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The McLaren 12C Spider narrows the gap to the Ferrari 458 - particularly in drop-top form - to negligible

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We wouldn’t usually run another road test on a supercar, in this case the McLaren 12C Spider, just because it had been de-roofed since we first drove it, but such are the depth of changes that McLaren has effected on the 12C since we road tested it in June 2011 that it seems worth revisiting.

Prior to the 12C, McLaren’s only standalone sports car was the F1 – the 1992-1998 sports car that astonished the world, could reach the far side of 235mph, hit 60mph in 3.2sec and 100mph in 6.3.

McLaren's fine attention to detail is evident everywhere

And although McLaren was heavily involved in the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren, it would be 17 years after Autocar’s 1994 road test of the F1 before we were able to road test a pure McLaren again.

It wasn’t like the 12C was anything like a failure the first time around: we awarded it a 4.5 star rating, just half a star shy of our maximum score. But also, painfully, half a star shy of the rating we’d given the Ferrari 458 Italia, and we were hardly alone.

If you were in the market for a sub-£200k mid-engined supercar, we reasoned, Maranello would be where to send the cheque.

Since then, however, McLaren has been beavering away to make changes with the kind of speed that only a motorsport-based team can envisage, and this Spider – which was always in the model plan - has arrived with a number of alterations over the launch-spec 12C.

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Let’s see if what difference they, and the hood, makes.

DESIGN & STYLING

McLaren 12C Spider xenon headlights

Among the changes that McLaren has made for the Spider is to drop the clumsy “MP4” part of its moniker, so that it is now simply titled 12C Coupe or, in this case, Spider. 

Visually, the attachment of a folding solid roof has precious little difference to the lines of the 12C. It is still, to our eyes, a relatively attractive shape and one which is ageing gracefully enough, but one that even now gets people looking because it’s a McLaren, not looking because of the way it’s designed. 

The engine bay is neatly hidden under a glass cover

Then, McLaren has always been a company to err on the understated side of things.

Efficiency of performance is more of a McLaren trademark, so you’ll probably not be surprised to learn that the numbers on structural rigidity of the roofless 12C were all worked out well in advance of the coupe’s launch and that, even though the twin-panel roof mechanism adds 40kg, it takes away not a jot of the torsional stiffness of the 12C’s carbonfibre tub.

Away from the roof mechanism – whose panels and the engine cover are the only body panels that separate the Spider from the Coupe - things stay mechanically identical to the fixed-roof variant. Similar, then, but in detail ever so slightly different to 2011 models. 

For a start, power is up on the 3.8-litre, twin-turbocharged flat-plane crank V8 from 592bhp at 7000rpm as tested initially, to 616bhp now (and at 7500rpm). It’s a modest increase and torque is unchanged at 442lb ft but McLaren claims that, with the alteration, has come an improvement in the sharpness of the throttle response, to counter mild turbo lag that hindered the handling balance by pushing the car into understeer.

With that tweak came a couple of others, available retrofit to all 12Cs, including recalibrated gearchanges to make them crisper and faster, and a retuned “Intake Sound Generator”, which filters the engine note to the cabin.

Otherwise the mechanical set-up is the same, with aluminium subframes attached front and rear to the tub, and double-wishbone suspension, coil springs and linked hydraulic/pneumatic dampers. 

INTERIOR

McLaren 12C Spider sport seats

Rather than the Technology Centre in which early MP4-12C’s were made, current 12C production has moved a few tens of metres to McLaren’s Production Centre – essentially a bespoke £40m car factory rather than an extension of the development centre.

And if anything, fit and finish and perceived quality has taken a hike since the launch of the McLaren 12C. The elements that were always impressive remain impressive – the delicately crafted air vents, for example. But the quality of stitching and finish seems even higher. 

The 12C retains the floating centre console, à la Volvo

If you’re looking for flamboyance, look elsewhere, mind. This is a clean and efficient interior. The audio and climate control have even been recalibrated for the Spider so that they give their best with the roof down.

On which note, the switch to drop the hood – which takes 17 seconds and can be performed at up to 19mph – is the only discernible difference between the Coupe and Spider’s interiors. 

The 12C’s retractable hard top consists of just two roof pieces, which slot neatly beneath a hard tonneau cover – one of the few body panels which isn’t the same as the 12C coupe’s. It sits when lowered beneath the tonneau cover which can be used for additional storage when the roof is raised.

At each side there’s a buttress, each of which includes a steel subsructure to withstand rollover impact forces. McLaren opted not to fit a pop-up system because of the additional weight involved.

Mostly the McLaren's interior is no bad thing, but some of our testers would prefer the 12C’s seats were capable of being dropped lower to the floor, while taller testers found the seat incapable of being reclined far enough when the base was towards its rearmost.

Here McLaren is arguably a victim of its own generosity of steering wheel reach, which stretches so far out into genuine race-car, wheel-at-chest position that it’s all the more tempting to recline the seat back. 

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

McLaren 12C Spider 3.8-litre V8

Be in no doubt, the 12C is still in the top supercar performance division, but with a colder track temperature than when we tested the coupé in 2011, and on regular P Zero rather than P Zero Corsa tyres, the Spider hit 60mph in 3.4 seconds, adrift by 0.1sec of the 2011 coupe. That is no shame, and no great surprise given the rubber at work. 

It’s still a car that can reach 100mph in a little over seven seconds and a standing km in 20.6sec, by which time it’s travelling at more than 160mph – behind the 12C coupe by a fraction you’d consider negligible, given a four percent increase in power on one side, but the three per cent increase in weight, less sticky tyres, inertia of the cast iron brakes and denser, cold air, on the other. In the same conditions, and with the same brakes and tyres, the 12C is a quicker car now than it was then.

