I've never driven an F1, the landmark McLaren supercar of the 1990s, so this is my first experience of the brand.
However I have driven its Ferrari rival, the 458 Italia, and that is a very exciting car. Stunning to look at and with a glorious sound, it's a four-alarm fire for your hair follicles.
British reviews of the McLaren MP4-12C find claims for the MP4-12C borne out by their own tests. It is quicker than the Ferrari. But many came away without goosebumps.
Clarkson said if the 12C was a pair of tights, the Ferrari 458 Italia was a pair of stockings. That's a powerful metaphor and there's truth in it. The 458 has more dramatic design and greater musical range. It's more of a luxury statement inside.
Even the name is more sonorous. MP4-12C is difficult to say. Driving out of the McLaren showroom in Sydney this week, I caught sight of a Lotus Evora and mistook it for another 12C. It's impossible to imagine confusing a 458 with anything else.
It's true but it's not the whole story. I'm going to wander into the dangerous territory of national stereotypes here. You have been warned. The 458 is flamboyant and it's loud.
If it had arms, it would be gesticulating wildly. It's Italian and it's an affair to remember. If the Brits did something like that, we'd wonder what they'd been ingesting.
The 12C is as restrained as the 458 is extravagant. Its virtues are less in-your-face. It invites polite curiosity rather than shrill attention. And there's something, well, British, about its knack for understatement. This isn't stockings and tights; it's Keira Knightly versus Sophia Loren.
The exterior doesn't shout, but up close it's special. Those restrained curves offer plenty to dwell on. The doors open, thanks to a proximity sensor, with a caress of your hand.
The interior is a beautiful mix of leather and alcantara and fascinating in its unfamiliarity. Controls are logically placed but not necessarily where or how you've come to expect them; the aircon switches are in the arm rests and the control screen is a vertical touchscreen panel.
There's judicious use of carbon fibre and an absence of adornment. Although less sumptuous and more functional than the Ferrari, its details -- right down to the spokes of the air vents -- are impressive nevertheless.
There's a small steering wheel that disdains the recent fashion for buttons. The seats are great, instruments clear and pedals solid.
McLaren set out to avoid the supercar bugbear of poor vision and to a large extent it has succeeded because forward vision is excellent. When the airbrake deploys it fills the rear window, momentarily at least. But how quickly does it stop!
The 12C sits lower to the ground than you expect although the way its nose and tail are chamfered makes this less of an issue than with some.
The engine fires up without a contrived "explosion into life'' and there are push-buttons for gear selection -- D, N and R -- that can be found by touch alone. The engine sounds like a V8 -- a busy baritone rumble with turbocharger accompaniment. It's incredibly flexible, holding high gears up hill and quiet with the driveline selector in N for normal.
Everything that's been said about the comfortable ride is true. Compliant and civilised, it could put to shame some luxury sedans. It feels solid and tight too, without the creaks and groans that are usually part of the supercar deal. As an everyday proposition, the 12C makes more sense than any of its rivals.
Its spectrum of abilities is remarkable. Move the driveline and handling selectors into S (for Sport) and everything gets louder and quicker. The front doesn't lift under acceleration and the body stays flat through bends. The 12C turns in so quickly it surprises you the first time, and the steering has the delicacy of the best.
The chassis responds to a corner by finding the right attitude and staying there. It's unflappable. It simply tracks around corners at phenomenal speeds and on public roads you cannot even approaching its dymanic limits.
Everything goes up another notch when you select T for Track. And on a track, I would run out of ability long before the car. On outright performance there are few cars that could stay with the 12C. Zero to 100km/h is quick at 3.3 seconds, but it takes only a further 5.8 seconds to reach 200km/h as the engine gets into the meat of its mid-range.
It sounds best here. Even though its lacks the spine-tingling aural qualities of a naturally aspirated V8, unless your other car really is a Ferrari you're unlikely to notice the difference.
Yes the 12C does seem business-like next to a 458. But virtues are no less great for being less obvious. And qualities that reveal themselves over time can be so much more satisfying.