McLaren may be the car of the future

BEAUTY AT A PRICE: The McLaren Spider is as close to a Formula 1 car as any you’ll see on the highway. Question is, can you afford the quarter-million price tag?
BEAUTY AT A PRICE: The McLaren Spider is as close to a Formula 1 car as any you’ll see on the highway. Question is, can you afford the quarter-million price tag?
McLAREN

Let’s get this out of the way right now, because it was the first, second, and third question everybody who saw me in this screaming yellow animal asked: What is it? It’s a McLaren MP4-12C Spider. Where is it from? It’s from Surrey, England. How much does it cost? It costs $268,250. If you’re planning on buying one, just keep a cheat sheet with those answers on it somewhere on your person and you’ll be fine.

The McLaren MP4-12C Spider is about as close as you’re going to get to a Formula 1 car. It’s most closely related to the coupe variant with the same alphanumeric designation, which was designed as if it didn’t have a roof. Thanks to that foresight, adding the power folding top only results in an 88 pound weight penalty, an important factor in a car that’s expected to perform as well as it looks.

If there’s one thing that’s unique about this car, and McLaren in general, it’s the extensive use of carbon fiber in the chassis construction. Other manufacturers do it, too, but McLaren makes it not only an art, but a repeatable, production-scale process that begins to make the promise of carbon fiber construction in a regular production car a lot more feasible than ever before.

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The benefits of carbon fiber construction are many: It’s stronger than steel, yet it weighs less than any other competitive material. For example, the tub on which this car’s body parts and suspension units hang—called a Carbon MonoCell, strikingly similar to the one that McLaren uses in its Formula 1 program—weighs just 176 pounds.

Up to this point, though, the issue has been the time required to lay one up. In the days of the McLaren F1—perhaps the most sought-after supercar of the modern era—a tub like this would take 3,000 hours to build. Three. Thousand. Hours.

Today, McLaren can turn out a tub for the MP4-12C Spider in just four. That goes a long way toward explaining why the MP4-12C costs a fraction of what the F1 did when it debuted in 1992, and it indicates where this technology is headed. Don’t be surprised if you begin to see it in a lot more cars as manufacturers stretch to achieve new 54.5 mpg fuel economy targets by 2025.

The engine is a 3.8-liter, twin-turbo V-6 that produces 616 horsepower. Maximum boost from the twin-turbochargers is a head-gasket-busting 17.4 psi. It allows the MP4-12C Spider to hit 60 miles per hour in 2.9 seconds, and reach a top speed of 204 miles per hour.

I live in a nice neighborhood, but leaving a car that’s worth two-thirds of what my house is worth out in the driveway is mind-boggling to me, so I kicked my wife’s 1999 Jaguar XJ8 to the curb and backed into the garage. When I left at 5:30 the next morning to take photos, I tried to be subtle. It’s simply impossible to fly under the radar with a car like this, though. I opened the scissor doors as quietly as I could, wound myself under the steering wheel, and gently pressed the start button. All 616 horses awoke at once, and barked through the massive exhaust located on the rear fascia between the taillights. I woke the three sleeping residents in my house in a fraction of a second.

If you like to mix your own gears, you’ll be disappointed by the fact that the McLaren has a seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic “Seamless Shift Gearbox” as the only transmission available. If you’re simply interested in shifting as fast as possible, you won’t have an issue with it, because it shifts faster than you ever could with your inferior human synapses.

As quickly as I could, I released the parking brake and pressed the D button and off I went into the morning, waking neighbors all the way. Even in Track mode, with the most aggressive shift points and throttle response, it’s a comfortable, pleasant car to drive at around-town speeds. The thing you notice immediately is that power doesn’t come on in neck-snapping gobs unless you really feed it gas. When you do, like when I stabbed the throttle to pass a line of slow moving cars in the middle lane of 495, triple digit speeds arrive faster than the digital readout can register. Step on the gas. Hello, 100 mph. It’s less of a car than it is a traffic violation-producer.

You’d expect that the handling at high speed would be exceptional, which it is, but what I was surprised by was how well the car drove on the secondary roads between Boston and Kennebunkport, Maine. With the top down and the power rear window lowered, with the exhaust howling behind you, the MP4-12C Spider is just as fun to drive at 45 miles per hour as it is 100. At highway speed, the buffeting is pretty tremendous with the top and windows down, but rolling the windows up calms it instantly.

At almost $270,000, the McLaren MP4-12C Spider is nearly as much as a tidy Cape in the suburbs west of 495. But for that price, it also offers a glimpse at what car construction might look like in the future, without the mortification of showing up at the InterContinental with the same car as some other one-percenter.