The 12C's engine is louder than before, but rivals still offer more drama

It’s also a louder one. It idles 2dB more noisily, a margin extended to 3dB by the time it’s a flat-chat in third gear. Have the recalibrations made it a more visceral noise, though? Partly, but you can’t – and this is a theme we’ll come back to – change the fundamental nature of the 12C with minor tweaks.

The 3.8-litre, Ricardo designed engine has not been altered in character by changing its amplification. It’s still ruthlessly efficient, it still has two turbos and still, probably as a result, it sounds less thrilling than a Ferrari 458’s unit.

A Mercedes-AMG SLS too, you feel, has been subjected to greater depths of subjective sound engineering. Roof down and with a tunnel ahead, we suspect a 12C would most people’s third choice for a full throttle run.

An area where we appreciate efficiency over “character”, however, is in gearbox functionality, and the reduction in required weight to click the steering-wheel mounted paddles (originally set-up to replicate Lewis’s weekend wheels, but not so rewarding on the street in a road car). Gearchanges themselves, too, feel more satisfying now than they did – though whether that’s operation or because the paddles are an easier flick is harder to say.

Given the nature of a turbo, however, downshifts still aren’t greeted with the same crisp throttle “brap” of the Ferrari 458’s motor – though have the measure in speed of the lazier but endearing SLS’s V8 donkey.

RIDE & HANDLING

McLaren 12C Spider rear cornering

First things first, the ride: which is beautifully supple and well-controlled, just as we found when we initially tested the coupé. The McLaren 12C Spider isn’t just the best-riding supercar out there. It’s not just one of the finest riding sporting cars around. It’s simply a car with exceptional ride quality, full stop.

There are luxury cars – not all with four rings on their bonnet – that do not ride as well as this. It’s remarkable and one of the reasons, by all accounts, that McLaren owners are drawn to using their 12Cs when other supercars might stay locked away.

The McLaren struggles to be as playful as some of its rivals, like the 458

The 12C Spider also enjoys the quite superb trait of feeling – as is promised – every inch as rigid as the coupe, which drivers of the 458 and, certainly, the SLS, are unlikely to find.

But of more interest to us is whether the changes McLaren has made – primarily to the throttle response – have made a considerable difference to the handling balance. Because? Because it was that fundamental balance, in part caused a turbo lag that led to the front-end pushing on, that denied the 12C coupe the same immediacy of limit-adjustability as a Ferrari 458.

And that, as much as anything else, was what held the coupé back from its final road test half-star, rather than any deficiency in some undefined “personality” trait.

This time around? It’s improved, certainly. Around our dry handling circuit, the extra resistance to power-on understeer meant that, even on P Zero rather than Corsa tyres, and even on a day so cold that there still lay lumps of snow trackside, which were melting into trickles of water across the fastest corner on the circuit, the 12C Spider was just 0.3sec slower than the coupé, even with iron brakes as opposed to carbon items.

For the record, we threw on a set of Corsa tyres like the ones we tested in 2011, and the Spider went 0.5sec quicker again. No question, McLaren has made an extraordinarily fast car faster still, around the same circuit, faster again over a Ferrari 458 Italia than it was two years ago.

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again, though: fast isn’t everything. Despite the decrease in understeer - and despite a beautifully weighted steering system that’s the measure of any car – a 458 still gives its driver a more on-limit options, is sharper still when it comes to entering and exiting neutrality or oversteer. It is, by a fraction worth mentioning, more exciting to drive.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

McLaren MP4-12C Spider

The recent increase in power and the Spider’s increase in weight has made no difference to the 12C’s consumption or emissions, so in terms of fuel and tax you'll pay a similar amount.

Our own fuel consumption figures were broadly the same – we returned 23.4mpg on a cruise and 19.0 overall.

The McLaren's fuel consumption is acceptable given the performance on offer

With a track consumption of 6mpg suggesting it’s best to fill the 72 litre tank before you start a track day, because it’d be dry in about 90 miles.

Other costs are par for the course: the 12C is an expensive car, as are its peers, and that’s that.

Brakes, tyres, servicing, spares and maintenance will all be costly - even more so if you make full use of the performance on offer.

The McLaren's residuals should hold up well though, provided you take care of it and maintain it to the highest standard, as it is a fairly rare car.

VERDICT

4.5 star McLaren 12C Spider
The 12C has not suffered in any respect as a result of the removal of its roof

Improvements? Certainly. Detractions? Not a bit of it. The McLaren 12C Spider is a car made better than it was at launch in so many respects, from its name through to its limit handling, including key details – the throttle response and the shift-paddle action, most notably. 

The fundamentals, however, remain the same. The handling balance is better but close to where it started and the engine will always be turbocharged.

The McLaren 12C is easy to drive, comfortable and devastatingly quick

It’s these kinds of elements that were responsible for the oh-so-close rating we gave the 12C Coupe two years ago, and they’re responsible for it now. 

McLaren’s crowning achievement, then, is that the Spider is, unlike the Ferrari 458, not compromised one jot by the loss of its roof. 

Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s better, and the 458’s loss is enough to bring it down to join the 12C on 4.5 stars.

What we'd like to see - barring vocal improvements - is for McLaren to make it easier to switch out the ESP, and make it more adjustable when you have. At the moment one suspects the car prefers you do drive it its way. People with £200k to spend on cars are used to making their own decisions.

Forced to choose, the more playful and characterful 458 remains more of a supercar for more of our testers. But the margin is closer than ever.

McLaren 12C Spider 2012-2014 First drives