Swipe… Swipe… Swwwwwipe… Swiiiiiiipe… Swp… As I stand in the rain trying to gain access to the MP4-12C I can’t help feeling that this is a bit like one of those hotel key cards that you have to insert and then remove at a certain rate to make the little light go green. Or the petrol station loyalty card with the worn magnetic strip that requires a precise 3.7mph pace through the reader in order to be accepted. I can see why McLaren thought it would be fun and interesting to have no door handles and part of me still thrills at the witchcraft of it when it works. When it works…
The honest truth is that I’m standing on a wet Welsh hillside, repeatedly wiping dirty water from the paintwork of a supercar and looking like a bit of a numpty, so eventually I give up and gain access by plipping the unlock button twice on the key (an interim update that McLaren installed on MP4-12Cs as a precursor to the insertion of the small rubber button that arrived later, replacing the swipe entry altogether). Hop across the large sill, drop into the carbon tub and instantly all the effort to gain access feels worth it. The view out is just fantastic. Without sitting in the middle (and who would design something crazy like that?) the sight lines couldn't be better.
Shut the door, realise it hasn’t shut properly, release it upwards and then slam it down wincingly hard. Try to enter a destination into the sat-nav, give up after about five minutes, rest your iPhone neatly on the screen instead. Look for the test match on 5 Live Sports Extra before realising that there is no DAB. So many little quirks (faults) that must have driven Ron Dennis to the brink of apoplexy. And it must have taken an iron will not to simply update and fix all of them on this car, build number one, which is still owned by the factory. Yet I’m so glad that RX11ONM has remained frozen in time, retaining all these original foibles, because it serves as an apposite reminder of just how far the company has come since the first McLaren road car (of the modern era) was built just five years ago.
I realise too, that I’m talking about this original 12C as though it’s some sort of ancient relic with a cranking handle poking out of its nose, when one sustained depression of the accelerator is enough to wipe the smile off all but the most extreme supercars. The 12C has always felt indecently quick. I remember journeys in early 12Cs where I would have to almost re-learn roads I knew quite well, simply because the car was travelling so fast.
In fact, I can’t help wondering whether Ferrari wouldn’t have postponed forced-induction and stuck with a naturally aspirated engine for the 488 had McLaren not re-written the rules with its 3.8-litre turbocharged V8. Probably not, but I’m quite sure it made Maranello sit up and pay close attention to Woking.
I’m shocked by how light the steering feels and how remote the whole car is in many respects, but leave the Active Dynamics Panel alone and the anti-roll bar-less suspension soaks up bumps, particularly the bigger ones, with an ease that belies its low slung shape. This is why it was such a good companion on long multi-day journeys and why it managed to soak up preposterously rugged terrain (like the Atlas mountains…). Wales today is no problem for it and it’s fun getting re-acquainted – although as I barrel towards a corner behind the 675LT and then jump on the left-hand pedal, I get a reminder of how squirmy the 12C can get under braking. The rear wing is standing to attention in the rear view mirror, but nonetheless a couple of degrees of steering angle are required to keep things totally straight as the siped tread blocks on the winter tyres struggle. Time to try the 675LT.
Some things have remained. The wonderfully thin and sculpted steering wheel, for example, famously modelled on the ergonomics of Hamilton’s helm in his weekend car. The two pedals are still perfectly placed if you want to use your left foot for braking. That view out is still as visually liberating as putting on new glasses for the first time.
Other things however have changed. The interior climate is controlled via the central screen and speakers now fill the original control housings in the doors. The sat-nav works. The paddle action is lighter and the attendant click less intrusive. The doors can be closed without a slam. And where I apparently sounded like I was underwater or a robot (or just occasionally a robot underwater) when talking to people via the Bluetooth connection in the 12C, I managed to have a perfectly clear telephone conversation in the 675LT. With the roof down. At speed.
The steering is so much more taught and encouraging. No longer is there the need to really lean on the tyres in order to know where the front end is. The whole car is so much flatter through corners and responsive to inputs, yet it’s still a car that you could do a long journey in. Yes, it feels like there is about half the travel in the suspension, so wheel movements happen with more rapidity, but the quality of the damping remains, so it’s not harsh or abusive in its ride quality. Flick it into a corner and the front just sticks and settles, enabling you to play with the rear as much as you want.
Of course the engine has more power (74bhp to be precise) but to be honest that’s not what stands out. It’s the response and sound that are markedly different. The original is fast enough to make you hold your breath when it’s on boost, but can feel laggy in terms of throttle response. Not so the LT, which has instant eagerness. Even more impressive is the character that McLaren has extracted from the engine. The sound is less wooly and has a harder edged intent. It can’t match the yowl of a naturally aspirated engine, but the trick up its sleeve is the gear change in Sport mode. The software cuts the ignition but keeps fuelling as the ratios swap, meaning the unburnt petrol ignites with a percussive report if you get it right. It might sound contrived, but although it’s engineered in it doesn't feel fake. The proof of how much more engaging the LT is, came when I got in to go home from Wales at the end of the shoot – there was no question that I was finding the wriggliest, most interesting way possible, even if it did take longer.
Nuanced things like steering feel and an emotional connection to the car are not, on the evidence of the industry at large, the work of a moment to engineer in. Yet McLaren has managed it, and managed it while launching about half a dozen other cars in between the MP4-12C and the 675LT. Looking back on it now, the original car was almost trying to be all things to all people – McLaren trying to prove it could do it all in one car. I would say that all its Sport and Super series cars are still remarkably good all-rounders, but perhaps the most appealing cars it produces are the ones where the brief has narrowed a little: the LT series cars and the new 570GT (which now feels perhaps closest in ethos to the original MP4-12C in my opinion).
Where will McLaren take its road cars next? 2017 will see the product line-up come full circle for the first time with the launch of the all-new new Super Series model, code named P14. Given how essentially the same model has morphed so dramatically over five years, I can’t wait to see what they do with a clean sheet of paper.
Photography by Dean Smith