Mark Antar Design
OK, I know I'm not that good. I've just smoothly ricocheted off massive checkered curbs like Button through the Nouvelle Chicane, grenaded my 14.5-inch iron Vise-Grips to my left quads' limits, turned in with superlative grace, and successfully pointed my convertible's nose in what is usually a stressful double-apex sweeping right-hander. I came out in one piece. More importantly, my $300,000-plus hand-built ride did too. My brow is dry. No glute muscles were pulled. I can almost feel the grin on my instructor's face. At least, I hope he's grinning. Now, at the start of a quarter-mile straight, my lack of tunnel vision has the lay of the land clearly in view. I find myself recalculating my impending braking points, downshifts, apex approaches, and helm rotations while jockeying the 2013 McLaren 12C Spider in a straight line. I need to be quick with my estimates. I had driven the interior course at Auto Club Speedway in Fremont, California, before, strapped into a Toyota Celica race car. I might as well have been on a moped. Britain's latest drop-top athlete is on a whole other performance planet.
"Full throttle! Full throttle!" my eager co-pilot yells. Having the McLaren's Powertrain Dial in Track mode means the exhaust is in full banshee cry, and I can barely hear him. The note is more roar than blissful song (ahem, a la Ferrari 458 Italia). It's beyond lovely, even with the windows up, the roof in place, and my helmet on. In the slim rearview mirror, I watch the tail's active "air wing" retract into the composite body. Unabated speed is on the 12C's agenda now, although I anticipate it being brief. Clicking off upshifts is a violent affair. This most aggressive drive mode quickens the seven-speed dual-clutch's shift speeds to near Formula 1 levels. A small, barely perceptible click of the right paddle manifests surge after surge of relentless forward momentum. It's not the cornering that encourages my pores to leak and my adrenal gland to shrivel -- it's the voracious straight-line speed, the sense of never-ending thrust, that's affecting my physical state. All 442 lb-ft of torque from the 616 hp, 3.8-liter twin-turbo V-8 come at a mere 3000 rpm, and in third gear, I'm hitting 115 mph. Time to turn left, my brain commands. It's a near 90-degree elbow, my eyeballs notice.
The brakes are pure muscle. They grab hold with the slightest of pedal touches and have so far shown no signs of tiredness. The backend squats down, a clear sign that I'm giving the air wing a proper workout. It's as if Andre the Giant jumped on the Spider's haunches. "Be progressive with the wheel! Easy, easy!" the pro racer beside me shouts. Having such a responsive nose necessitates a judicial doling of steering inputs. Give too much rotation and I'll likely miss your apex. Give too little and I'll simply plow. The helm returns a light tug, but has a clarity exhibited by few sports cars. The exhaust roar grows as second gear blips the tach needle past the mill's 8500 rpm max. Pirelli's bespoke McLaren compound adheres amazingly well to the pavement, but credit must also be given to the 12C's Proactive Chassis Control (active dampers with no anti-roll bars; intuitive ESC) that keeps all body roll, all understeer, all encounters with the gravel pit at bay. There is always a sense that some computer safety program -- even in the most lenient modes, with traction control off -- will correct my failings, which is great for preserving life, limb, and the six-figure convertible supercar. But for those yearning for superb clarity between human and machine, well, the 12C lacks such personality.
Fifteen minutes later, I'm on Interstate 15 headed west in the middle of Friday afternoon traffic. Normal drive modes for the powertrain and chassis are mandatory here. Things like gearshifts and throttle responsiveness get numbed, the exhaust's noisiness dies down, and the suspension softens to near Lexus IS350 comfort. It's uncanny. The McLaren does a complete 180 in character at the twist of two knobs. From 'roid raging exotic to newborn kitten in milliseconds. It's that drastic of a change. Compared to the 2012 coupe we tested at last year's Best Driver's Car competition, the Spider's cabin is quieter and allows for barely any exhaust drone inside. It's more comfortable, too, and looks and feels as if all first-year aches and pains have been meticulously massaged out. Rancho Cucamonga's streets are smooth and its stoplights are efficient. But they do offer just enough time for me to drop the top for some sun – 17 seconds, McLaren says. If necessary, the top can be folded at speeds up to 19 mph. Keep it up to gain access to a neat cubby behind the seats that can easily swallow a small duffel for weekend getaways.
Engineers made two neat changes to the Spider's systems: Once the top is dropped, both the Meridian surround sound and automatic climate control modify their programs. The former gets louder, while the latter sends air to lower vents. Today's two-hour track and street drive hasn't really shown me anything new when it comes to the dynamics of McLaren's latest and greatest (until the P1 arrives). Sure, the Spider is marginally quicker and sharper than the already lithe coupe from 2012. But put anyone other than a test driver behind the wheel, and I bet they can't tell the difference. Instead, my drive has reconfirmed that McLaren builds a first-rate, electronics-laden, sexily styled, cutting-edge sports car that's capable of safely catapulting passengers to ridiculous speeds around a circuit, whether they carry a license from the FIA or Chuck E. Cheese. And when they're through, they'll go home without ringing ears and achy backs. Dry brow. Clear vision. Face grinning. Hair messy. Ears feasting on near-pornographic noises. It's how you do surreal speed in the 12C Spider. It might not be the most engaging method of four-wheeled momentum, but it sure is a brilliant one.