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McLaren MP4-12C set for battle

Up close, the 12C is much more impressive than it looks in pictures. Every tiny detail has been considered and the overall result is a car which looks fast, but also has top-drawer quality.

The grand prix rivalry between McLaren and Ferrari hits the road this year.

The British company is ready to go with its all-new MP4-12C two- seater, a car aimed directly at the Ferrari F458. But the battle will not stop there as McLaren aims for more than 4000 top-shelf sports car sales a year by 2015, all developed from the same fast-track technology base outside London that is responsible for the Formula One cars raced this weekend by Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton.

Up close, the 12C is much more impressive than it looks in pictures. Every tiny detail has been considered and the overall result is a car which looks fast, but also has top-drawer quality. It is a jewel.

The only thing missing - so far - is emotion. The twin-turbo engine guarantees 450 kiloWatts of power, a 0-100km/h sprint in less than four seconds and a top-speed of more than 300km/h, the carbonfibre monocell chassis is best in class, and there is everything from a seven-speed DSG gearbox to active aerodynamics.

"It's very difficult to create a car that feels alive at 200km/h and also at low speed. I won't lie," says Antony Sheriff, the boss of McLaren Automotive. "It does not feel as viscerally raw as some competition. But you can drive it and not feel like you've been to hell and back. It's incredibly easy to drive."

For now, I have to trust him on this stuff. The only 'outsiders' beyond the development team who have driven the 12C are Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton, and they are hardly impartial as they race for McLaren's F1 team.

But, walking through the creative process for the 12C - from the choice of its name to plans for an all-new factory in 2011 - it is impossible not to be impressed by the effort. Still, when you're spending more than $500 million...

"The success of this company is not going to be measured by how many cars we sell. The key word is exclusivity," says Sheriff. "We think we can be successful. We are a company that's debt free. All of the people in this company feel incredibly lucky and incredibly challenged."

That's why the company has still to settle on a final design for its corporate logo. It has to be absolutely right.

Frank Stephenson, the design director at McLaren, explains in minute detail the approach to styling a car which has to be a McLaren flagship, but also cut through the air at more than 300km/h. And he explains the materials for the indicator stalks, and the way the seats are shaped, and the choice of paint and leather.

Everything is new and everything has to be right. "Everything in this car is bespoke. We even had to design our own heating-ventilation system," says Sheriff, explaining that a system from another brand would have made the car an unacceptable 10 centimetres wider.

And so it goes. On and on. Visiting McLaren Automotive is a trip into a dream world where the right answer is always about excellence, not compromise or cost. The first 12Cs are already built and look good, but they are only for testing. Including the car that went through three - yes, three - front-end crash tests without even cracking the windscreen.

But why does McLaren need to build a road car? It created the massively costly F1 road car and lost money on the project, and was Mercedes-Benz's supercar partner until the marriage broke up.

"It's about launching a car company from nothing. There are a lot of good things for us to build on," says Mark Vinnels, program director. "We need a business to support Formula One, as much as anything. We will have a range of cars. It's a massive project for us."

More details will emerge from McLaren as the MP4-12C gets closer to production, including the final performance figures, specifications and pricetag. And, eventually, there will be cars to drive.

Right now, the 12C has to be taken on what you can see and hear and touch. And it's impressive, but nothing will be certain until the car is ready for a test drive. "We just have to nail it. That's an attitude that comes from Formula One. We've ended up with a car that is a McLaren and only a McLaren," says Vinnels.

The home of the MP4-12C is massively impressive. It's a $1 billion technology centre in the green belt outside London that is already home to the McLaren grand prix team and has been the production base for the Mercedes-McLaren SLR.

Things are so organised that no-one eats at their desk, and the company canteen - overlooking a giant artificial lake - has a one-way traffic flow. There is also a jaw-dropping lineup of historic McLaren racecars - every one immaculate and ready to go - that cannot be ignored as you come in the front door.

More than 200 engineers work in the development centre for the 12C project, which will also spawn two other models within two years, there is a giant 'reality wall' to check virtual development of the cars, and the assembly area is more like an operating theatre than an old-school production line.

The price for the MP4-12C will be around $450,000 when it gets to Australia. It is being set against the Ferrari F458 and will be sold through a single local dealer, although that is not a word in the McLaren vocabulary.

"We've got a revolutionary process. We're actually going to trust our partners," says Antony Sheriff."We want to create a sense of community. It doesn't matter how good the car is if you're treated badly. We're not asking them for Taj Mahals . . . but a unique investment in customer service."

McLaren has had more than 500 applications for agencies, including calls from two of the leading upscale dealer groups in Australia, Trivetts and Ateco. "We've got about five or six candidates. We'll have an appointment made in July or August," says Ian Gorsuch, who is responsible for the McLaren business in Australia.

The first cars are likely to be delivered early in 2011, but the order books will not even open until a dealer is appointed.

SOURCE : http://www.carsguide.com.au/

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