McLaren's Icon-Beater Loses Its Top, Gains More Thrills

2013 McLaren MP4-12C Spider

So far, so good for McLaren Automotive. Since the MP4-12C coupe started deliveries roughly 16 months ago, there are now 1,500-plus more great supercars traveling the roads of our planet. There have been potholes, particularly the hotly awaited initial UK comparison tests in 2011 that (frankly) both we and McLaren felt the MP4-12C would ace versus the Ferrari 458 Italia & Co.

In almost every test, the 570-horsepower Ferrari eclipsed the 592-horsepower MP4-12C and, beyond lap time tenths and hundredths, the victory was based almost purely on emotional issues: disappointing exhaust sounds from the 3.8-liter twin turbocharged V8, clinically efficient chassis responses tempered by little excitement through the steering wheel or seat of the pants, or an exterior that didn't look quite special enough.

While the exterior of the 12C coupe will take a few years to make "more special" (some at Autoblog share in this criticism), creating a spider version with a folding hardtop automatically dices up the styling conversation on any car. So, we arrived in Malaga, Spain, for two whole days of driving madness in what could easily be termed perfect conditions on road and track, and all for the MP4-12C Spider. That's spelled with an "i".

2013 McLaren MP4-12C Spider side view2013 McLaren MP4-12C Spider front view2013 McLaren MP4-12C Spider rear view

In the latter part of 2011, following some internal post-launch confabs regarding whether or not to alter slightly the MP4-12C recipe to bring it to that 458-like eleven on a scale of ten, McLaren upgraded the supercar's engine management to bring horsepower from 592 to today's 616 at 7,500 revs, while leaving torque at 443 pound-feet between 3,000 and 7,000 rpm. Acceleration runs to 60 mph with the optional Corsa tires and carbon ceramic brakes will surely hit 2.9 seconds in the proper hands. Top speed rests at 204 miles per the hour... a performance figure we have yet to test.

The already very light 3,185-pound MP4-12C puts on only 85 pounds more with this two-piece folding hardtop configuration.

There is also a more responsive program for the seven-speed Seamless Shift dual-clutch gearbox, a less chunky shift action from the rocker paddles behind the steering wheel and a much improved level of exhaust sound entering the cabin. Naturally, all of these upgrades are found on this Spider, too. Plus the roof opens wide to let air flow through your hair or over your shining scalp. We needed 30 SPF, for the record.

Setting a new precedent, the already very light 3,185-pound MP4-12C puts on only 85 pounds more with this two-piece folding hardtop configuration, so at 3,270 pounds the Spider is 165 pounds less hefty than the Ferrari 458 Spider when the cars are properly weighed. The McLaren tested here starts at $265,750 while its matchup from Maranello starts at $257,000.

2013 McLaren MP4-12C Spider engine

When development started on the MP4-12C six years ago, the Spider was already an integral part of the program.

When 12C project manager Marcus Youden repeated to us that absolutely nothing has been altered on the chassis, suspension, engine or transmission versus the coupe, we were doubtful for a second. They were effectively telling us that no added masses have been added anywhere on the frame or chassis to account for the overhead Wind Package causing wag in the structure. Every time we asked if this were the case, the answer was an unqualified "No." Such is the luxury of having an already rigid structure and subframing, and of having created an exceptional carbon fiber passenger tub. The truth is that when development started on the MP4-12C six years ago, the Spider was already an integral part of the program, hence the lack of change between the fixed and folding roof versions.

Lo and behold, to the seat of our pants, the spider version of the 12C is a better package in many subtle ways than the coupe (just as we believe with the Ferrari 458). There is only one issue with this configuration that we'd like McLaren to look at more closely, but all other bits and pieces in the mix are pretty thoroughly right.

2013 McLaren MP4-12C Spider wheel2013 McLaren MP4-12C Spider buttresses2013 McLaren MP4-12C Spider engine cover2013 McLaren MP4-12C Spider rear spoiler

We get the image in our collective head of a flat lizard clambering across a rough stone surface with seemingly little effort.

The driving position and seating comfort in the MP4-12C are probably our favorites in the whole world of sports cars. Our tester in Supernova Silver came with optional power seats, which aren't really needed but are more of a popular "want" item. As to the positioning itself of the seats, placing all dual-zone climate control knobs and window opening controls on the door-side armrests is a stroke of genius, especially in this very narrow configuration. This not only lets the center console stay elegantly slim, it also shifts the seats – and the humans sitting in them – closer to the center of the car. It's a philosophy that made our inner ear feel even more in sync with what was actually going on below as we thundered down the sun-splashed Spanish roads, just four Pirelli P Zeros – 235/35 ZR19 91Y front and 305/30 ZR20 99Y rear – separating us from really severe road rash.

As we have always noted regarding the non-presence of anti-roll bars on the McLaren ProActive Chassis, the MP4-12C's ride is uniquely sensational over any asphalt surface. We get the image in our collective head of a flat lizard clambering across a rough stone surface with seemingly little effort. All forward progress carries merrily on without perceptible letup – even when the road is strewn with lumps. We repeatedly monkeyed with the two key rheostat knobs on the center console – one for chassis feel and one for powertrain responses – and when we were alone on the road without traffic, we preferred the chassis in Sport and the powertrain in Track. But we also tooled along with everything in Normal and the transmission in fully automatic mode and found it good and relaxing.

