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By Jim Resnick
Photographs by Mark Manson | October 11, 2011 | Lifestyle
The streamlined aesthetic of the McLaren MP4-12C boasts the industry’s first molded carbon-fiber monocoque chassis for lightweight performance. The rear-mounted engine sits extra low, maximizing handling.
The McLaren MP4-12C at the New World Symphony
New to most, familiar to some, McLaren Automotive enters the sports car ranks as a motorsports veteran. Compared to Ferrari or Porsche, the British firm is inexperienced as a production car brand, but based on the survival-of-the-fittest rigor of the racetrack, it could soon top the class. Since McLaren’s Formula 1 debut in 1966, and especially since executive chairman Ron Dennis joined the team in 1980, this UK-based company has introduced many technical innovations that stretch the imagination. Its steady presence in the top echelons of racing has shown such a mastery of challenges in design, mechanics and electronics as to border on the artistic. And the path to that art is science, precision, insight and thoroughness—all traits that reflect both Dennis and the company in equal measure. Eight Formula 1 Constructors’ Championships and 12 Championships for McLaren’s drivers do not lie.
Through Formula 1, McLaren pioneered the use of carbon fiber, which allowed it to perfect the process and production that continue today. The McLaren most familiar to sports car fans outside of racing is the threeseat, all-carbon-fiber monocoque-chassis, $1 million-plus McLaren F1 exotic car, which took the automotive press by storm in 1993 and achieved 240 mph with the rev limiter disengaged on its BMW-sourced powerplant. Also, the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren (2003 to ’09) was a joint venture between McLaren and its Formula 1 engine supplier, Mercedes-Benz. With those two limitedproduction cars under its belt, McLaren is now introducing a new exotic sports car designed solely in-house (including the engine), intended to challenge the exotic sports car establishment of Ferrari, Porsche and any others who care to join the party.
From Raceway to Roadway
There will be only nine dealerships carrying McLaren’s new model in the entire US, including Coral Gables’ The Collection. That the dealership also carries Ferrari, Porsche, Maserati and Aston Martin speaks clearly about the brand’s commercial potential.
MP4-12C—the car’s actual name—is literally the only thing about it that may seem inelegant. McLaren doesn’t sway with prevailing technical or design winds in Formula 1, and continues that pattern with the 12C. A highly sophisticated and thoughtful suspension eschews conventional devices like anti-roll bars. The turbocharged V8 engine with 3.8-liter capacity is smaller than all competitors, yet cranks out towering oomph (592 horsepower), while the engine’s trim external size and low placement in the chassis result in a low center of gravity, benefiting handling and braking. An active airbrake improves not just heavy braking itself from high speeds, but stability under such conditions—a design demonstrating McLaren’s winning thinking for production sports car success. If one makes top performance easily attainable and livable, then anyone can feel like Mario Andretti.
The 12C’s performance specs are stellar, even in this rarefied class of exotica: a top speed of 205 mph; acceleration from zero to 60 mph in just 3.0 seconds with the optional tires (quicker official figures than for Ferrari’s 458 Italia) and braking ability from 62 mph to a dead stop in just 100 feet.
Given all those impressive car-geek numbers, you still drive the car as a totality, and that’s where McLaren has focused much of its energy. The overarching goal with the MP4-12C was to produce a true no-compromise, top-performance sports car. That meant eradicating the typical exotic car’s kidney-punching stiff ride by replacing anti-roll bars with smart, instantly adjusting interconnected shocks that result in a good ride quality in normal traffic; McLaren easily solved that problem with a bit of technology and unconventional thinking.
Price in this segment is not necessarily important vis-a-vis the competition, but it is nonetheless impressive. The McLaren will cost $231,400 upon launch this late October, whereas the Ferrari 458 Italia, its most direct competitor, stickers at $230,675. Not Mini money, but not Mini performance, style or exclusivity, either.
Has McLaren achieved its product goals? Preliminary impressions from the most discriminating automotive journalists range from “yup” to “how much can I get for my nonessential body parts?” McLaren’s biggest challenge lies perhaps not in the car itself, but in how the company introduces the car to the market and subsequently builds a sales network. The occasional “if you build it, will they come?” industry conundrum most certainly applies here.
“McLaren had a lot of success from the F1 road car in the late ’90s, and learned a lot from Mercedes about production,” says Tony Joseph, director of McLaren Automotive North America. Joseph has experience in this field, with stints at both Ferrari and Porsche prior to assembling McLaren’s US operation. “However, McLaren never needed to build its own distribution network, so setting up an infrastructure has been a ground-up project.” Joseph is keen on this approach and says that by beginning with a clean sheet—not just in design, but in sales, marketing and distribution—McLaren can pick and choose priorities and avoid pitfalls learned from other manufacturers.
Track to the Future
“It’s very rare to have a new model in this segment, let alone a new company, and we’re very excited to help establish McLaren,” says Ken Gorin, president and CEO of The Collection. Gorin’s decision to rep McLaren was an important one that necessitated an understanding of the brand’s intentions, which he illustrates with an example: “We gave back the Lotus brand because it wasn’t performing the way it should have; Lotus wasn’t doing something markedly different from its competition,” confides Gorin. “But McLaren’s focus is very clear, and we look forward to the differentiation. The Collection is fueled by new models, and the McLaren launch is exciting from that standpoint alone. This business is also about choice, and we do well by our customers by offering choices.” McLaren Automotive executive chairman Ron Dennis likens the brand’s launch to a strenuous yet rewarding ascent to a mountain summit. “It’s a steep and difficult climb to where we want to get to. As with any climb, you have to have the right equipment. You have to have the right training. We have every intention of making it and hitting our definition of the summit, which is a successful sports car brand. It’s the foundation for the future of McLaren.”
With the history of success, racing acumen, technical and design depth and a winning dealer network in place, could the top of the class be far away?