McLaren's MP4-12C is out and the company is pleased by a worldwide order book of 1700-plus units. It's a remarkable car in many ways, not least for being the first tilt at genuine populism from the only brand that matches or exceeds Ferrari for Formula One-derived brand cachet.

That's not to say they're pitching it against the Toyotas and the like. But where the company's last own-branded effort, the F1, brought pure race-car values to the road – right down to the ever-controversial ground-effect aerodynamics – the 12C serves up the broadest of dynamic spectra, at the mere touch of a couple of buttons. It's designed as genuinely well-rounded personal transport, able to negotiate the peak hour bumper-to-bumper as well as it might the Laguna Seca corkscrew.

That's because it's aimed squarely at prospective Ferrari 458 Italia buyers. The 12C expresses its tilt at aspirational consumers in a choice of 17 different paint colors, mix-and-matchable across body and front-end panels and interior. A clever configurator on the company's website allows detailed visuals of color schemes outside and in, with wheel and brake caliper options. Carbon fiber trim bits, inside and out, sit prominently among an options list that in some markets could add between 10 and 20 per cent to an entry cost designed to keep it competitive with the 458. Some indicator prices: in its UK home market, that the 12C starts at £168K; in the US it's listed at US$229K, while Down Under it's a little over AUD$500K.

Depending on the market, that's between half and a quarter the F1's asking price when it was released two decades ago. Much of this can be put down to economies of scale associated with globalization – and, of course, a desire to reap more in volume profits than kudos this time round. The F1 was something of a bellwether in its use of carbon fiber, which is now more common and therefore less costly.

But the 12C's use of the material keeps McLaren at the industry's cutting edge. Its all-carbon fiber chassis weighs a tiny 75 kg (165 lbs), yet is so strong the body panels covering it play no protective role at all. Save for keeping the rain out, they're there for purely aerodynamic and aesthetic purposes.

Asked about crash testing results, Ian Gorsuch, McLaren's regional director for the Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific, was coy about Euro NCAP star ratings, but came good with reassurance from another angle. "In the official crash testing for Europe and the US, we used the same chassis in all three tests – a direct front-on and oblique front-ons from left and right," he told Gizmag. "That's pretty much unheard of. Normally, such testing needs an entire new vehicle for each impact."

As test drivers Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton have attested, car's user-friendliness doesn't doesn't detract from its sporting prowess (you can see it here on this rather cheesy YouTube video).

Indoors, a pure sports instrument panel gives a large central analogue tacho precedence over the digital speedo sitting within it. And in a sector that makes liberal use of porky center consoles to impart the luxury message, the 12Cs is so slim they've moved the HVAC controls out to the armrests in its upswinging dihedral doors and spun the central touchscreen 90 degrees to portrait mode, so they can keep it big but thin it down.

The rationale here is pure sports: pushing the two seats towards the center of the chassis edges weight distribution just that little bit closer to perfect, helping center the combined weight of driver, passenger and mid-mounted engine. They've put work into keep the center of gravity low, too. Dry-sump lubrication, for example, eliminates the need for an oil-pan, allowing them to mount the engine lower.

The mid-mounted 3.8-liter twin-turbo V8 was designed in-house, but it's built by engineering specialist Ricardo and delivered complete. It's good for 441kW at 7000rpm (on the way to a 9000 redline), while its 600Nm peak torque band extends from a low (by the standards of engines like this) 3000rpm right up to 7000.

What that adds up to in a 1301kg package is stratospheric power-to-weight. Going to tar through McLaren's own seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, it's good for 0-100 km/h (0-62 mph) in 3.3 seconds, 0-200 km/h in 9.1 seconds, and a 10.9-second standing quarter mile terminating at 217km/h. Replace the street tires with the optional Corsa set and you can take a couple of points from each.

One neat touch for drivers is the see-saw paddle shift. Most makers use separate left and right paddles – pull the right one inwards to shift up, pull the left one inwards to shift down. McLaren's is a one piece arrangement that pivots around the steering column. This gives you to ways to change gear: to shift down you can either pull the right-hand paddle in towards you or push the left-hand away from you, and vice versa to downshift.

On CO2 emissions, it's not bad for a supercar. Mr Gorsuch and his colleagues like to say the MP4 is more efficient than a Toyota Prius. But you must understand something here: in a car like this, it's not just about simple grams per kilometre. You have to add an extra dimension to the equation, one too crucial to exclude in this rarefied sector of the auto market: power output.

So all up, what they mean is that at 279 g/km, it's about the cleanest petrol powered supercar you can buy. No better sales pitch to those Hollywood types who park their Priuses out front at home to distract attention from the garage full of Hummers and Vipers.

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