McLaren MP4-12C

It scorches to 62mph in 3.3 seconds – but it's its sweet nature that beats those Italian fireworks

Patriotism isn't a fashionable attribute.

I'm not given to it myself, thinking it better that judgements are made on objective merit, but a frisson of national pride is allowable if the object is deserving. It's the icing on the cake.

If, for example, Ferrari's wonderful 458 is better as a machine for driving entertainment and aesthetic appreciation than the new McLaren MP4-12C that is the subject of this test, then we should not be afraid to say so. But if it is not, then the McLaren's superiority can be enjoyed all the more for the fact that it is British-designed and British-made.

This McLaren-versus-Ferrari comparison is the hottest discussion of the moment among those of a petrolhead tendency. The two organisations have been locked in Formula One battle for many years, with national stereotypes – Ferrari the hot-blooded Italians with Machiavellian tendencies, McLaren the clean, clinical, order-obsessed managers of machines and men – often getting in the way of sensible analysis.

So it is intriguing that McLaren has introduced a road car to rival a Ferrari. In these cars are all the same attributes that mark the racing teams. The Ferrari is notable for its aluminium chassis and body construction and a V8 engine of such voice that it seems almost to be a living thing; it has no turbochargers, which partly explains its vocals and its responsiveness.

The wonderful and hugely costly McLaren F1 of a decade and a half ago, the company's only other proper road car, with just 106 built, had a similarly explosive engine demeanour. But this time the approach is different. The MP4-12C, which will soon be made in its thousands and costs £168,500, uses a pair of turbochargers for its 3.8-litre V8 engine.

At 600bhp, the McLaren's output is extraordinary. Even better, its torque, or pulling power, stays high from 3,000rpm right up to 7,000. The mid-mounted engine's efforts are directed to the rear wheels via a seven-speed, double-clutch sequential gearbox, an Italian Graziano unit. The engine, though, is a British creation by McLaren itself and prolific engineering consultant Ricardo. The McLaren will scorch to 62mph in a startling 3.3 seconds, to twice that speed in 9.1 and on to 205mph. A stop from 62mph needs just 100ft. Yet the MP4-12C is not ferociously thirsty: it scored 24.2mpg on the official "combined" test cycle.

There is drama to a McLaren drive even before you thread your way into the driving seat. You wipe your hand rearwards under the door's top ledge and the door is released to swing upwards, forwards and outwards. Once inside, you have a panoramic forward view and a surprising sense of airiness behind. The driving position is perfect.

The engine fires with a deep but quite muted grumble; two rotary knobs select Normal, Sport and Track modes separately for suspension and engine/ transmission, and in Track the engine note suddenly becomes guttural, sharp-edged, almost explosive, especially when you hit the high revs. The aural explosion matches the physical one: the McLaren is almost savage in its acceleration, but sweetness itself if you are able only to amble in traffic.

This sweetness applies also to the amazing way it mops up bumps in Normal. Even in Track the suspension seldom jars even while it endows the MP4-12C with extraordinary grip and the sort of easy, friendly balance that makes anyone feel a driving hero. You can play with the two mode knobs in myriad combinations, all enacting subtly different facets of a personality that starts off a little hidden but soon emerges as one of deep completeness. This is what ultimately makes the McLaren a better long-term companion than the Ferrari, fabulous producer of emotive fireworks as the Italian car is.

"Ask a little boy now what he'll want when he's grown up, and he won't say a McLaren," says marketing director Greg Levine, "but in a few years' time he will. That's my dream." It's set fair to come true, I would say.

The Rivals

Ferrari 458 Italia: £173,132, 570bhp, 307g/km

Benchmark supercar thrills from the second you start the engine, and is deliciously responsive in every way. Relaxation is not an option, however.

Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG: £168,345, 570bhp, 308g/km

Front-mounted 6.2-litre V8 engine, gullwing doors like the classic 300SL of the 1950s, savage soundtrack, huge entertainment but slow gearshift.

Porsche 911 Turbo S: £125,865, 530bhp, 275g/km

The "sensible" choice, expensive for a 911 but not next to these rivals. Hugely rapid, and four-wheel drive counteracts pendulous effect of rear engine.

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