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MP4 at the RAC – Spring 2012

Recently I had the pleasure of a tour of McLaren’s slightly sinister technology centre at Woking and the opportunity to test drive the latest version of the MP4 at Goodwood and on the roads of the South Downs.

When it was first announced I was excited about a British super car to rival Ferrari. And, at approximately £120,000, I could (with some financial engineering that would make my prudent father choke on his Lidl cornflakes) even dream of owning one.

First impressions were favourable – the MP4 is a fine looking car, particularly in McLaren orange. The stunning curves and compact lines ooze quality and McLaren’s famous attention to detail.  Even before I drove the car I put my name down as a potential customer. But then the Ferrari 458 was launched and McLaren decided to increase the price of the MP4 to match that of the Ferrari – some £170,000 plus. That put the car beyond me and made me wonder if McLaren’s attempt to compete with the Ferrari was wise.

The famously fast Goodwood circuit was the perfect place to test the car’s performance. Despite the insertion of two additional chicanes, the sheer speed of the MP4 was still enough to scare me. Acceleration was brutal, cornering sharp and the brakes superb. Handling was sublime. Not once did the car feel unbalanced even when my journeyman attempts at hard cornering caused the instructor accompanying me to wince. So on the track or at full chat the MP4 is a genuine super car.

But for a car to be a good super car it needs to be more than just dynamically good. As I drove an MP4 around the country lanes near Goodwood the McLaren marketing guy sat at my side assured me that the MP4 was a car you could live with every day. He selected (through a couple of neat and simple knobs on the dash) “normal” suspension and throttle settings and set the car’s gear box to full automatic.  It pootled around quite well but we both knew that no one would pay £170,000 for a car then take it to Tesco. And even if you did you would not be able to get out due to those smart gull wing doors banging the cars next to you. When I was driving the MP4 it wasn’t neighbouring cars that were being clobbered by the doors but my head every time I bent myself into the driver’s seat. I’m only in my forties but after getting in and out of the MP4 all day, I felt several decades older.  Whilst I expect that the MP4 does in comfort mode (or whatever it is called) have a more compliant ride than other super cars, compared to a GT it still feels harsh. This is not a car you would want to drive to the South of France.

But with a super car you don’t really want to drive to the shops, or to the South of France, or do anything sensible. You want to hare around, impress your friends and demonstrate your taste and wealth. Does the MP4 do the trick? Its a fine looking car but (and its been said before) it lacks the drama and charisma of the Ferrari 458. In addition, and crucially, when not on the track it sounds anaemic, like a Kia with a broken exhaust pipe. How could McLaren not have noticed this? McLaren already have to overcome the handicap of a brand lacking the virile rosso glamour of the prancing horse. Pricing the MP4 at the same level as the 458 was brave but undoubtedly leads customers to compare the two cars. By all accounts, the MP4 has the edge over the 458 dynamically. But I suspect to many potential customers that won’t be of overriding importance. For them the 458 will  win the battle on looks, sound and the glamour of that famous badge.

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Bet Greenpeace love the plate..

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