Seated to our left David Donohue is all grins, an enabler of our worst behavior. Underneath our wonderfully sculpted carbon-fiber seats, the Volcano red 2014 McLaren 12C Spider twitches over Fontana's rough pavement.
We round out of the corner and the power surges. Whoa. Too much power! The rear end threatens mutiny, spinning rapidly away from our intended path. We catch it, but just barely -- there are two more corners looming, and we have to line them up in place. Donohue laughs. "We're having fun now, aren't we?" he says.
Last year, McLaren upgraded the entire 12C range's 3.8-liter, twin-turbocharged, 9,000-rpm V8 engine to a stout 616 hp. No more MP4 designation, either, as important as it was to McLaren's history; no more naming schemes based on fax machines. The Spider, introduced at that year's Pebble Beach Concours, weighs just 88 pounds more -- for a total of 3,033 pounds. Its two-piece composite roof folds neatly and automatically behind the driver's head in just 17 seconds -- a trick that can be performed at up to 19 mph for the ultimate in stoplight foppery. Both cars were designed around the carbon-fiber MonoCell tub, which weighs a scant 165 pounds and serves as the bolting point for aluminum subframes. The fastidious weight extraction and obsessive engineering by McLaren's engineers almost makes you feel guilty for ordering it with the Leather Pack.
Be sure to tell your fellow pub-quiz adherents that the McLaren has hexagonal wiring looms, its thinner shielding equating to a few grams shaved. The double-wishbone suspension is adaptive, and hydraulic all around -- just like a Citroën SM, you know? No sway bars required, and none of their weight, either. The hydraulic pump for the suspension also performs double duty with the steering rack. Changing into Track mode requires the steering wheel to be straight for at least two seconds, while the pump increases pressures for stiffer steering and suspension alike. Curiously, there is separate adjustability for "Power" and "Handling," each with three settings: Normal, Sport and Track, which tweak gear shifts, throttle mapping, the exhaust note (for "Power"), spring rates, steering firmness and traction control (for "Handling"). You can turn off traction control, but that requires a veritable Konami Code of button mashing that even Donohue isn't willing to mess with.
Where the coupe is rational, calculating, lacking the devil-may-care verve of competitive Ferrari and Lamborghini models, the Spider undoes its civil service tie and offers the flamboyant caddishness expected from a car of its ilk. Twin humps behind the cabin jut skyward like the domes in the Sydney Opera House. What little of the engine was visible disappears behind an assortment of scoops, glass, and vents. The proportions, in a word, are perfect. It looks good in either Volcano red, Volcano orange, or Volcano yellow -- needless to say McLaren, evidently, has a thing for loud, massive things that spit fire. Want even more attention? Neighbor just bought an Aventador? Try driving down the street with the doors open, sticking out as they do at 45-degree angles like giant semaphore flags.
And yet, this is indicative of the level that Ron Dennis and his Woking Circus are operating on: the big news for McLaren going into 2014 isn't the addition of even more dizzying power, or an angrier facelift, or a special-edition "Les Legends du Surrey" production run limited to three pink-cheeked, ceramic-coated MP4-12Cs. No, the big news for McLaren this year is the addition of a new infotainment system: a wholly intuitive touchscreen, mimicking Apple's Siri, which McLaren similarly dubs "Iris."
Donohue, being the son of that other famous Donohue (who gave McLaren three victories in 1971 at Bruce's behest), is more than qualified to turn the 12C Spider into putty in his hands. David won Le Mans three times, as well as the 24 Hours of Daytona in one of the closest margins of victory in racing. Forty years earlier, his father did the same. All stunning feats, all accomplishments that pale in comparison with teaching us how to use the McLaren's launch control.
It's very easy, he said. First, press "Launch Control." OK, we can do that. Then, feet on both pedals, rev the engine. On the left, the screen will say the magic words "BOOST READY." Left foot off the brake. Right foot to the floor. Hold on as the car rockets to 60 mph in a little over 3.1 seconds. Donohue hits 120 mph before the first corner. The stomach churns.
Donohue suggests that we're brave enough to drive in Track mode. The 12C is deceptive in that when pushed normally, it feels like it will go anywhere you want to put it: reassuringly weighty controls and dead-accurate steering imbue it with near-instant reflexes. The firm throttle pedal demands your utmost attention, reacting only when the twin turbochargers spool up.
Switch both knobs to "Track," however, and at the sign of a corner taken exuberantly, the car says to you, "Hey buddy, don't forget: I have over six hundred horsepower." Point taken, as the rear jerks away from us the first time, snapping back into place after the traction control decides we've had too much fun now. Newly firmed, the suspension notifies us of every single bump and ridge and potential pothole on Fontana's rough infield as we head into some hairy-chested, flat-out chicanes. Donohue senses our nervousness. We switch seats, and he demonstrates how to handle the section himself. Barely lifting, he coasts through a final tight left-hander, unwinds, gives the rear some throttle, and catches it with his expert hands. Just like that.
"Feel that?" said Donohue. He smiled. "This car will still bite you."
2014 McLaren 12C Spider
On Sale: Now
Base Price: $268,250
Drivetrain: 3.8-liter, 616 hp, 443 lb-ft twin-turbocharged V8; RWD, 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Curb Weight: 3,033 lb
0-60 mph: 3.1 sec
Fuel Economy (EPA Combined): 20.2 mpg
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