Ap­prais­ing the Mclaren MP4-12C

The Mclaren MP4-12C wasn’t with­out its is­sues, but at half their orig­i­nal price used ex­am­ples are tan­ta­lis­ingly close to af­ford­abil­ity. Should you be tempted? An­drew Frankel finds out


There is no more ex­otic car man­u­fac­turer than Mclaren, at least among those of mod­els ho­molo­gated for sale all over the world and with an­nual sales mea­sur­able in the thou­sands. Mclaren doesn’t do SUVS, it doesn’t even do 2+2s. All it makes, all it has ever made, are mid-en­gined su­per­cars with car­bon­fi­bre mono­co­ques. And for al­most all of us, the prospect of own­ing one is an im­pos­si­ble dream.

Or is it? Jour­nal­ists have been writ­ing ‘my first Fer­rari’ sto­ries for decades, so is the Mclaren own­er­ship lad­der now de­scend­ing through the clouds to within tan­ta­lis­ingly close prox­im­ity of touch­ing dis­tance? And, more im­por­tantly, should you now be stretch­ing ev­ery sinew to reach up and grab that bot­tom rung?

Un­til re­cently I’d have said no. The most af­ford­able Mclarens are the first, and that means an MP4-12C, a car whose in­tro­duc­tion was hardly smooth and which Mclaren felt the need to restyle, re-en­gi­neer, re­name and re­launch af­ter just three years on sale. It came to mar­ket in 2011 with­out func­tion­ing nav­i­ga­tion, with doors that many own­ers were un­able to open and with han­dling that placed it well over half­way down the or­der dur­ing our an­nual quest to find Bri­tain’s best driver’s car.

But times change and prices fall. And the truth is that a car that cost £168,500 seven years ago can be bought for half that amount to­day. And what’s more, it’s a hell of a lot bet­ter now than it was then. Alas­tair Bols, the UK’S lead­ing in­de­pen­dent Mclaren spe­cial­ist, says: “The car had a huge up­grade in 2012 which not only raised power from 592bhp to 616bhp and got the sat-nav and Blue­tooth work­ing, but it was also fit­ted free of charge for cus­tomers with ear­lier cars. So un­less a car has been hid­ing in a shed ever since, it will have had the up­grade.”

So what we’re talk­ing about now is own­ing an up­graded, car­bon­fi­bre Mclaren for prices start­ing around £85,000, the price of a mid-range Lo­tus Evora. Sounds tempt­ing of course, but should you yield to it?

The car I’m driving is Mclaren’s own vol­cano or­ange 12C Spi­der, and be­cause it is per­fect and has very few miles on its clock, you ab­so­lutely could not buy it for a five fig­ure sum. But in the way it drives it is en­tirely rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the way any healthy 12C should drive: even that roof makes close to zero dif­fer­ence be­cause even in the coupé it is not part of the struc­ture of the car.

Can you feel the years that have passed? Broadly speak­ing, yes, but this is not an ex­clu­sively bad thing. The looks for in­stance, crit­i­cised when new for be­ing dull and like those of a Korean con­cept car, have weath­ered star­tlingly well. To my eyes it no longer looks plain, just sub­tle – Vol­cano Or­ange paint aside – and I ex­pect its shape will have a more time­less prop­erty than many of the more dra­mat­i­cally styled su­per and hy­per­cars that have come to mar­ket since.

The in­te­rior still has a sense of oc­ca­sion. I ac­tu­ally quite like the big ana­logue rev counter and the ven­ti­la­tion con­trols on the in­side of the door, while Mclaren’s pol­icy of first de­sign­ing a car its driver can see out of clearly is as much in ev­i­dence here as it is in any later car. The nav­i­ga­tion is rub­bish, but prob­a­bly not much less so than that of a Fer­rari from this era. Press the but­ton, fire her up and let’s see what she’ll do.

The fam­ily re­la­tion­ship is clear from the start. The car’s ba­sic stance, vis­i­bil­ity, con­trol weights, driving po­si­tion and er­gonomics speak of a phi­los­o­phy that’s as clear here as

it is in a brand new 720S. Be­cause of this, if you’re lucky enough to be rea­son­ably up to speed with mod­ern Mclarens, the 12C is much more fa­mil­iar than you might ex­pect.

