A First Look at the McLaren MP4-12C

Maybe you didn’t know that one of the wonders of the modern world is situated in England, a £9 train ride from Waterloo Station in London.

I discovered this on a recent family visit to Britain, when I took a day to tour the McLaren Technology Center in Woking and drive the 2012 MP4-12C, the road car that this famed racing organization will soon be selling.

The headquarters building, a masterwork of high-drama architecture that houses the racecar operation and (until a new plant is finished next month) the assembly hall for the 12C, is everything one would expect from McLaren: brilliantly conceived, efficiently laid out, unimaginably spotless.

So what kind of a sports car can emerge from an operation of such ruthless perfectionists? For starters, a two-seater with a carbon-fiber chassis that is pretty much half the cost of any previous effort that was so composite-intensive. Never mind that it will do 200 miles an hour or that it’s so civilized you could let grandma drive it in a pinch — the important thing is how much progress it represents toward the application of lightweight materials to mass-produced passenger cars.

The MP4-12C — sounds more like a part number than a model name, doesn’t it? — is also a much more ambitious undertaking than McLaren’s previous runs of the F1 model and the Mercedes SLR. The sparkling new plant will be capable of producing more than 4,000 cars a year, enabling this upstart British enterprise to compete with much of the Ferrari model range.

Some early reports, while praising the 12C’s superb dynamics, have questioned whether a car built according to McLaren principles could be anything but a bloodless robomachine, technologically dazzling but devoid of the character one finds in a Porsche or Ferrari. I say that the performance makes any such concerns moot. This is a car fully capable of speaking for itself.