As a refresher, McLaren engineered the MP4-12C in coupe form with an open roof car in mind. That means the carbon-fiber tub needed no extra strengthening for Spider duty, a role that fits a power-operated two-piece folding carbon-fiber roof overhead (it raises and lowers in just 17 seconds, at speeds of up to 20 miles per hour) and features new buttresses reinforced with steel for rollover protection. The weight penalty is but a mere 88 pounds, meaning Spider performance is nearly identical to the coupe.
- Despite my familiarity with the track, McLaren dropped a factory co-pilot in the vehicle with me. While I normally prefer to drive with an empty seat to my side, it was informative listening to his take on the Spider's various drive modes and settings as I put the exotic through its paces. Involuntarily, I was first out on a cold and slightly damp track (I'm driving the black car with a closed-face helmet), certainly not an ideal situation in a 616-horsepower, rear-wheel drive two-seater, but my worries were unwarranted as the racing line dried quickly allowing me to push the 12C Spider to its limit.
- The Active Dynamics Panel, between the passengers, presents the driver with two console-mounted three-position dials allow the suspension and powertrain to be configured independently of each other, in three different modes: Normal, Sport and Track. Switching between the settings brings drastic changes that transform the McLaren from a comfortable GT to a purebred racer (think Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). While I tried all of the combinations, and used the Normal mode on a street run later in the day, I preferred everything in its sharpest Track setting for the circuit.
- The Spider is fitted with a standard seven-speed, automated dual-clutch SSG gearbox. When on a racing circuit, I typically put this type of transmission in track mode and let the on-board computers do the shifting. I wasn't overly impressed with how the McLaren was shifting on its own (it appeared to be caught off-guard at times), so I switched over to manual mode. Most sports cars have a single paddle on each side of the wheel tasked with gear changes. The MP4-12C uses a rocker that passes through the back of the steering wheel. Think of it like a seesaw, which allows one hand to shift the gearbox (with a satisfying mechanical 'click') both up and down by pulling or pressing on the paddles. The design works brilliantly, with shifts that are nearly instantaneous in both directions. Once I gave it a try, I never went back to any automatic mode.
- The McLaren accelerates out of the corners at a dizzying rate that substantiates its sub-three second 0-60 sprint (some sports cars, like the Nissan GT-R, don't feel seat-of-the pants as quick at speed as their test numbers) and allows it to run neck-to-neck with the Ferrari 458 Italia. I was concerned with that much power going through just two contact patches, so I was needlessly cautious on the throttle during the first few corner exits. The Spider puts its power down brilliantly, and brief moments of oversteer coming out of the twisty sections were easy to control with a touch of steering input.
- Carbon-ceramic brakes are optional, but all of the test cars at the track were wearing the standard ventilated and cross-drilled iron rotors hidden inside the optional lightweight 10-spoke forged alloys, that provided formidable stopping power under the track conditions. The MP4-12C uses its (defeatable) four-mode ESC system to close the caliper on the inside wheel while braking into a corner to provide brake steer, thus allowing later brake applications and earlier power delivery on exit. Its effect was unnoticed from the driver's seat, but it unquestionably improved stability and helped to eliminate understeer in the tight sections.
- There was little to fault the McLaren with dynamically or mechanically, but I did have a few nitpicks. First, I would have preferred more aggressively bolstered seats to hold my torso in place during the drive (or install six-point harnesses). Second, the wide door sills combined with the trick dihedral doors made ingress/egress a learned procedure. Lastly, I would choose the optional Pirelli PZero Corsa tires as my primary fitment because the stock PZero rubber, although grippy, was the weak link after 20 minutes of lapping.
- Overall, the MP4-12C Spider was one of the most enjoyable and capable street cars that I have ever driven on a racing circuit. Acceleration, braking and handling were all first-rate, and it seemed effortlessly up to the challenge of being driven hard – a real natural. While many sports car owners with track aspirations avoid the roofless models of their favorite exotics as they are compromised in weight and performance, McLaren's new retractable hardtop Spider doesn't seem to concede in any measurable category. In fact, its arrival almost makes its couple sibling outmoded.