DUNSFOLD, U.K. – It’s tempting to feel self-satisfied by posting the best lap time among journalists test-driving the McLaren MP4-12C, the first in a range of new road-ready super cars from the iconic British racing team that has been fighting Ferrari for Formula 1 bragging rights since the 1960s.

Yes, this 592-hp 2-seat mid-engine hand-assembled exotic with dihedral doors and a carbon-fiber chassis makes every competent driver feel like Michael Schumacher, if only for the 3.1 seconds it takes to accelerate from a standstill to 62 mph (100 km/h).

But that hubris disappears while riding shotgun with McLaren racing pro Phil Quaife, who demonstrates what this magnificent car can do in truly gifted hands.

When Quaife finishes the hot lap, his humbled passenger feels a “Wayne’s World” urge to fall to his knees and cry “We are not worthy!” to both the driver and the car.

The MP4-12C is awkwardly named in tribute to McLaren cars of the past, but that’s a minor gripe. Slide behind the wheel, fire up the angry 3.8L twin-turbo V-8, engage the Graziano dual-clutch transmission, and the vehicle becomes a cruise missile trained on a munitions depot.

Of course, a car with a recommended retail price of $229,000 and an additional $55,130 in options had better be special.

But perspective is needed: Pricing starts at $375,000 for the Lamborghini Aventador and Lexus LFA, and the truly wealthy can spend $2.4 million for a 1,200-hp Bugatti Veyron 16.4 Super Sport.

A GT3 racing version of the MP4-12C can be had for $500,890, and 12 private racing teams have purchased the car for the 2012 season. Suddenly, the base car looks like a bargain, especially without a gas-guzzler tax. However, there’s a $2,400 destination charge.

Buyers in this stratosphere represent 1% of the 1% vilified by the Occupy Wall Street movement. This rare breed of customer can afford any car in the world, may consider a Maserati or Mercedes to be downmarket, has a passion for motorsports and also knows how to drive. Think Jay Leno and Nick Mason.

Here in Surrey at the Dunsfold Park airfield where the British TV sensation “Top Gear” is based and filmed, hot-foot Quaife pilots the MP4-12C through the Dunsfold Aerodome figure-8 track that crosses runways and access roads still navigated on occasion by small aircraft.

Quaife roars straight into tight corners at speeds above 125 mph (201 km/h) and displays full confidence in the giant ventilated disc brakes (ceramic stoppers are optional) and sticky 20-in. Pirelli Z-rated tires.

Carrying so much speed and then braking with equal force creates the split-second sensation that the car is floating into and out of the turn.

But before we know it, Quaife has motored on to another high-G challenge, and then another, on this makeshift test track. The car changes directions like a pinball. The electro-hydraulic steering feels neutral, and the level of feedback is quickly adjusted to suit the driver’s preference.

Two distinct braking technologies, as well as active chassis control, enable such fearless behavior on the track.

The first is Brake Steer, which achieves a similar effect as a torque-vectoring differential except that it uses Bosch’s electronic stability control to determine the precise amount of brake force necessary on the inside rear wheel to stabilize the vehicle and keep it headed in the intended direction, based on the driver’s steering-wheel angle.

The system reduces understeer, prevents wheel spin and helps a driver who has misjudged a turn or a skilled pro who wants to brake as late as possible and get back on the gas immediately.

For the insanely daring, a complicated sequence of pressing and holding buttons on the center console – while parked, of course – allows Brake Steer to be turned off. But Quaife prefers to keep it on.

Even with the system shut “off,” McLaren says a “supremely discreet level of stability control still remains as a final layer of protection.”

The second technology that pays off in this extreme environment is the McLaren Airbrake, which consists of a high-density sheet-molded compound rear wing that automatically raises 32 degrees whenever heavy braking is applied at speeds of more than 60 mph (95 km/h).

Aerodynamic pressure then takes over and forces the wing even higher, until it reaches its maximum angle of 69 degrees. The result is increased downforce, which further improves stability and keeps the back end glued to the track. A front-rear weight distribution of 42.5%-57.5% keeps the nose light and nimble and helps curb rear-wheel slip.

The braking technologies work in tandem with McLaren’s ProActive Chassis Control, which lets the driver select the desired amount of body roll via a switch on the center console, allowing for Normal, Sport and Track settings, as well as Winter, for cold, inclement weather.

Active dampers at all four corners, integrated with a double-wishbone suspension and coil springs, are interconnected hydraulically and linked to a gas-filled accumulator that responds to road conditions and driver inputs. The harder the corner, the more rigid the damping on the outside wheels.

McLaren opted for ProActive Chassis Control rather than using an anti-roll bar because the latter approach provides stiffness that is always there. The new system allows for more relaxed, comfortable commuting in everyday traffic.

Off the track, the suspension gobbles up uneven pavement, such as neglected road surfaces through this village 35 miles (56 km) southwest of London.

McLaren developed the 3.8L twin-turbo 90-degree DOHC V-8 with powertrain specialist Ricardo. Unlike American muscle cars, the McLaren V-8 idles without the guttural rumble, and the exhaust is more high-pitched and sounds magnificent when called upon.

The 7-speed dual-clutch transmission shifts rapidly, like a car with F1 DNA should, and manual gear changes can be made with heavy-duty metallic paddles that require more effort than those in mainstream vehicles. Shifting is serious business, not to be taken lightly.

What’s not to like about the MP4-12C? The car offers wide variability in how it sounds, feels, steers, accelerates and decelerates, but so do performance cars that can be had for much less, such as the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 and Camaro ZL1 and Ford Shelby GT500.

And climbing into the car requires sturdy legs, strong arms and limbo-like agility. Once inside, the sport seats fit like a snug glove. Bold red stitching and copious amounts of carbon-fiber trim convey McLaren’s rich connection to motorsports. There’s even two cupholders, hidden behind the center console.

The new “speed marque” brand logo on the hood carries over to the steering wheel and resembles the shape of a Kiwi bird in honor of company founder Bruce McLaren, who hailed from New Zealand and died while testing a race car in 1970.

Some 37 dealers offer the MP4-12C, more than half of them in the U.S., which McLaren considers the car’s No.1 market.

By way of competitors, the Aston Martin DBS starts at $275,461. But McLaren’s No.1 target – just like in Formula 1 – is Ferrari, with its 458 Italia.

It seems unlikely buyers in this rarefied segment will have to choose between McLaren and Ferrari. Any potential customer who can afford one most likely can afford the other, as well.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com

 

’12 McLaren MP4-12C
Vehicle type Two-seat, rear-wheel-drive, mid-engine sports coupe
Engine 32-valve 3.8L DOHC V-8 with aluminum block/heads
Power 592 hp @ 7,000 rpm
Torque 443 lb.-ft. (600 Nm) at 3,000-7,000 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 93 x 69.9
Compression ratio 8.7:1
Transmission 7-speed Graziano dual-clutch
Wheelbase 105 ins. (267 cm)
Overall length 177 ins. (451 cm)
Overall width 75 ins. (191 cm)
Overall height 47 ins. (120 cm)
Curb weight 2,945 lbs. (1,336 kg)
Base price $229,000
Fuel economy (U.K. cycle) 24.2 mpg (11.9 L/100 km) combined
Competition Ferrari 458 Italia, Aston Martin DBS
Pros Cons
Chance to feel like F1 driver 0 to traffic court in 3.1 seconds
How cool are dihedral doors? Limber up before climbing in
No gas-guzzler tax $2,400 destination charge