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The purist in me wants to say that under no circumstances is it OK to chop the roof off a sports car, and that in doing so its intrinsic values are undermined. It’s like taking the laces out of Beckham’s boots and then sending him out on the pitch to play.
But there’s a flaw in that belief. Formula One cars don’t have hard roofs. They don’t have roofs at all, last time I checked. And the reason they are still able to do what they do on track is because they were designed to perform from the ground up, with open cockpits.
Which brings me to McLaren’s MP4-12C Spider, or convertible as motoring plebs would call it. Unlike most cars today, where chassis and body structures are one and the same, the MP4-12C gets a MonoCell platform much like a single-seater racing car. Think of it as a carbon-fibre bathtub on to which the engine and suspension systems are mounted. The body panels here are mostly just decorative, and are draped over this bathtub to make it look pretty. Take the roof away and nothing happens. No chassis flex. No scuttle shake. No floppy fish syndrome. No problem.
EASIER ENTRY AND EXIT
The folding hard roof and its electro-hydraulic mechanism are neatly engineered and operate via a simple switch in the centre console. The whole Meccano set tucks simply away into a little cowl in front of the mid-mounted engine, and with the roof erect this skinny little cranny doubles as a stowage compartment. It’s not exactly suitcase-sized, but McLaren does make nifty custom weekend bags that fit in there perfectly - at extra cost of course. There’s also some space in the nose to stow stuff in if need be but this car is by no means holiday transport.
A handy side-effect of the Spider roof when down is that entry and exit become easier as there’s nothing to tip your head under, meaning you can kind of throw yourself into the seats Dukes of Hazzard style. So cool when boarding or disembarking in front of an audience - which is pretty much always with this car.
But, there’s a negative too, in that the dash-mounted touchscreen that displays just about every functioning aspect of the car becomes impossible to read without a roof to shade it. Maybe the sun’s not as bright in the UK where McLarens are designed and built.
WHOOSHES, POPS AND WHISTLES
Having the roof retracted also allows a more direct path for the engine’s audibles to reach your ears, and under full boost there’s a cacophony of whooshes, pops and whistles filling the cabin. That said, I don’t think the McLaren’s 3.8-litre twin-turbo V8 will go down in history as one of the best sounding engines in a supercar. While it’s certainly hurricane loud, there’s just no defining character like, say, a Ferrari V12 or American pushrod V8 would have.
There are a few moments of turbolag, especially if you catch the car napping at low revs but once the turbos start their spool things get blurry. Just ask my girlfriend who didn’t enjoy the game I invented called “swallow your cellphone” as much as I did: Wait for passenger to type an SMS. Boot throttle. Laugh. Repeat.
The rear wheels get plenty of purchase with the weight of the engine over them, but it’s still loose under hard acceleration and a bit of a squirm away from robots will keep you on your toes. For maximum effect I found it best to shift manually at just above 6000rpm, because even though redline comes much later, the engine and gearbox don’t quite gel at full throttle in automatic mode at high revs. The Spider’s powerband is as broad as the side of a barn, but its sweetest spot in my opinion is when the tacho needle’s at 12 o’clock (6000rpm) and short-shifting to keep it there puts thrust at optimum nausea level.
McLaren says 0-100km/h comes up in exactly the same time as in the coupé (3.1 seconds) despite the roof mechanism adding 40kg to the car’s 1400kg kerb weight. Clearly 460kW and 600Nm (as all road-going 12Cs now have) contribute to power-to-weight ratios generously. The Spider’s top speed is quorted marginally slower at 328km/h versus 333 for aerodynamic reasons; traffic on William Nicol Drive, however, prohibited confirmation of this.
But seriously, exploring the limits of an MP4-12C on public roads is an impossibility. This is an extreme performance car, and stretching its legs on normal streets is like Beckham strutting his stuff on a fooseball table. With or without his boots laced.
The Spider starts at R3.7-million and is sold through the Daytona Group’s McLaren showroom in Sandton, Johannesburg. - Star Motoring
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