The Italian Junkyard

Thoughts, ideas, criticism about cars. Interesting news and facts from the world of the automobile. Events in Italy and Modena. What you can find elsewhere, filtered through the eyes of a discerning enthusiast. Design, style, everything on the chopping block. Nobody is safe anymore.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

8.4 McLaren Strikes back: quality time with the brand spanking new McLaren Mp4-12C at the Italian unveiling

I’ve probably been a bit harsh reviewing the new McLaren MP4-12C the first time (Chapter 8.3), and that was probably because I was expecting something more, or something else all together.
Very recently I’ve had the chance to get up close and personal with the new supercar from Woking and the team of personalities behind it. Having a car in front of you is obviously much different than looking at it on television or on your laptop’s monitor, and that means I should try to get invited to these events more often.

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After receiving the invitation for the national unveiling of the new McLaren I was getting more and more excited as days went by, as I thought I’d have never had the chance to spend some time with this car except that at a dealer. McLaren strategy for the reboot of their road going line of cars is quite different and possibly more effective than many other attempts.
If you consider the estimated price is between 190.000 and 210.000 € for the Italian market, this car won’t come cheap at all, but it’s also a far cry from the embarrassing price of the previous McLaren F1. So while it may seem obvious you should try to get as much attention on your car as possible, they’ve figured it would have been more sensible and effective to spent the same budget originally programmed for various international autoshows in quite more national private events like this, were the local press could spend much more time with the car and the McLaren team, while also being closer to potential customers which could see the car in the flesh right after the media event.

While it’s too early to say if this is actually working, it surely was a nicer way to get to know the car. Less people around the car, more time to enjoy it (consider you have barely two days to check the whole display at an international show, while here we got the whole morning just for one car) and the chance to take better shots. The atmosphere was quieter and therefore everything seemed more like a n interesting chat with some friends rather than a formal event. That’s probably also thanks to McLaren’s staff being very gentle and nice.

The new design direction for the brand was everywhere, with contrasting white and black/orange surfaces, replicating the same environment as the one you can find at their website. A silver prototype was exhibited on a boot recreating the same image of the virtual car configurator, also giving more light and depth to the stand. Unfortunately the choice of the lights for the bare chassis was not so lucky, despite being quite artistic.
Waiters were trying to make us comfortable with fresh drinks and pastries the whole time. You can’t beat that.

Enough with the place, the car now. It was quite a widespread opinion that its style was a bit too simple, not really aggressive and sort of obvious, and McLaren Automotive CEO Anthony Sheriff admitted that was exactly what they were looking for. Something typically British and understated, something you could really drive on a daily basis without continuously being in the spotlight at every traffic lights. It surely works on this perspective, being quite less in your face than a Lamborghini Gallardo, and less over-detailed than the Ferrari 458 Italia. On the other hand I’m not very sold on the fact that this car will still be considered so good looking in 20 years as they are. Everyone’s thought at their first contact with the car is that it seems already dated. Well finished, nicely proportionate and good looking, but also old. To be honest, it’s chances may be reassumed in this aspect: the original McLaren F1 isn’t probably as proportioned and elegant or aggressive as its competition, but the fame it gained through its achievements manages to keep it still desirable and incredible to look at. Let’s wish the same fate for the Mp4-12C then.
While I’ve never been a fan of the Gallardo in sort of all of its iterations, I also recently spent some time with a Ferrari 458 Italia, and I have to admit it looks much better and less tacky in the flesh. Especially the front and the tail which were not exactly my favorite parts.
Something similar happened with the MP4-12C, yet I think it lacks of that “twist” to really find a place in your heart and garage. It may suffer from a lack of personality due to the fact that this is a new company at the end of the day and you can well see that in many details borrowed from the iconic F1.

I’m referring to the front wheelhouses which are completely visible when the doors are open, which immediately reminds you of the F1 despite the fact that the older car had the front tires clearly visible with no cover at all. At first I thought they weren’t working visually and that a better solution could have been found. Then while you’re about to sit in the car you notice the refinement on the carbon fiber surface, and suddenly it all makes sense. It’s definitely something you’d expect on a racing car, but on the other hand you’re now in a very roomy cockpit, extremely well finished, with all the commands in the right place and with the right consistency. That’s sort of what you can read about the F1, even if its 3 seat configuration might have helped in this regards. I’ve never liked carbon fiber on the interior on all cars, regardless of the segment, but in this case the design of the console and the overall quality make it works. A very important detail is the color and intensity of the lights. It’s not the usual orange tone you’d find in your average Fiat, like mine, it’s something more like flowing magma pulsing underneath the surface. Something which expresses power and strength, like seeing the air intake for the engine right in the middle of your external rear view mirrors. Who cares about visibility now?

Talking about power, headlights and taillights were a nice detail to capture, but they kept on turning themselves off after a short time, and I had just heard by someone from the staff that they could be turned on again just pressing the START/STOP button on the cockpit. Kids, don’t try this at home, really. While I was sitting on the car, the lights turned off even inside the cockpit, so I decided to turn them back on to take some nice shots. Except that I probably pressed the START button for that fraction of a second longer than what McLaren’s people intended, and at that point I’ve felt something really powerful and intimidating. No, the engine didn’t come to life roaring in a large and mostly empty warehouse, that would have been just epic and the end of my time there too possibly, but me and my cameraman Alberto distinctly felt the crankshaft rotating trying to fire up the cylinders. No one noticed it, but I was really smiling after that. Thing is they previously said it was a non working prototype. Their words, not mine.

