control. Phenomenal durability, stability and power. How much is the lotto now?
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