There’s a wealth of technology in the car that does everything it can to get you down the road and around the bend faster — so much so that you as the driver have become the limitation needing to be accommodated. As pro wheelman Randy Pobst put it, this car is “a whole other level of performance.” Like the lady of the night, it’ll whisper sweet nothings in your ear about what an amazing driver you are and you’ll finish the drive feeling like a stud, but deep down, you both know she was exaggerating your talents for your benefit. If the car is making ever-so-slight changes to the steering ratio, braking, throttle, hydraulic anti-roll bars or anything else mid-corner at extra-legal speeds.
With that established, let’s talk about what separates the Spider from the coupe. There is, of course, the folding metal hard top. It’ll do its thing while the car is moving, provided you’re not moving very fast, and it stows in a compartment on top of the engine. When it’s up, the cabin suffers surprisingly little road or tire noise for a sports car. While you’ll get plenty of engine note regardless, McLaren recommends leaving the rear window rolled down when you have the roof up for the full effect. Variation on the “full effect” is now possible thanks to a setting buried in the information screen on the left side of the gauges that lets you modify the Intake Sound Generator. Namely, it lets you turn it down, so you don’t have this vacuum cleaner sitting just over your right shoulder for the entire drive. It’s a marked improvement from the 2012 car, which tended to drone loudly in your right ear on the highway.
Ditching the roof requires an extra step confirming on the screen in the gauge cluster that there’s nothing in the roof storage area. While it’s always been technically possible to store small items in a convertible’s roof storage location, most manufacturers prefer you don’t, and some actively make it difficult for you to do so. McLaren, on the other hand, is making it easy with controls on the driver’s door to raise the cover and access a bit more cargo space. On the flip side, you have to confirm you’ve removed your stuff before you can drop the top.
Once you do, the 12C Spider looks rather like a Ferrari 458 Spider, much as the coupes resemble each other. From the pontoons behind the occupants’ heads to the vents in the cover, there’s a striking similarity. What isn’t suspiciously similar is the noise. McLaren admits it’s still defining the sound, because, unlike a Ferrari, no one really knows what a McLaren is “supposed” to sound like. I find it most similar to a power boat. There’s a deep, booming, staccato rumble at idle and low speeds that builds to a mighty roar as the revs climb, but never comes anywhere near Ferrari’s wail. It’s accompanied by the thinly veiled whistle of the twin turbochargers and the occasional scream of the waste gates, which sounds surprisingly like the screech of a tire when you’ve locked a wheel under hard braking (which, incidentally, is when the waste gates tend to pop off).
If you were hoping the roll-up rear window or the low seating position would spare your hair, I have bad news for you. It’s going to get messed up, and if you’re planning on having the top open on the freeway, it’s really going to get blown around. At freeway speeds, it’s not just windy but also pretty loud, so you’ll be talking even more loudly to be heard across the narrow cabin. Being a convertible clearly falls below being a supercar on the priority list.
That’s evident as you turn the wheel. As discussed earlier, the car is doing some of the heavy lifting for you, but the experience really isn’t any different than the coupe. The 12C Spider has the same moves and it’s not afraid to cut a rug. Body roll is supremely well-controlled, the steering is ultra-responsive and provides meaningful feedback, and the brakes are simply undefeatable. Pushed to the limits of your personal comfort zone, the car barely feels like it’s working, much less working hard. Think you messed up this corner? Just keep turning and it’ll keep going. The worst you can do is invoke moderate understeer, which comes on surprisingly quickly but corrects just as fast with a lift of the throttle. The McLaren doesn’t allow for big oversteers because as cool as they might be, they’re a slow way around a corner. Is it all perhaps a little too good? Probably, but you’ll be having too much fun to care.
The McLaren also boasts a few new refinements for 2013 that apply to both models, most notably improved ride quality and the quieter cabin. A navigation system is available, though it’s a work in progress. We had a number of arguments over whether or not a road it requested I turn on existed, and it had a bad habit of temporarily freezing while giving directions, which led to several missed turns. McLaren promises rapid improvements. Overall, it’s made the car a bit more livable without giving up any apparent performance. As we’ve established, if you’re the hairy-chested sort who’s still fighting the losing battle against computer nannies in cars, this probably isn’t the supercar for you. But if you can put aside the philosophical argument and that fleeting feeling of being outmatched by the car, you’re not likely to regret it.