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First drive: New $250,000 supercar challenges Ferrari

Technophiles and racers will be irresistibly attracted to the MP4-12C for its peerless capabilities, while more casual enthusiasts will revel in its ability to match track-ready speed with grocery-run comfort. (McLaren Automotive)

What do you do when you win the lottery or land that professional sports contract you've always deserved? You buy that incredible exotic sports car you've always wanted but couldn't afford.

And now there is a new option. McLaren Automotive gave us the chance to sample the hottest new sports car to come to market since the Audi R8  arrived a few years ago. The MP4-12C, with a list price that starts at $229,000 and quickly runs up to $320,000 with options, is the new 592-horsepower supercar vying for your newfound wealth.

Yes, the name sounds like an encrypted code name for the National Security Agency's secret file on Vladimir Putin's web browsing habits.  But we're going to focus on the rose itself rather than the name that only an obsessive-compulsive former race engineer could love. Did we mention that McLaren Automotive is the new car-building branch of the McLaren Formula One racing team? Surely that's a coincidence.

When shopping for a $250,000 supercar, your go-to choice until now might have been a Lamborghini or some flavor of Porsche or Maserati, but probably the name at the top of that list is Ferrari.

Trouble is, a lot of people buy these cars for their feline styling, Grand Prix pedigree or symphonic exhaust note without realizing they commonly possess the refined ride comfort of Conestoga wagon on the trail to Laramie.

So when McLaren says the MP4-12C has both track-worthy reflexes and a commute-friendly ride, we were intrigued but skeptical.  That's why the company rented California Speedway for some put-up-or-shut-up proof.

Climbing inside is a bit of a challenge because the scissor-hinged door is in the way even when fully raised.  Pull it down hard to slam the door shut or it might not close completely.  Once inside there is satisfactory leg room, unlike in the Lamborghini (or  Lamborghini-based Audi R8) which put a wheel well where most drivers would like to rest their left foot while driving.

Fresh thinking on packaging the two occupants inside the car means that the climate controls are mounted on the door, while the navigation screen is tipped upright into the narrower portrait layout, putting the people nearer the center of the car.

The transmission shifts via paddles mounted to the carbon-fiber steering wheel, as has become standard practice in such sports cars, mirroring their use in Formula One racers. However if you want to shift while unwinding the steering wheel from a tight turn you are out of luck in the McLaren -- the wheel will be upside down and you probably won’t be able to grab the right paddle.

Ferrari mounts the paddles to the steering column, where they can always be found no matter how the wheel is turned.  Additionally, the McLaren paddles require a harder squeeze than those in competitors’ cars.  That’s because when the shifter is squeezed halfway it pre-selects the next gear, like cocking a gun, so when the driver squeezes it all the way the car executes a quickdraw fast gear change, explained Sheriff.  That is “pre-cog functionality” in typical McLaren engineerese.

McLaren also went its own way with its suspension, and in this area the results are unquestionably successful.  The hydraulic shock absorbers are linked side-to-side and front-to-rear, so unweighted wheels help send pressure to the loaded ones when accelerating, braking or turning.  This eliminates the need for conventional anti-sway bars and stiff springs, which are the source of sports cars’ rough ride.

The MP4-12C has a surprisingly compliant ride that doesn’t evoke the usual clenched-teeth cringe by sports car drivers approaching visible bumps in the road, Sheriff pointed out. And he’s right.  Amazingly, it also still turns like a race car.

The system also helps the car apply its massive horsepower – good for a 205 mph top speed – without the need for a heavy, power-sapping limited-slip differential, so the McLaren makes the most of the power produced by its surprisingly small 3.8-liter twin-turbo V8 engine.

Of course Ferrari engineers are not resting on their laurels. They will find ways to massage their cars' ride and handling to ever-higher standards.  And challengers like McLaren will be hard-pressed to match Ferrari's romantic mystique.  Maybe McLaren executive chairman Ron Dennis should tuck a mistress away in a nearby village in the fashion of Enzo Ferrari.

The MP4-12C’s sheet metal is beautiful in the athletically purposeful manner of Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue rather than the overt bombshell sensuality of Angelina Jolie, so some shoppers may prefer the more voluptuous Ferrari. Can we have one of each?

Similarly, the MP4-12C's carefully tuned intake and exhaust notes goad drivers into delaying upshifts just to hear the engine at work.  It sounds like a race car, and gearheads will love it for that.  But only Ferrari seems able to raise the hair on drivers' arms.  Its engines sound like an orchestra at work, and seemingly everybody loves them for that.

Technophiles and racers will be irresistibly attracted to the MP4-12C for its peerless capabilities, while more casual enthusiasts will revel in its ability to match track-ready speed with grocery-run comfort. Unapologetic sensualists will gravitate toward the red cars from Italy. But when the pro contract signing bonus comes, McLaren can now challenge our reflexive trip to the Ferrari dealer.