When it comes to junior “supercars”, the Ferrari 458 is as good as it gets. So why is it in second place, with this significantly less well-rounded and well-realized McLaren on top of the podium? Mostly, it’s focus, and preference. The focus is courtesy of McLaren; the preference is all mine.

I’ve argued in the past that McLaren significantly misunderstands why people really buy these cars, and the 12C bears that out. It’s chock-full of awesome racing-tech stuff about which customers could not care less. For example, it has a carbon-fiber MonoCell tub, just like the original McLaren F1 supercar. The climate controls are on the doors and the center console is as narrow as the Android device that serves as an all-in-one infotainment screen. The purpose is to keep the polar moment of inertia low, which makes the McLaren easier to rotate (turn) than the competition. That’s not the kind of difference that most drivers will notice. They will, however, notice that the Android system crashes relatively often, even in the updated 650S model that I drove earlier this year.

The 3.8-liter twin-turbo V-8 makes more power than the normally-aspirated mill in the Ferrari, and it makes much more torque everywhere on the curve. It’s quicker in the measured quarter-mile, running a 10.8 in some magazine testing and a 10.31 in private hands, but even that significant gap between the 12C and the 458 fails to convey how much faster the car is around a racetrack. When the Ferrari is making majestic sounds and kicking ass, the McLaren is whooshing away like a Dyson vacuum with a noisy belt — and dropping the Ferrari like the Italian car has the E-brake on.

There’s a remarkable amount of stagger, with a 235-width 19″ tire in front and a 305-width 20″ tire in back, and it has the inevitable limiting effect on the 12C’s ability to get around the racetrack. Yet even with that handicap this is a viciously fast car. Most people will go their entire lives without steering something that turns lap times like the 12C. Until recently, there wasn’t any such thing as a street-legal car that could come close to the 12C’s pace. Supposedly it’s faster than the fabled McLaren F1 around pretty much any racetrack you can find. (The 650S, of course, is faster still.)

The price of this pace is a chassis that is simply more prickly and provoke-able than what you get in the 458 or Gallardo. In fast turns, it doesn’t feel nearly as buttoned-down as the other two cars and you’re always conscious of the weight behind you. The ESC doesn’t feel fully baked and turning it off reveals the vicious nature of that twin-boosted engine, which is always ready and willing to put the tail farther out than you can readily catch. If the Gallardo feels like it was designed to keep the driver safe, and the 458 feels like it was designed to flatter the driver, then the McLaren feels like it was designed around a required laptime and the driver’s peace of mind was never even a consideration. If you make a mistake, this automobile will bite you in less time than it takes to draw a single terrified breath.

Though this is nominally a competitor for the junior supercars, not the Aventador or F12berlinetta, the 12C delivers an overall vibe that’s closer to the latter. The dihedral doors, which add drama to every arrival and departure, show off the MonoCell’s high and wide sills. The proportions are visually extreme even if the actual footprint is very similar to that of the smaller Lamborghini. The vaguely unfinished feel of the interior is pure supercar, as is the supreme difficulty of reversing and parking. What a shame, then, that it just doesn’t look that special. “Generic” is the word. Luckily, the 650S rectifies that and then some, grafting the insectile P1 nose to the 12C body in a marriage that is happier than the description suggests.

What makes the McLaren the winner of this eight-car roundup is simple: it feels the most special, the most unusual, and the most exotic. It demands more from the driver than the seven other cars combined and it provides the greatest reward for mastering its foibles, both in terms of raw lap time and in terms of delta separating the inept and the invincible. If you had one car and one lap to see what a driver was made of, the McLaren would be obvious choice in this group.

When it’s right, it’s right. The airbrake will scare the shit out of you the first time you really use it — when deployed at 130mph it will shake the entire car like it was a child’s toy — but it works. The brakes always play ball and you can trust them. The corner entry requires precision, the midcorner requires patience, but when you get the power on at just the right time you feel like $MC_LAREN_DRIVER_OF_YOUR_CHOICE as the 12C warps the scenery ahead of you in Millennium Falcon fashion and the other “supercars” around you simply wilt like last week’s roses. The acceleration, particularly at aerodynamically significant speeds, seems to not respect the laws of physics. I’ve been in 800-horsepower Porsche Turbos that didn’t move like this above the 100mph mark.

Compared to the Audi and the Lamborghinis, the interior is cheap and fragile. Compared to the Ferrari, the engine sounds like a Kitchen-Aid and the interior electronics are roughly equivalent to a prepaid-service smartphone. It doesn’t look like anything so much as it looks like nothing in particular. In my experience, women prefer the Lamborghini Huracan to this or any other McLaren with approximately the same amount of fervor they’d apply to talking their way out of accompanying you to a Dream Theater concert.

Doesn’t matter. If you had the racetrack all to yourself, for the whole day, and nobody was there to watch, and the only thing to be gained was the satisfaction of driving well, you’d choose this one in a heartbeat. Res ipsa loquitur, man, and the 12C speaks with the racer’s voice.