McLaren MP4-12C

We get an exclusive UK drive in McLaren's MP4-12C supercar, taking it up the hill at the historic Goodwood Festival of Speed

Overall Auto Express Rating

5.0 out of 5

Our brief yet explosive encounter with the MP4-12C was enough to prove the 458 Italia’s crown is under threat. But while their performance figures and price are similar, the gulf between them is greater than you’d think. Yes, the McLaren is incredibly fast, but it’s set apart by its superb ride. For the company’s first independent road car in nearly 20 years, it’s astonishing.

Driving any model at Goodwood is an experience to be savoured. But negotiating the famous West Sussex hillclimb in the world’s newest, most advanced supercar is the opportunity of a lifetime.

Blasting up a 1.1-mile driveway at the Festival of Speed preview day is unlikely to tell us too much about McLaren’s first true road model since 1994’s F1. Yet it will help answer one question: is this better than Ferrari’s 458 Italia?

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Our run begins in a lengthy queue at the start line. Normally we’d be waiting impatiently, but here it’s the perfect opportunity to get acquainted with the MP4-12C. While the 458’s cockpit is superbly finished, its steering wheel is cluttered with indicators, suspension settings, a starter button and five-stage Manettino traction control dial. For ease of use it can’t match the McLaren, where the wheel is just a wheel!

What’s more, the ventilation controls are set in the door to free up the centre console for a large touchscreen and a pair of three-stage dials to adjust the handling and powertrain. From the outside, the MP4-12C certainly doesn’t trump the 458’s aggressive elegance. But even surrounded by other attention-grabbing supercars, its restrained styling still packs a punch.

We’re next to go! Helmet on the engine is idling smoothly and the handling and powertrain dials are turned to the most extreme ‘Track’ setting. The flag falls and we drop the throttle. Two upshifts and a few blurry seconds later, a number of things have become clear.

This car has a fantastic deep-chested roar, but can’t compete with a 458’s shriek. The gearbox, however, is a masterpiece: smooth in auto mode and ferociously quick on manual shifts. The paddles are two-stage as well: pull half way to prepare the next cog, all the way to engage it.

Under full braking – which is phenomenally strong due to ceramic discs and a pop-up air brake – if you hold the left paddle, it automatically selects the perfect gear to match the engine speed.

For now, we focus on keeping this £168,500 car on the road. At the first right-hander we find the light steering is brimming with feel, if not quite as quick as the 458’s. Then it’s back on the accelerator to rocket up a long straight.

It’s about now that we realise just how quick this McLaren is – faster than anything this side of a Bugatti Veyron. The figures back it up, too – but right now, our squashed organs and sweaty palms tell us all we need to know.

Something doesn’t quite add up here, though. Through corners, the McLaren stays just as flat as a 458, but on the straight bits it rides beautifully. It’s all down to a new hydraulic suspension set-up which does without anti-roll bars, so allowing each wheel to move completely independently.

In bends it senses the car trying to roll, firms up the corner in question and keeps everything fast and level. As we cross the line, it’s hard to believe our meeting is already over, but the unparalleled mix of pace, comfort and drama has got under our skin. Is the MP4-12C better than a 458?

On paper, yes – but in reality, it’s too close to call. We’ll have to wait until we drive both cars head-to-head for the definitive verdict.

Rival: Ferrari 458 Italia Jaw-dropping styling, Enzo-beating pace and razor-sharp handling... the 458 has it all. Our reigning Performance Car of the Year is the best V8-engined Ferrari ever.

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