Next F1-inspired detail, the glass covering the engine, which doesn’t touch the bodywork in its lower part to help the air to evacuate the engine bay, while a further air vents right after the glass helps the exhaust manifold being cooled down while also recreating the same central panel dividing the engine cover on the F1. Also featured in both cars is the airbrake, an otherwise well integrated wing which is positioned almost vertically when braking hard to provides further load on the rear axle.

What’s interesting is how the tail grille evolved in basically 20 years. First of all now it isn’t as horizontal as it was before, and it now integrated LED taillights. Unfortunately as I thought when looking only at pictures and video, it isn’t exactly the best part of the car. It actually is good looking as a standalone detail, but it doesn’t work with the whole car, it’s a bit too aggressive compared to the rest of the bodywork. The same design is adopted at the front, but possibly because of its smaller dimensions, it’s a bit less problematic. Actually I really like the possibility to have the lower part of the front painted in a different color or to have it in carbon fiber, as it enhances the feeling of a huge air intake devouring air at insane speed, like on a shark. This perception is also improved by the lateral bodywork going under the aforementioned carbon fiber splitter like two powerful jaws, or claws if you prefer. I always love to see references to animals and beasts on road cars. I liked the Bertone Mantinde for a reason.

Now that I mentioned sharks and animals, you should point your attention towards the lateral air intakes. While also being a clear reference to the brand’s badge, they also look very similar to gills, and they are indeed responsible for providing fresh air to cool down the mechanics and to feed the engine as well, me thinks.
The same shape was given to the door’s contour, especially with the door open. What you’d actually notice more easily is the resemblance with the F1 even in this aspect, not only because of the same movement described by the mechanism, which opens the door with a precise and firm trajectory. As on the older car the door also includes part of the sill, so that when it’s open you are basically watching the actual chassis or thereabouts. It’s a nice feeling because it makes you think you’re sitting even deeper in the car, like if you were entering some sort of tactical weapon or a giant Japanese robot. Not sure if its designers were really thinking about this when they designed this part.

So while the side of the car is a nicely proportioned and has quite a classical profile in the sportcars panorama, and while the tail is a bit overaggressive compared to the other parts, the front is a bit … flat. Not only from a geometrical point of view, but it is also completely lacking of any worth of note detail. It feels so empty that the badge is much too evident, and if we ignore for a second the air intakes, the only think you’d be prone to look at are the daytime LEDs, which once again replicate the badge design and at the same time provide a feeling as if you were looking some fiery beast straight in the eyes. The bonnet is flast thought, and so are the wheel arches. There isn’t enough to look at to really consider this car oh so fast and quick when you’ll eventually see it in your rear view mirror. It is fast, so light and so powerful as it is, but it’s a bit too understated as well. Even the McLaren F1 had a pretty simple bodywork, but it also was pretty unique in it segment with that low noise, roof design and those doors. Fortunately for us, they seem to have already worked a little around those air intakes to make them a bit more evident. It also looks like the production car will have some minor differences compared to these prototypes, but nothing really perceivable for us.

This is a bit too refrained from actually being as much a sportscar as its technical counterpart is suggesting. It’s more like a Ferrari F355 rather than an F340. Simpler, more elegant, less showy. It may look like a problem, but on the other hand, playing a little with the online car configurator, you’d find out that there are many suitable colors for this car, and that you could really see yourself buying it in some less then exotic colors contrarily to what you’d do with say a Gallardo. Mine would be metallic brown, or Fire Black as they call it, with black and red interior and dark superlight wheels. Not sure on the color of brake calipers, might go for orange for that bit of additional heritage. Now that I think of it, showcasing a silver car may have been the worst choice when considering an already understated car. Look at those pictures from the 2010 Goodwood Festival of speed, isn’t that orange car much sportier? Except it’s the same car…

Now imagine this car in the middle of the traffic, going to work on an ordinary day, in a way less than ordinary car. It works, much more than what I’d consider with a Ferrari or other Italian gems. It’s closer to an Aston Martin or Jaguar in this regards, while being much faster than them.

It’s an interesting point as quite often other brands were quoted during the press conference, something that among Italian companies is quite of a taboo, something you don’t do otherwise customers will considering other cars too… don’t ask. Regardless, they wanted to make it clear this isn’t designed to be a sum of all of its competitors, because “as good as is not good enough”, as they say. The 12C is supposed to have its own character, its own peculiarities, and no compromises whatsoever. We’ll talk about its technical and mechanical side on the next article on this car (so stay tune).

Now when I look at the car I configured on the website, I really like it, and would probably buy one if only I was in the position of going through such expensive investment, but I’m wondering if that will be enough for the more ordinary car guy out there. The answer is probably no, and it shouldn’t be a problem, because of how customers are eventually chosen, as of now.
Avoiding international autoshows, presenting the car to local journalists during private events and then inviting potential customers to directly see the car and talk with those who are behind this project is on one hand hiding a bit the car from the ordinary/mass public, while it is also moving the car closer to those who are really interested into it. When talking about production figures, McLaren calls for 1.000 units during the first year, while the new factory which is presently being built will have a capacity of 4.000 cars per years. You won’t see 4.000 units of this 12C though, as that capacity will be eventually split between all the future models that McLaren is going to release each year from now on. That’s going to be exciting.

PS: blame Picasa for deciding to resize all the shots from 1920 to 1600 pixel, with some effects on the quality, and blame Google (or Blogger, which is the same AFAIK) for deciding my posts contain too much HTML code, and therefore limiting the number of posts visible on one page.

All Pictures Copyright: Damiano Garro and sara bradshaw for The Italian Junkyard
Except: McLaren Mp4-12C configurator: McLaren Automotive ltd

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