Race-car speed that’s easy on the body

Warren Brown
Columnist March 3, 2012

I dislike being abused by automobiles, being treated as their inferior, which is how I often feel when I climb out of a Lamborghini, a Ferrari or, sometimes, a Chevrolet Corvette. They are heavy, fast supercars, not for ordinary drivers, which is a large part of their appeal.

I am an ordinary driver. I long ago jettisoned my racetrack fantasies, although I like driving fast whenever possible. And a car that handles exceptionally well, that treats the road as its private dance floor and me as its favorite partner, wins my heart every time.

Warren Brown is a columnist who writes about autos for The Washington Post. View Archive

But I don’t want to be bullied, roughed up by a too-tight suspension weighted with a heavy anti-roll bars — and then being told to “man up” because the abuse done to my little body is typical of that delivered by “real sports cars.” And I’ve never understood or accepted the claim that it is normal for real sports cars to come with a gas-guzzler tax, a graduated federal excise tax applied to cars that fail to get at least 22.5 miles per gallon in combined city-highway mileage.

How ironic is that? You pay big bucks for a supposedly super-engineered automobile that can’t muster 22.5 mpg. Where’s the genius in that? Where’s the engineering?

To me, the perfect sports car has a simple lightness of being. There is an ease about it akin to a quiet conversation with a loved one. When conversation turns to sweaty action, there is an ease about that, too. It is the pursuit of joy instead of the proof of prowess. The conversation ends. The action stops. There is reason to smile.

Can a sports car do that? Yes. I found it here in Riverside, a beautiful little town along the Santa Ana River, adjacent to the San Bernardino Mountains. Riverside fancies itself a “city of arts and innovation,” which is why I suppose my host, McLaren Automotive of Surrey, England, invited me here.

McLaren is an engineering company founded in 1963 to build cars for Formula One racing. It was enormously successful in that endeavor, winning eight Formula One Constructors’ World Championship titles and 12 Drivers’ Championship titles, thus becoming the only race-car manufacturer to win Indianapolis, Can-Am, Le Mans and Formula One crowns.

Mercedes-Benz and several other car companies have gone to McLaren for help in designing and engineering various automobiles. McLaren complied, but it has now decided to produce commercially available road cars on its own.

If the 2012 McLaren MP4-12C coupe (call it the 12C) is an example of what the company intends to offer, I wish it every success. It easily is one of the best-engineered, most driver-friendly, most fuel-efficient and sensible high-performance automobiles I’ve driven. At its core, and separating it from all of its commercial high-performance rivals, is a rigid, lightweight, carbon-fiber “tub.”

The tub forms the basic structure for the 12C’s two-seat, two-door passenger cabin. An aluminum subframe is attached to the front. A twin-turbocharged, 3.8-liter V-8 engine (592 horsepower, 443 foot-pounds of torque) sits between the cabin and rear wheels in an aluminum cradle mounted to the tub’s rear.

The 12C is a relatively lightweight affair, with a curb weight (including automotive fluids) of 3,161 pounds. Many ordinary family sedans beat that number by 900 pounds. Combine the 12C’s power with its rigid, superlight frame and you get a car that moves from 0 to 60 mph in three seconds. And it does all of that without beating you up or rattling your nerves. Credit what McLaren’s engineers call “proactive chassis control” (PCC).

Traditional sports cars are weighted with heavy anti-roll bars to improve vehicle handling, to help them avoid swinging out too far front or rear in fast turns. The improved handling is appreciated. But the ride is miserably compromised. Getting out of a traditional sports car after a long run often leaves the driver ready for nothing except a long sleep.

That isn’t the case with McLaren’s electronically controlled, hydraulically actuated PCC suspension. It is both lightweight and intuitive, providing the right amount of balance and road grip at every turn. It is the most curve-compliant sports car I’ve ever driven. I love it. Of course I do. I love a car that flatters the driver regardless of the driver’s level of competence.

But don’t mistake that to mean that the 12C is a motorized wimp. Its suspension can be adjusted for “normal” or “winter” or “track” driving. And the “track” setting is real stuff. I learned that much in multiple laps at the Auto Club Speedway in nearby Fontana, Calif., with McLaren’s chief test driver, Chris Goodwin, at the wheel.

Had I eaten lunch before climbing into the passenger’s seat next to Goodwin, who enjoys zooming to 130 mph and then hitting the brakes, I would have completely emptied my stomach. But he proved his point. The 12C is as competent on the track as it is usable and pleasant as a daily driver. Even better, it has a combined city-highway mileage of about 25 miles per gallon — my kind of sports car.

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