There are several ways of looking at this. A British supercar caparisoned for battle with Ferrari's 458 and Lamborghini's Gallardo. Built in Woking, at the creepily hi-tech home of McLaren Automotive (aka RonWorld), with 300 skilled jobs in the offing and on sale this May at a price of £168,500. Hurrah!
Another viewpoint is that since Formula One's inaugural world championship race at Silverstone in 1950, just one team – Ferrari – has consistently made road cars under its own name. Granted, BRM, BMW, Cooper, Lamborghini, Alfa Romeo and Mercedes-Benz are just some who have built or added their name to road cars, but they've not continuously been involved in F1. Founded in 1963, late Kiwi Bruce McLaren's eponymous team is the second oldest in grand prix racing, so what could be more fitting than its own road car.
Yes, it has built them before – and not just the epochal 1992 F1, the no-compromise road racer that won the Le Mans 24 Hours at its first attempt, in 1995. McLaren also built a series of Mercedes-Benz SLRs, an unhappy project that at least gave both parties some practical experience.
Or perhaps the MP4-12C is simply the next chapter in the endless story of how a small clique of men made themselves obscenely rich off the back of F1 and now need alternative employment: Bernie Ecclestone into property development, Max Mosely into civil-liberties litigation and Ron Dennis into supercar manufacture.
The cold drizzle at Dunsfold aerodrome in Surrey washes away most of these thoughts as I prepare to climb behind the wheel. The chill has even taken some of the bounce out of chief test driver Chris Goodwin, who's thumbing the illuminated red starter button on the centre console.
Based around a resin-transfer-moulded carbon-fibre tub, with aluminium sub-frames at each end, the MP4 is powered by a new, 3.8-litre, twin-turbocharged, dry-sump V8 designed by McLaren and built by Ricardo in Shoreham, Sussex.
The engine sits behind the cockpit, with a seven-speed, Italian-made Graziano twin-clutch transmission hanging on the back. Upper- and lower-wishbone suspension is augmented by clever hydraulics, which replace conventional anti-roll bars by pumping the suspension to suppress the effects of body roll, pitch and squat. The system is not dissimilar to that used in the brilliant Citroën 2CV and also incorporates real-time adaptive damping, which helps moderate the ride quality – sometimes an issue in super-stiff, carbon fibre-bodied cars.
Comfort was a key feature of our drive around the snow-ravaged roads of Surrey. You hear the bumps as the wheels react to the huge potholes, but the McLaren rides through them like a family hatchback and there's no steering reaction, either. The engine, too, is docile and mercifully quiet.
The gearbox is fussy and lumpy at low speeds, which is fairly typical in cars such as this. Changes are made via steering wheel-mounted paddles, which are yoked in the middle so a pull on one equals a push on the other. It's a good system, derived from racing practice, but eschews the industry protocol that a pull on both paddles selects neutral. Some owners might find this confusing.
The car's manoeuvrability is also notable – McLaren has pinched every inch to reduce the width and that means threading the MP4-12C through busy market towns is less nerve-racking than it would be in some rivals.
The cabin is surprisingly practical, too. There's space for a couple of small cases under the bonnet and the two seats are comfortable: the centre console is shaved to such an extent that the satnav screen is upended, but you are sufficiently far apart not to touch shoulders. Widely adjustable seats and steering enable a good driving position for most and the pedal box is mercifully large, so you can drive in brogues rather than racing boots. It has a nice steering wheel, too: oval and squared-off at the bottom, it feels like the precision instrument it is.
Problems? With no conventional external door handles, the MP4-12C has a touch-sensitive switch just under each cut line and they're impossible to find – shades of TVR here. You need the touch and sensitivity of Evgeny Kissin at the Bechstein just to get into the bloomin' thing, all the while noting that when open the scissor doors increase the MP4's width by two feet on each side. That car at the far end of the supermarket car park will be the McLaren, then.
Being turbocharged, the engine is mainly dormant at low speeds: just as well really, because with 592bhp and 0-62mph taking only 3.1sec, the last thing you need is an over-sensitive throttle. Two dial switches on the centre console alter the characteristics of the suspension and engine/transmission respectively. Restarting reverts to Normal, but a push on the Active button restores the configuration last used. Goodwin illustrates how much more pointy and roll-resistant the big Mac becomes in Sport mode, then increases the intensity to Track and floors it.
