Ferrari 458 2011 Review
PEOPLE who say you cannot teach an old dog new tricks have not spent any time with the Ferrari 458...
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July 14, 2011
When grand prix superstars Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button finish work on a Sunday afternoon they drive home in something very special.
The McLaren men now have his-and-his McLaren road cars as their F1 team accelerates into the supercar business and a fresh confrontation with Ferrari. The all-new McLaren promises everything from a carbon fibre chassis and 449 kiloWatts to a full leather interior and a breakthrough Australian- developed hydraulic suspension system.
It is a direct competitor for the Ferrari 458 Italia and will be on sale in Australia in October for about $500,000. The first 20 orders are already in the system at McLaren HQ in Woking, England but Carsguide cannot wait ...
So I'm standing alongside Jay Leno - yes, the Tonight Show host from the USA - in the foyer at McLaren and wondering what I can expect from the supercar with the silly name. The McLaren is called the MP4-12C, a name also drawn from the company's F1 program, and I'm about to take a very exclusive test drive that combines track laps with real-world road time.
I know the McLaren will be super-fast, but will it be race car crude? Can it possibly come close to the 458, which I drove just five days ago in Sydney? Will Leno defect to Ferrari after his similar drive?
Putting a price on a supercar is always the toughest thing, because everyone who buys a McLaren will be a multi-millionaire and is likely to have at least four other cars in the garage.
So there is a load of technology, most of the world's high-tech motoring materials, and the chance to customise the car to their exact desire. The cabin is not as instantly impressive as the 458, and misses the gorgeous smell of the Ferrari's Italian leather, but the equipment ticks all the boxes for target buyers.
The base price undercuts the 458 but that's without the optional brakes, so the 12C is likely to be line-ball on the bottom line. On resale, McLaren says the results will be similar to a Ferrari, but no-one knows yet. But its big advantage is that you're very unlikely to pull up alongside another McLaren at the coffee shop on Saturday morning.
The 12C taps all sorts of F1 technology, from its once-piece carbon chassis to the operation of the paddle-shift gearbox and even a 'brake- steer' system at the rear end that was banned in grand prix racing. There is also the brilliant hydraulic suspension that means the end of anti-roll bars and three choices of stiffness.
The engine is similarly high-tech, and deliberately turbocharged to get the best efficiency in output and emissions. So the 3.8-litre V8, with a turbo for each bank of cylinders, makes 441kW at 7000 revs, 600 Newton-metres of torque at 3000-7000 revs, as well as claimed fuel economy of 11.6 litres/100km with C02 emissions of 279 grams/kilometre.
The more you dig the more you find, from the air-brake rear wing to adjustable settings for the engine and suspension and stability control, and even a chassis that is so high-tech there is only two kilograms difference in the loadings on the front tyres - provided the windscreen washer bottle is full.
The shape of the 12C is a slow burn. It seems conservative at first, at least compared with a 458 or Gallardo, but it grows on you and is likely to age well. My favourite shapes are the rear-view mirrors and the exhaust tips in the tail.
Inside, the cabin is understated but well done. The seats are well shaped, the control location is excellent, and siting the aircon switches on the doors is a great move. On those doors, the scissor-lift design is brilliant, although you still have to stretch over the sills to the seats.
There is also handy luggage space in the nose but, for me, the text in the dash is too small, the operation of the paddle shift requires too much effort and the brake pedal is too small for left-foot operation.
I'd also like to see warning lights as you approach the 8500 redline, and not just a small green arrow hinting at an upshift.
There will never be an ANCAP safety score for the 12C, but McLaren has an impressive answer to my safety question. It used the same car for all three compulsory front-end crash tests and only had to replace the collapsible impact sections and body panels - without even breaking the windscreen.
It also comes with the ABS necessary for sales in Australia and one of the most high-tech stability control systems in the world, as well as front and side airbags.
The McLaren is a great drive. It is racecar quick and responsive on a track, yet sublimely quiet and comfortable on ordinary roads. The best things on the road are the great view over the super-low nose, the mid-range surge from the turbo V8, the overall refinement and the impressive quietness.
This really is a car you could drive every day, leaving it in full- auto settings for commuting or relaxing for a long interstate haul. The suspension is so smooth and soft and compliant it sets a new standard for supercars, and even appliances like the Toyota Camry.
There is some turbo lag below 4000 revs, one of the 12C test cars had a metallic graunching noise in the front suspension, and a change of suppliers means there is no chance to check the infotainment system.
I would also prefer a lighter touch on the paddle shift, a bigger brake pedal and perhaps some upshift warning lights in the - brilliantly shaped - steering wheel.
On the track, the McLaren is sensational. It is so, so fast - 3.3 seconds to 100km/h, top speed of 330km/h - but ridiculously easy to drive. You can go easily fast enough in full auto settings but switch to the track positions and the 12C has limits well beyond the reach of even talented drivers.
But there is an elephant in the room, and it's called the Ferrari 458. Driven so soon after the Italian hero, I can say the McLaren is not as emotional or challenging or smile making as its rival. The 12C feels faster on the track, and is definitely more relaxed on the road, which means it should win any comparison.
But there are people who want the badge and the theatre that comes with the 458.
The McLaren ticks all the supercar boxes. It is bold, fast, rewarding and - ultimately - a great drive. The 12C - despite that name - is also a car for every day and every job. It can dribble to the shops and it can also make you feel like an F1 star on the track.
But there is always that Ferrari lurking in the background, so you have to consider the 458. For me, the bottom line is the difference between lust and love.
The Ferrari is a car you desire to drive, have to thrash, want to enjoy, and need to show off to your friends. The McLaren is more low-key, yet probably a touch quicker, and a car which would get better over time - instead of bringing headaches.
So, for me and provided I could get a couple of little things tweaked, the McLaren MP4-12C is the winner.
And, just for the record, Hamilton has chosen racer red paint for his 12C while Button prefers basic black, and Jay Leno has gone for volcanic orange. Mine? I'd take it in McLaren's classic racing orange, with the sports pack and black wheels.
Engine: 3.8-litre, twin-turbo V8, 441kW/600Nm
Body: Two-door coupe
Transmission: 7-speed DSG, rear-wheel drive
Thirst: 11.6L/100km, 98RON, CO2 279g/km