McLaren has launched a drop-top Spider version of its MP4-12C; its ultra-powerful engine and attention to detail place it at the top of the supercar league, but could such clinical precision work against it? / By Alistair Weaver

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There's a fast kink in the Ascari circuit in southern Spain. In the McLaren MP4-12C Spider it's taken at almost 150mph as the wind rushes through the cabin. Then hard on the brakes, the back end squirming a little as you paddle shift from fifth down to second. Get it right and you can use this trait to help the car into the corner, just as Jenson Button does in his McLaren Formula One car. Then hard on the power as 616 horses do a war dance. It's already clear that the new Spider is a serious supercar.

McLaren might be a relative newcomer as a supercar manufacturer but it is not short of technology or ambition. The firm's CEO Ron Dennis has devoted most of his life to beating Ferrari on the racetrack and now he's determined to repeat the trick on the road. He's a latter-day Enzo Ferrari, but without the Italian's eccentricities (or his signature violet ink).

The three-piece hard-top can retract in 17 seconds

The MP4-12C coupe was launched back in 2011 and now it's been followed by an open-top Spider version. McLaren expects it to account for 80 per cent of sales, and it's not hard to see why. The Spider retains a similar aesthetic to the coupe but its folding hard-top can rise and fall in just 17 seconds. The glass rear window can even be lowered independently, providing greater access to the V8's music even when the roof 's up.

The McLaren's other party piece is its carbon-fibre MonoCell chassis. Pinching technology that the firm first developed for Formula One racing, it provides a level of rigidity and crash protection beyond the reach of more traditional aluminium rivals, such as the Ferrari 458 Spider. In an open-top car, this is doubly important, because the loss of a roof compromises the car's structural integrity.

The MonoCell is the key to understanding this car's character. While Ferrari sups at the cup of heritage and passion, and Aston Martin invokes James Bond and upper-class charm, the McLaren is a clinical performance tool. Ron Dennis has little interest in superficiality; his ambition is to build the most capable performance cars on the planet.

Rotary controls switch between normal, track and sport functions; change gear using the paddles behind the steering wheel

To this end, he even commissioned a bespoke engine. The MP4-12C employs a 3.8ltr twin-turbo V8 that produces 616hp and 442 lb/ft of torque. This is enough for 0-60mph in 3.1 seconds and a top speed of 204mph, figures that place the MP4-12C at the top table in the supercar club.

When it was originally launched in the coupe, this engine was criticised for being too clinical. Customers who'd spent the equivalent of a small house on their car wanted to feel where their money had been spent. McLaren has responded with a new Intake Sound Generator (ISG) system, which allows you to choose a range of engine notes, from modest to obnoxiously loud.

It's a neat system, but for all the pops, farts and whistles, this McLaren turbo is never going to match the aural sophistication and high rev symphonies of the Ferrari motor. The McLaren is brutal and effective, but the Ferrari performs con amore.

The McLaren's cockpit also places the emphasis on rational endeavour. There's a thin sliver of a centre console with a touchscreen that controls all the major functions and looks a bit like an iPhone. There's no gearstick as such, just a couple of rotary controls and some paddles behind the steering wheel.

Responding to criticism that the 12c coupe sounded too timid, the spider features an ‘intake sound generator’ that adjusts engine noise to the driver’s liking

These rotary knobs are the key to your driving experience. You must choose, for example, between Normal, Track and Sport modes for both the suspension and gearbox. The idea is simple: to offer saloon-like suppleness when you want it, and racecar-like precision when you need it. It sounds contrived but it really does work.

When you're in the mood, Sport is the best option for the road. On the twisting blacktop of southern Spain, the McLaren proved comically rapid. The poise, grip and agility are truly staggering. Third gear is really all you need, pulling from little more than walking pace to speeds that would be inappropriate to print. In fact, so capable is the MP4-12C that you start to wonder how McLaren's forthcoming P1 range-topper will provide a significant uplift in the real world.

The Spider is a fabulous piece of engineering inspired by a Formula One team renowned for its fastidious attention to detail. To drive this car is to start to understand the mentality of a company led by a man who tiled a pit garage at Belgium's Spa circuit because he couldn't bear the sight of the concrete floor.

This approach, though, is both a strength and a weakness. The McLaren feels like the finest tool, exquisitely crafted and wonderful to use. The Ferrari, by contrast, is a piece of automotive art, defined as much by the way that it looks and the way that it sounds as the way that it drives. It has a much bigger sense of occasion. For those who like their supercars to feel super in every way, the Ferrari is the better choice.