Like, er wow, Scoobs... On a greasy, damp track, the 1.4-ton MP4-12C leaps away from the line, its engine bellowing lustily and the traction control moderating the inevitable wheelspin. Extended to about 6,000rpm, this is a remarkably fast car. Push up to 8,000 and it's a rocket.
With not a whisper of tribute to Philip K Dick, McLaren uses a clutch preloading system called Pre Cog: with slight pressure to the gearchange paddle, this makes the selection process almost instantaneous.
The charge down the main straight of this old airfield, where the Harrier jump jet was developed, feels almost as fast as that much-missed aircraft. Whap, the needle scrolls up to 8,000rpm and it takes a flurry of fingers to access the next chapter of this amazing engine's yarn, a process that continues all the way to seventh gear. The hydraulics help out here, pumping to keep the chassis as flat as possible and maximising grip and traction.
Steel brakes are standard, but we were using the optional carbo-ceramic discs, which clamp down speed as though you threw out an anchor. In a way you have, because the rear wing flips up just as it did on Juan Manuel Fangio's 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR. This pushes the rear end down while the hydraulics moderate the suspension to avoid terminal dive.
Yes, the MP4 will understeer if you aimlessly twiddle at the wheel, but balance throttle and steering and the turn-in is as good as it gets in this class. Exiting a bend, the traction, hydraulics and stability electronics are joined by a brake-steer system, which uses the rear brakes to reduce understeer and keep the car straight under hard acceleration. Who says motor racing doesn't improve the breed?
My abiding memories? Power and speed, stability under braking and the way a duffer like me could steer it on the throttle without disappearing into the scenery. It's a class act, the McLaren, and clearly finely honed in every department.
If the Italians are all sound and passion, the McLaren, with its more sober Frank Stephenson design, is more serious. A stunning debut, then, for a supercar that's arguably more practical than its rivals. McLaren aims to build 1,000 this year and 1,500 per annum after that. I doubt it will have many problems selling them.
Tested: 3.8-litre, 90-degree V8 with chain-driven double-overhead-camshafts per bank, twin MHI turbochargers, seven-speed twin-clutch transmission, rear-wheel drive
Price/on sale: £168,500/May
Power/torque: 592bhp @ 7,000rpm and 443lb ft @ 3,000rpm
Top speed: 205mph
Acceleration: 0-62mph in 3.1sec (on optional Pirelli Corsa tyres)
Fuel economy: 24.2mpg (EU Combined)
CO2 emissions: 279g/km
VED band: M (£950 first year, £435 thereafter)
On the stereo: Keep My Motor Running by Roy Orbison
Verdict: Stunning debut for the Woking F1 team. More understated than the competition, but just as able and certainly as fast.
Telegraph rating: Five out of five
Ferrari 458 Italia, £169,546
One of the best ever from Maranello. Wrapped in scanty aluminium-alloy couture, this is one of Pinifarina's finest hours. The naturally-aspirated, 4.5-litre V8 drinks more fuel than the McLaren, but provides a more linear power delivery and is almost as fast. Ferrari on tip-top form and very hard to beat.
Lamborghini Gallardo LP570 Superleggera, £174,840
Until we get the Aventador later this year, the Gallardo will have to do. In Superleggera form it's better than ever, although the styling is outrageous, so not for the shy and retiring. The 5.2-litre V10 gives a spine-chilling soundtrack and it's almost as fast as the McLaren, but its ride quality falls way short.
Driving on Jeremy Clarkson's own test track
Little known fact: Dunsfold aerodrome is not just BBC 2's Top Gear test track. It is one of the McLaren test team's homes, too, although the MP4-12C was also honed on the company's own F1 simulator as well as tracks in Sweden and southern Spain. "I actually prefer the F1 simulator," says test driver Chris Goodwin, "because it means I get home in the evening."
The press photos accompanying this piece were shot in sunny Portugal, but Dunsfold was not wet enough to wipe away the slime, nor dry enough to provide much traction. The treacherous surface gave the McLaren's sentient safety systems plenty to think about, not that I helped much. Featureless airfield circuits are some of the hardest to learn and, despite seeing it countless times on Top Gear, I didn't have the faintest idea which way it went. It didn't help that some asphalt is used twice in a loose, figure-of-eight configuration and an early dusk obscured some of the corners. That's my excuse, anyway.
Stars in a reasonably priced car would have done a better job, but let's just say that I ended the day with a new-found respect for them and the new Stig. Top Gear's track is a lot harder than it looks on TV, even if Goodwin makes it look easy.