But all the de­tails are dif­fer­ent. The en­gine has the same ca­pac­ity, con­fig­u­ra­tion and, post-up­grade, the same power as the lat­est 600LT, but it sounds more an­o­dyne than a 570S and the re­sponse is not the same. There’s more lag, and while in a new Mclaren you re­strict the use of the driv­e­train’s Track mode for ex­actly that en­vi­ron­ment, if I had a 12C it’s the set­ting I’d al­ways leave it in. Over the past seven years th­ese sorts of cars have just got a lot sharper in the way they re­spond to the driver’s foot.

Then again, no Mclaren made to­day rides as well as this. It’s true that the 12C had a bit of a rep­u­ta­tion for of­fer­ing up a rather remote driving ex­pe­ri­ence, but to­day it’s the limo-like com­fort that hits you sooner and harder. If there is a more com­fort­able su­per­car out there, I’ve not driven it. I don’t quib­ble with Mclaren’s de­ci­sion to firm things up in later mod­els be­cause a Mclaren must be a driver’s car first, sec­ond and third, but nor am I blind to the in­evitable sac­ri­fices of such a move.

As for that driving ex­pe­ri­ence, it’s a lovely thing to thread through the lanes. It’s as rapid as you could want and as grippy, too. The brakes are ex­em­plary. And yet this is where you can see where most progress has been made, and it’s not just in the throt­tle re­sponse. First, a mod­ern Mclaren– even a less pow­er­ful 570S – feels quite a lot quicker. To­day’s Macs have a hurtling ca­pac­ity that is either amus­ing or alarm­ing depending on how sen­si­ble you are about its de­ploy­ment; the 12C can’t do this so never feels more than just bloody fast. The gearchange is rather ca­sual, too: the shift it­self is still quite quick but the bits either side from is­sue of in­struc­tion to reap­pli­ca­tion of power are no­tice­able, whereas to­day they are, in ef­fect, ab­sent.

As for the han­dling, well, I wasn’t about to go f ling­ing around one of Mclaren’s own her­itage cars, but I drove it hard and fast enough to love the weight­ing and gear­ing of the steer­ing it­self, yet still found the car harder to place than I’d have liked. It’s a sen­sa­tion I re­mem­ber from the car when it was new and it is prob­a­bly in this area – that of pure, sub­jec­tive driver in­ter­ac­tion – that Mclarens of to­day feel most changed.

But they cost twice as much as this once you’ve added a few es­sen­tials from the op­tions list, and this is where the 12C be­comes re­ally in­ter­est­ing. Be­cause for a five­fig­ure sum it is a might­ily tempt­ing propo­si­tion – I might even go as far to say a bar­gain, and it’s not of­ten that par­tic­u­lar word has been used to de­scribe a Mclaren.

In terms of the driving ex­pe­ri­ence on of­fer, it is prob­a­bly 80% of a 570S for 50% of the money. And while it’s prob­a­bly only 60% as ex­cit­ing as the 720S to which it should be more prop­erly com­pared, it’s not much more than one third of the price of a well-specced ex­am­ple.

And re­mem­ber the im­pres­sions above are rel­a­tive to other Mclarens: its per­for­mance and han­dling rel­a­tive to al­most any nor­mal high­per­for­mance car re­main pretty amaz­ing, even to­day.

I’m not say­ing that when the his­tory of Mclaren is writ­ten that the 12C will be re­mem­bered as one of the greats, but it is none­the­less a car with enor­mous ap­peal, and right now, for the very first time, it does rep­re­sent strong value for money. Your first Mclaren may be closer than you think.

The 12C’s re­served styling has aged par­tic­u­larly well Key to the car’s per­for­mance is not just its power but its weight. At just over 1400kg, this is a se­ri­ously light su­per­car.

Cabin still of­fers a sense of oc­ca­sion; en­gine lacks the re­sponse of to­day’s Mclarens

It’s easy to see out of but the steer­ing can make it hard to place

IRIS nav was lam­basted when new, but in the era of Google Maps and Waze it’s al­most an ir­rel­e­vance now.

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