If you spend some time in upscale Beverly Hills, you’ll likely see a Ferrari parked curbside in the shopping district. Drop by on a busy Saturday, and you might just spot several, along with one or more Lamborghinis.
Yes, folks in 90210 can get jaded about exotic cars, if they even bother to look up from their latte or black truffle risotto to notice them. High-end sports cars are just part of the landscape, right along with designer clothing and cosmetic surgery.
But as I tooled down Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Drive, and Olympic Boulevard in the McLaren MP4-12C recently, I got a few double-takes. The car wasn’t even painted a flashy color, but it didn’t matter. The new exotic in town got noticed. This is the United Kingdom’s answer to the Ferrari 458 Italia: a rakish, mid-engine supercar that costs several times the average annual salary in the U.S.
First, a bit of history: McLaren is a name steeped in racing, founded by New Zealander Bruce McLaren in the 1960s. The company had racing success almost right off the bat, winning Formula 1 grand prix events, the Indianapolis 500, the North American Can Am series, and even the 24 Hours of Le Mans in just a few short years. To this day, a McLaren has won one out of four F1 grand prix races it’s entered.
And every once in awhile, the company in Woking, England builds a road car. In the early 1990s, it was a three-seat exotic called the McLaren F1. About a decade later, they teamed up with Mercedes-Benz to create the Mercedes McLaren SLR, in both coupe and roadster form.
For 2012, they’re launching an all-new car called the MP4-12C. That alphabet soup moniker follows the way they designate their Formula 1 cars. No fancy made-up name; just a bunch of letters and numerals to denote which project it is.
When you first see the new McLaren, it looks both familiar and different. Familiar in that it’s laid out in the same manner as Ferrari and Lamborghini’s supercars, with the engine placed just behind the cockpit for ideal weight distribution. The nose is short and chiseled, and huge tires sit at each corner.
What you can’t see in the MP4-12C is its central tub, made of exotic carbon fiber. Racing cars have been using this type of structure for decades, with yes, McLaren itself being the first to implement it back in 1981. (It was originally developed for the aerospace and aviation industries.)
The structure is extremely strong, very rigid, and most importantly, featherweight by automotive standards. With that and the extensive use of aluminum most other places, the MP4-12C tips the scales at under 2,900 pounds.
Light weight and efficient power are what win races in most series (not necessarily in NASCAR, unfortunately), and here too McLaren has applied what it’s learned on the track. The twin-turbo V8 under the rear deck is merely 3.8 liters in displacement, yet puts out 592 horsepower. Compare that to one of the darlings of high-performance V8s these days, the supercharged one in Cadillac’s awesome CTS-V. GM’s engineering prowess has produced a motor that’s just 26 horsepower shy of the one in the McLaren, but it needs 6.2 liters to do it.
McLaren’s head honcho Ron Dennis is quite proud of the fact that his company’s new supercar puts out that kind of thrust (which gets the car to 60 mph in around three seconds), yet is not subject to a federal gas guzzler tax, as pretty much every other exotic is.
During a brief drive around the Santa Monica mountains, the car’s “launch control” system was demonstrated to me. Essentially, the central computer lets you accelerate as fast as is possible, controlling wheel spin, shift points, and so on. I have never in my life experienced such accelerative force in a street car; the blood rushed from my head until I wisely backed off the throttle.
Sure, it’s $229,000 (base price), and isn’t all that practical with only two fairly tight seats. But when you can accelerate like something competing in a professional drag race, as well as turn heads in downtown Beverly Hills, you’re at the wheel of something really special.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz, Facebook: ABC7Dave