x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

McLaren's incredible MP4-12C just got even better by losing its roof

McLaren has come up trumps yet again, making its MP4-12C supercar even more desirable by removing its roof.

The rear lines of the MP4-12C Spider, especially with the roof stowed, make the car look longer and, arguably, more dramatic than the coupé it's based on. Courtesy McLaren Automotive
The rear lines of the MP4-12C Spider, especially with the roof stowed, make the car look longer and, arguably, more dramatic than the coupé it's based on. Courtesy McLaren Automotive

For 50 years, McLaren's bread-and-butter business has been making cars without roofs, so it was hardly a surprise that the job of lopping the top off the MP4-12C coupé has been done so incredibly well that it will give anyone in the market for a rear-mid-engined V8 exotic a real headache. Because - and let's make no bones about this - McLaren is in direct, fierce competition with the Prancing Horse, both on and off the F1 circuit. As such, it seems that every part of the MP4-12C Spider has been bred to be just a little bit better than its rival, the exquisite Ferrari 458 Spider.

In fact, one of the first points that Mark Harrison, the regional director for McLaren's Middle East and Africa operations, was keen to make was about the roof of the Spider. In a spectacular show of engineering and, dare I say it, one-upmanship, the boffins at McLaren have developed a two-piece retractable hardtop that not only still allows the 3.8L V8, twin turbo power plant to show off its wares through a Perspex engine cover, but can also be operated at speeds up to 48kph - two things its Maranello rival cannot do. Equally, thanks to its unique carbon "monocell" tub design, the MP4-12C Spider has only achieved a positively anorexic 40 kilogram weight gain.

Adding further insult to its rival's injury, the company is offering a bespoke luggage set that fits right inside the empty 52-litre cavity when the roof is in place. It ships as standard with every car and you might need it too, as there is very little storage space in the actual cabin. As if it matters at this level, it also rolls off the forecourt for slightly less money than the Italian stallion.

Glinting in the sunlit car park of the Hatta Fort, in a range of colour schemes from the sedate to the screamy, the McSpider is an extremely good-looking car. With similar, but slightly more pronounced, roll-safe buttresses than those on the 458, framing the 625hp M838T engine, the MP4-12C Spider is far more visually dramatic than the coupé. It almost looks longer. McLaren has even managed to maintain its dihedral door arrangement, a slight poke, perhaps, at the obvious inability of Mercedes to attach its iconic gull wing to the SLS Convertible. The big Mac, it seems, is not content with just turning Italian stallions into Tesco burgers, but wants to make mincemeat out of all of its droptop rivals.

I press the brake and prod the start button. The engine whirrs into life and the car feels alive. As the epic V8 behind my head idles, almost growling with its low, rumbling timbre, the high-pitched whine of the twin turbos almost makes the Spider seem as if it is breathing. Even more so when you put your foot to the carpet, let the thing redline before easing off the throttle and just let the engine wind itself down. It's captivating stuff.

Despite driving the coupé about a year ago at Yas Island and loving the way it handled, the power delivery, the clever pre-cog gear changes and all of the science behind the car, I still left the track feeling it was a bit too clinical; very much a driver's car, but lacking that skittish playfulness you often get with its Italian rivals.

But now, under a flawless Hatta sky, with rangy, sweeping bends and beautiful, long, straight roads and, perhaps more importantly, without a roof, the McLaren has become something far more visceral.

As in its design, the performance of the car is understated; there is none of the supercar brutality as you imperceptibly shift up the seven-speed twin-clutch, Graziano-developed SSG gearbox, and under braking there is little or no fuss and not a single hint of oversteer in tight corners - unless, of course, you want there to be. But even then it feels controlled. This is in no small part down to a raft of F1-inspired electronics and the same double wishbone suspension that can be found in its coupé stablemate, with its hydraulically linked adaptive dampers meaning that, even in the hardest of the car's settings, the ride quality and handling is nigh on perfect.

For that reason, the car remains exciting but feels utterly unflappable, almost like I am driving in a specially designed "hero mode", guaranteed to make me feel like Jenson Button behind the wheel, but without the possibility of imminent death.

When I do give the car its steam, turbo lag is non-existent and there are vast reserves of power just waiting for a lead foot to set it loose, so there is never that embarrassing moment where you stutter into a roundabout, gaping with fear at the four speeding Land Cruisers that suddenly appear from the left and wait for the power to kick in. Pedal it and it goes - all too easily past 200kph - without even breaking a sweat, and the driver barely noticing the needle ticking to the second half of the speedometer.

With just the right amount of feedback, the immense road holding and, of course, the V8 choir singing out behind me, I couldn't think of a better place to be than in the cabin of this car. It is luxuriously well appointed and you can feel the quality of the manufacturing in every surface, but most importantly it is incredibly comfortable for a car in this category. Except once you hit the motorway with the roof down.

On open, twisty, mountain roads, the drop-top option is incredible but, despite the best efforts of McLaren, I experience considerable buffeting on the motorway approach to Dubai. However, once that roof goes up (in about 17 seconds), you are as cosseted as you would be in the coupé. But that also includes being isolated from the V8's heady aural pleasures.

To counter this, a simple, rear glass window that doubles as a wind deflector can be lowered at the touch of a button. Do so when the roof is up and the full spectrum of firing pistons, whooshing turbos and hissing waste gates fills the cabin to offer the sonic entertainment but without the unsolicited exfoliating facial provided by the dusty desert wind. The company has also developed a somewhat gimmicky "Intake Sound Generator" that enhances the engine noise in the cabin to levels set by the driver, with nuances further based on the three driving modes: Normal, Sport and Track.

There are other tweaks and additions from the coupé, too, such as new cosmetic options that include a greater choice of wheel designs, some flashy new colour schemes and an entirely new line of interior materials. It also benefits from more technical improvements, chief among them being a newly remapped performance package that, among other things, squeezes the power of an additional 25hp out of the engine and offers even sharper responsiveness from the gearbox. It's the same package that is being rolled out in the 2013 iteration of the coupé and, remarkably, for free to existing customers whose cars were built before the update.

When you see videos on YouTube of Chinese billionaires smashing up their Gallardos with gay abandon and heavy sledgehammers because they are upset at the way a simple door handle issue has been mismanaged by the local dealership, and then McLaren comes along with its almost fanatical perfectionism and offers this kind of customer service, it does more than just muddy the waters of the buyer's purchasing decisions.

Add to that the fact that the McLaren is a comfortable, reasonably practical, yet still thrilling car capable of everyday use, if you are in the market for a mid-engined V8 rocket, you'll definitely be reaching for the Panadol. There is, after all, a number of options available to you and they're all to be recommended on some level or other.

And I sympathise with anyone trying to make up their mind, because if someone had asked me 12 months ago which car in this class I would sell my right kidney to afford, with scalpel in hand I would have already chosen the Rosso Corsa paintwork and purchased the branded-PUMA driving shoes. But, because the MP4-12C Spider makes such a compelling argument for buying British, and offers such a completely different, yet no less exciting, driving experience, I am left wondering: how much would I get if I sold everything I could lay my hands on? Right here, right now, this McLaren gets my vote - it's potentially the most complete, most desirable car available anywhere, at any price.