US talk show host Jay Leno is one of the most well-known car nut celebrities around and his equally famous car collection includes rare cars ranging from a 1906 Baker electric car to the McLaren F1. He was across the Atlantic at McLaren’s Woking HQ recently and was allowed to ride in a pre-production unit of the McLaren MP4-12C (at Top Gear’s test track, he will appear on the show too), which is set to be one of the great supercars with 600bhp from the self-developed, mid mounted twin-turbo V8 engine pulling a chassis that counts carbon fibre as its main ingredient.

What’s his verdict? “All supercars should be like this,” was what he told The Sunday Times. Leno wrote about his taxi ride for the UK newspaper, which you can read after the jump. He sounds very impressed by the MP4-12C for someone who owns about every supercar in the market.

McLaren MP4-12C

The Formula One specialist comes up trumps with an exciting model that will give Porsche and Ferrari a run for their money

You know, a trip to the UK for me is a pretty rare thing. Last time I was in England was 10 years ago and that was also for a visit to Woking, Surrey — when I bought one of the McLaren F1 road cars, a model many regard as the best car of all time. I have to agree.

So when the guys at McLaren asked if I’d like to come and see the new road car, the MP4-12C, I accepted.

The first key element I was shown was the one-piece carbon-fibre tub. Onto this hollow, lightweight structure are bolted the rest of the components. That means repairs can be made easily.

If the tub is the backbone of the car, its heart is a V8 motor made by McLaren. That’s when you’re really serious about producing a car with your name on it. The idea that you sit down and design what you think the motor should be and how you want it to be. It gives the car personality and its own unique sound. That’s what it’s all about. I mean, McLaren builds racing cars so it should build its own motor. If it wasn’t using its own, like in the F1 with its BMW engine, I think it would be a whole different ball game and that’s the heart and soul of it.

But for me the icing on the cake of the day at McLaren was the chance to head down the road from Woking to the Top Gear test track at Dunsfold to have a ride in the new car.

I went out as a passenger with the factory test driver, Chris Goodwin. This was no customer drive day. They halted testing for two hours to let me do this. I was humbled. Chris explained to me that the camouflaged prototype car was in the middle of its development programme, and that they were developing the ride and hand­ling. Apparently, Dunsfold is good because it’s got loads of ­different corners; it’s bumpy, fast, slow, with lots of changes of direction.

The MP4-12C is a completely focused automobile. It’s a car meant to go from point A to point B quickly, comfortably and in the most exciting way poss­ible. Too many cars, especially crossover cars, make me lose inter­est because they look like refrigerators on wheels. I find cars to be very romantic and exciting. To me, where I am going is not nearly as exciting as how I get there. I always take the long way home and rather drive than fly.

Being in the McLaren made me feel like, if Colin Chapman, the Lotus founder, were still alive, I was in a car he would have made. Only when you go out in it do you sense how light it really is. Okay, it has a carbon-fibre tub and the lightest technology out there, but that lightness really translates to the track. It felt extremely nimble, precise and accurate. All the things a Lotus is famous for but in a package that is uniquely McLaren. I love the fact it has fought tooth and nail to get every ounce of weight out of this car and under 3,000lb (1.3 tons). It’s a revelation in this day and age.

From the passenger seat, the car felt amazing; it was obviously not a finished car but the acceleration felt extremely strong and the engine revs to 9000rpm and it shifts gear very, very quickly — a millisecond or something ridiculous thing like that. It’s certainly faster than a human could shift. It all adds up to sensory overload, but not in any sort of dangerous or scary way.

This is the first car with paddle shift that has made me accept that this is the future. I much prefer, just as I prefer a mechanical watch, a mechanical gearchange with clutch. But Chris Goodwin’s changes were sublimely smooth and fast —much faster than any human could do with a stick. It’s very exciting to witness, and if, as I say, my goal is to get from point A to point B, it really is the only gearbox possible.

It’s amazing how incredibly stable this car is. I know you’re supposed to be screaming for your life and going, “Oh my God!” but it’s so stable and slides around so easily within its area that you don’t feel panicky.

It’s hard to judge the interior as this is a preproduction test car crammed with tech­nology, not a finished product. There was a lot of space. As much as I love the three-seat concept of the McLaren F1, there was more than enough space in this two-seater, visibility is good and the side mirrors are good. It’s a modern, practical automobile, not a dream car that you could not live with on the street. It appears to have acceptable ground clearance so you should be able to use it most places. From inside, the sound was snarly but pleasant. Any time you have twin turbos you get a little bit of a muted sound.

I thought it quite an honour to be given this chance. It was a real thrill. It was what you long for. You try to be the ultimate enthusiast. If you are a football fan, it’s like being asked to play with a team such as Manchester United. So you are with your car friends and they say, “I wonder what this new McLaren is like”, and you say, “In fact I was in it …”, and conversation stops.

Not only do I like the compactness of the MP4-12C; I like the shape. I think it is a better-looking car than the Ferrari that it will go against and I think it has an unrivalled pedigree.

Everybody knows Ferrari; only real enthusiasts know McLaren, which I think puts you in a higher-echelon club. That’s not to say Ferraris are not impressive — they are — but you might buy a Ferrari for other reasons. You would buy a McLaren only if you were a real enthusiast.

I like the fact that for this class of car, for a car that’s meant to compete with Ferrari and Porsche, McLaren is right on the money in terms of the price. It doesn’t assume because its last car was £500,000 that this one is going to be £500,000. It understands the market and seems to be gearing up for a real fight and, you know, I think when a car like this is introduced to the market, what it does is raise the bar. Everybody realises, wow, McLaren is coming out with this and we have got to come out with something to compete. It will improve super­cars across the board.

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