Driver's Seat: Piloting the McLaren you can't afford

Posted: March 28, 2012

2012 McLaren MP4-12C: What a way to go.

Price: $229,000 base; about $300,000 loaded (If you have to ask ... ).

Conventional wisdom: Edmunds.com says the McLaren uses "high technology and race-proven smarts to deliver otherworldly performance."

McLaren has long built cars for Formula One racing, and recently partnered with Mercedes for the SLR series. But this is its first foray into production vehicles, although it's building only 1,000 MP4-12Cs for the entire world.

Marketer's pitch: "Forget what you know about sports cars."

Reality: After a 10-mile ride, I'd say it lives up to its billing.

It costs more than my house: Robert DiStanislao is a trusting individual.

The president of McLaren of Philadelphia handed over the keys to his own carbon-black McLaren MP4-12C at his dealership outside West Chester, just so I could see what the fuss is all about. I didn't tell him it cost more than my house. I thought perhaps he'd think twice before letting me feel 592 horses motivating less than a ton and a half.

But that's the price DiStanislao is willing to pay to let the public know about his dealership's grand opening today.

Well, he did actually keep the keys in his pocket, because of course a car like this has a starter button. That's not exclusive to this price category.

The McLaren debuted last year as a 2012 model. Only 400 are being sold at a mere 10 dealerships in North America. (Six hundred more are available outside the United States.)

Step inside: The McLaren shopping experience is detailed right down to the showroom floor. DiStanislao seems to delight in recounting how fussy the McLaren leadership is. "These tiles have to be 597mm by 597mm with 3mm of grout," DiStanislao tells me, pointing to the showroom floor. The service bays also sport the same flooring, and are just as immaculate as the showroom.

The meeting: The car itself is a beauty. It's not as stylized as many exotic cars, mainly to keep the weight down (an obsession for Formula One racers), but still has the wedge shape. The engine fills up most of the compartment behind the seats, and huge dual exhausts are incorporated between the taillights.

Open up: Door handles? Those are soooo five-figures. DiStanislao explained to me how to get in: Slide four fingers in a precise way under the typical door handle location, and listen for the door unlatching.

Swipe. "Kachunk." And pull the door up and forward.

Drivers who are taller than 5-foot-10, be warned: The all-glass lower door hangs at just the right height to be a head-banger. It only grazed me.

Getting comfortable: Having turned in the keys to a Mazda Miata MX-5 the same day I drove this, I did have a feel for low-to-the-ground sports cars.

I'm sure the good people of Woking, Surrey - the home base of McLaren - are now completely aghast that I've mentioned the Miata in this story at all. So let me just say: This is no Miata.

Sure, it sits low and the seating position is recumbent. But this was the most comfortable I have ever been in a sports car. (How can I tell after just 10 miles, you ask? It's my job to have a sensitive derriere.)

Getting in gear: A gearshift? That's for commoners. Not only is the MP4 an automatic, but it's a push-button automatic - with seven speeds and a dual clutch for faster shifts. Push the D on the console for Drive, push down the tiny parking brake lever, set the driving mode to Normal, Sport or Track (we chose Sport), and off you go.

On the road: I've had many people ask me "How fast did you go?"

We were on the roads around the dealership, so I'll only say that we never hit the triple digits.

But what's most noticeable is how quickly the McLaren gets you to whatever speed you want to go. Prepare to feel more serious g-forces than you've ever felt, unless you've driven race cars.

The 3.8-liter V-8 twin-turbo propels you from behind to 60 m.p.h. in a cargasmic 3.2 seconds.

On the curves: The McLaren does quite all right off the highway as well. It rode like it was on rails through the country roads of eastern Chester County and western Delaware County.

The padded steering wheel has a couple of bumps right behind the center spoke. Those are fitted to Formula One racer Lewis Hamilton's hands.

Sound system: Yes, there was a stereo. I'm sure it's wonderful, top-of-the-line, crisp and clear.

I was more impressed by a button on the console near the gear selectors that turns the engine sound up or down. DiStanislao said the symphony of cylinders and turbochargers can get old on a long trip. I challenge him to let me find out. Ten miles didn't tire my ears out.

Consumption: The EPA rates the MP4-12C at 15 m.p.g. city and 22 m.p.g. highway, extremely impressive for an exotic. But its carbon fiber monocell chassis keeps weight to a bare minimum 2,860 pounds. As the price of this material comes down, expect to see it in your own car sometime in the future.

Where it's built: Woking, Surrey, England.

How it's built: By hand. And forget the stories about disenchanted British autoworkers of yore. DiStanislao tells me they have access to company fitness centers, personal trainers, and catered meals. These 200 or so people are probably the happiest autoworkers in the world.

In the end: I wonder if I can convince the lovely Mrs. Passenger Seat to sell the house for this baby.

Contact Scott Sturgis at 215-854-2558 or ssturgis@phillynews.com.

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