2013 McLaren MP4-12C Spider interior2013 McLaren MP4-12C Spider seats2013 McLaren MP4-12C Spider paddle shifter2013 McLaren MP4-12C Spider driving modes

We could easily drive the McLaren all day long, while doing so in the 458 Spider or Porsche 911 would be a little forced.

And this ends up being the MP4-12C Spider's great distinction from others in this hornet's nest of a market segment: we could easily drive the McLaren all day long, while doing so in the 458 Spider or Porsche 911 would be a little forced. To go along with the sensations of the seating orientation within the comfy carbon tub, the low-down edge of the windscreen creates unrivaled visibility benefits, which in turn create masses of confidence in knowing what's going on at your corners and in your immediate vicinity.

The steering is also to be praised, all the more so because we knew where everything is at spatially due to the aforementioned great visibility. We haven't felt this effortless in our pointing and shooting in any other similarly conceived supercar. And with the opened roof, one's oneness with the outside world is only further accentuated. Throw in the deft Brake Steer for entering and executing fast curves with virtually no understeer at all, and the good responses just get better.

Autoblog Short Cuts: 2013 McLaren MP4-12C Spider

Roof down, wind noise while at or above 80 miles per hour borders on unacceptable.

That one thing with the MP4-12C Spider that is out of whack with the rest of all this rolling glory? With the roof open and the long rear buttresses being the highest members behind the top of the windscreen, wind noise while traveling at or above 80 miles per hour borders on unacceptable. Oddly, buffeting in the seating area is never a problem, it's the thundering wind noise itself that is bothersome. Playing with the retractable rear glass, keeping the side windows up and otherwise fiddling with whatever controls are in your power doesn't help either. The best setup overall at higher speeds is roof up and rear glass down... but this is a spider and it shouldn't necessarily have to be that way, no?

The exhaust sound in the revamped MP4-12C coupe is definitely improved with McLaren's post-launch upgrades, with more sweet sounds entering the cabin (the most sound entering overall is in Track mode). But now the Spider gets the real benefits of all this with that open top (twelve seconds to open, ten to shut btw), and even with just the rear glass down. The sound from the twin-turbo 3.8-liter V8 is geometrically better, and we found several really good, long tunnels out in the middle of nowhere for useless downshifting and thrill-seeking redline acceleration. Though top speeds in each gear happen around 7,500 revs, we took our tunnel testing to 8,500 revs in Track mode with manual shifts. It was suddenly the seaside tunnel at Monte Carlo on race day.

2013 McLaren MP4-12C Spider driving2013 McLaren MP4-12C Spider driving2013 McLaren MP4-12C Spider driving

The spider body gains 1.8 cubic feet of cargo space over the MP4-12C coupe, with added storage possible under the tonneau panel.

Finally, one added feature in the MP4-12C's gestation is this definitive version of the company's onboard computer display with satellite navigation. The system handles only navigation, music and other media and phone functions, which is just as it should be. There remain a couple software bugs in the sat-nav, but at least the system was at last there to actually play with. How this rather simple system has taken so long to get right is a bit confusing to us, but it's on its way and the graphics and various interfaces are good and quick-thinking. The portrait-style orientation of the screen versus landscape is a particularly pleasing touch we'd like to see more of in other cars.

A word of praise is due for the roof mechanism in that it is theoretically meant to go up or down when asked at speeds up to 19 mph, but it continues putting the roof all the way up or down even when we err close to 30 mph. That is, instead of freezing the roof halfway up or down and making the driver look like a major dork, it finished the job for us. Another cool cue is that the spider body gains 1.8 cubic feet of cargo space over the MP4-12C coupe, with added storage possible under the tonneau panel when the roof is up.

2013 McLaren MP4-12C Spider rear 3/4 view

McLaren projects a whopping 95-plus percentage preference for the Spider over the coupe for worldwide deliveries.

While all of the current new MP4-12Cs on the roads of Earth are coupes, as of this writing McLaren projects a whopping 95-plus percentage preference for the Spider over the coupe for deliveries worldwide, which start in the U.S. at the end of January 2013 (the States accounting for 40 percent of all 12C sales). That sounds crazy, but the McLaren folks assured us that that huge shift is not going to change by much at all from here on out.

For a true passenger car startup, McLaren Automotive has already arrived in just two years' time to meet and outgun brand icons that have been around for several decades. We think critics of this effort really ought to keep this in mind while railing against the Woking-based company for whatever reasons they might have. And with the tweaks in place, the MP4-12C is now winning a lot of those comparison tests, as well. The company's achievements in this brief lifespan are frankly unrivaled in recent supercar lore, and the McLaren MP4-12C Spider stands as the optimal expression of this confidence.

That is, of course, until the company's scorching P1 super-exotic bombshell hits within the second half of 2013. Hold on very tightly.