Driving the McLaren MP4-12C was like flying a jet fighter that happened to have four wheels and a stereo: The carbon-fibre doors swung up like the canopy of an F-35, and the turbocharged engine raged into life behind my head.
A few minutes later, I was carving through corners at more than 200 km/h, experiencing one of the most acclaimed sports cars in the world. The acceleration was little short of mind-bending, and braking conjured an aircraft carrier landing: a stabilizing flap popped up on the McLaren's tail, and the deceleration was so rapid that only the seatbelts kept me from being launched through the windshield.
As I parked the McLaren, I was definitely impressed. But then I asked myself the question that comes into my head every time I try a new car, whether it's a Chevy Sonic or a Rolls-Royce: would I buy it?
The answer can be surprising – I've driven expensive cars that I didn't like, and low-priced ones that I loved. When it comes to cars, you don't always get what you pay for, since they defy many of the rules of logical economic analysis, which tell you that the value of a good or service increases with price.
But you can spend a lot of money for a car that's less reliable than many economy models. Some of the worst-rated cars in Consumer Reports are high-end machines. (One of my friends recently had a $12,000 electrical repair on an expensive German sedan that was less than three years old.)
Automotive value is a complex subject. Reduced to its essence, a car is nothing more than four wheels and an engine. But there's more to it than that. Cars may serve as transportation, but they are also art forms and mobile status symbols that defy clear-headed analysis.
As I pondered the McLaren, I saw what an economist would refer to as a case of diminishing returns. The car was incredible, but it cost more than $300,000 with options. Was it really better than a Porsche Turbo that costs about 40 per cent less? And would it do a better job of getting you to the grocery store than a Ford Taurus?
The McLaren presented an interesting value proposition. You could buy three or four BMW M3s for the same price – or an entire fleet of Toyota Yarises. But the McLaren is a unique car, packed with advanced technology like digitally controlled suspension and a carbon central frame. And it's more rare than a Porsche or BMW – when you drive a McLaren, heads turn.
You could even argue that the McLaren is a bargain, since it competes with cars that cost even more, like the Ferrari 458, Aston Martin One-77 and Pagani Zonda (these last two both sell for more than $1-million).
The car market is divided into a series of segments. On one end of the scale is the economy class, where price and value spell the difference between marketplace life and death – this is the realm of cars like the Chevrolet Sonic, Hyundai Accent and Honda Fit. From there we move up through classes where cost becomes less important. By the time you've reached the high-end sedan category (populated with cars like the 7-series BMW and Mercedes 550 S-Class), buyers are prepared to spend much more than $100,000 in exchange for luxury features and superb driving dynamics.
Beyond that, you enter the automotive stratosphere, where price becomes immaterial. This is the world of low-volume, high-margin machines that are the automotive equivalent of couture clothing. When I drove the $400,000-plus Rolls-Royce Phantom, I thought it was a beautiful car, but its incredible cost was based on things that I didn't care about: hand-rubbed paint, burled-oak trim, and an interior stitched together from buttery-soft, matched leather hides.
The paint job alone probably cost as much as a Toyota Camry. Was it worth it? As I studied the Phantom, I could see that the paint really was superior: my reflection appeared in its obsidian depths so perfectly that I might have been peering into a bathroom mirror. There wasn't a ripple or bump to be found. The average car is painted and pushed out the factory door, but the Phantom had probably been wet-sanded and buffed for a week.
The Phantom's doors opened and closed with the silence and heft of bank vaults, and contained a luxury feature I'd never seen before: at the touch of a button, a black umbrella emerged from the door like a sword being drawn from a scabbard.
The Phantom, like the McLaren, offers something special, but at a steep price. The McLaren is faster and better finished than my own sports car, but it costs three times as much. The Phantom is a nicer sedan than our Honda Accord, but it costs about 15 times as much.
So would I buy the McLaren or the Phantom if I won the lottery? I decided that I wouldn't.
My answer to that question plunged me into a study of price-to-performance ratio. The cruel economics of this concept were first driven home to me back in the 1990s, when I became obsessed with racing bikes. At the time, a garden-variety bike sold in the $350 range, and weighed about 30 pounds. By spending another $150, I could get a bike that weighed five pounds less – a mass reduction of more than 15 per cent that I could really feel as I rode. After that, the weight-savings became more costly. To reach the 20-pound mark, I had to spend about $2,000.
And at that point, I entered a realm of serious diminishing returns, where each lost ounce cost more than pure heroin. For a while, I owned a Merlin road racer with a titanium frame, Dura-Ace gears and custom-built Mavic wheels. It cost about $7,000 (a lot of money back then) and weighed just more than 16 pounds. But even that wasn't good enough – I replaced every steel bolt on the bike with titanium ones. (This saved about one ounce, at a cost of several hundred dollars.)
I now had the bicycle equivalent of a Bugatti Veyron. My bike was great. But truth be told, it wasn't much different than a bike that cost half as much. When it came to the price-to-performance ratio, I'd blown it.
I thought of this as I drove the McLaren. It was an awesome ride (although I did find it a little too clinical for my liking). Just for fun, I comparison-shopped it with the upcoming Bugatti Super Veyron, which is scheduled to appear at next year's Frankfurt Motor Show. The Super Veyron will have 1,600 horsepower and a top speed of 460 km/h. The price will be $2.7-million (U.S.).
The current McLaren has 617 horsepower and a top speed of 330 km/h. And it costs about nine times less than the SuperVeyron. The Veyron may be the ultimate case of diminishing returns, so you really have to want the Veyron, and have to be seriously rich. (A little foolish would help, too.) And, as someone, somewhere once said: If you have to ask, you can't afford it.
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