On the open road, the McLaren 650S is decidedly simple to drive, but on a closed circuit it becomes a genuine test of bravery and skill.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the latest McLaren 650S super-sports car, it’s worth going back a few years to understand how this formidable Formula One constructor got into the road car business in the first place.
In 1992, McLaren released the F1, a true modern motoring legend and one of the highest-performing supercars of all time. Powered by a 6.1-litre BMW V12, the F1 set a then-record for production cars with a top speed of 390 km/h.
The company’s next road car project, the outrageous SLR (2003-10), was a co-venture with another German manufacturer of high-performance vehicles, Mercedes-Benz, which owned 40 per cent of McLaren at the time. The Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren was powered by a supercharged 5.4-litre V8 and the fastest version, the 722 Edition, had a reputed top speed of 337 km/h.
Two different production models in two decades is not exactly a blistering pace - even for a niche manufacturer - but McLaren now seems determined to make up ground in a big hurry. Free from the Mercedes-Benz ownership stake, the small manufacturer from Woking has released no fewer than five variations of three different models since 2011.
This year alone, McLaren has introduced the P1 hybrid hypercar and, the topic of this particular article, the 650S Coupe and Spider. This newfound pace of development threatens to leave all other supercar manufacturers, arch rival Ferrari included, in its aerodynamically sculpted wake. Its stated intent is to release a new car every year and, with the arrival of the 650S twins, the count stands at five cars in three years.
A caveat with the 650S, though: When it was announced at this year’s Geneva Motor Show, the coupe and spider were supposed to represent a third line for McLaren, slotting in below the P1 and above the 12C Coupe and Spider. (The press handout, dated April 2014, still has this wording.) The company then decided the 650S would replace the 12C entirely - a risky move when you consider the 12C owner and imagine your car is out-of-date two years after being brand new.
On the plus side, McLaren provides service upgrades to bring older models closer to the performance levels of new releases. A quick look back at the 12C reveals this practice in action: The coupe debuted with 435 kW, while the spider arrived a year later packing 453 kW, and all coupe owners were able to bring their cars into a McLaren service centre to receive the software upgrade to match.
Now, with the arrival of the 650S, all customer 12Cs are eligible for another upgrade that brings the power up to 471 kW and ratchets up the torque to a similar degree. The mid-engined 650S, by comparison, is powered by a twin-turbo V8 engine producing 478kW of power at 7250rpm and 678Nm of torque at 6000rpm.
While this should keep the 12C owner reasonably well satisfied, there are some aspects of the 650S that can’t be recreated, no matter how lofty the starting point.
For full McLaren 650S pricing and specifications see our separate story here.
According to Chris Goodwin, the race driver tasked with developing the company’s road cars, the 650S is roughly 25 per cent different than the 12C. There is exactly 24 per cent more downforce in the new car, courtesy of a revised front splitter. The 650S is six kilograms lighter than the 12C. The braking system has been revised to create more linear feel. The steering now features quicker turn-in. And the overall balance of the car has been shifted slightly to create a more rear-biased feel. The look of the 650S is, of course, also different - particularly the front fascia, with its P1-inspired design.
While the 12C offered impressive acceleration, the 650S is quicker still. There’s something magical that happens when a car can break the three-second barrier in the sprint to 60 mph and the new McLaren arrives at that point in just 2.9 seconds. One hundred miles per hour appears in 5.7 seconds. Top speed is a reported 333 km/h for the coupe and 327 km/h for the spider. (The 7-speed dual clutch transmission is, as expected, incredibly quick.)
A quick look at the statistics reveals that the 650S isn’t capable of outclassing either the F1 or the SLR in terms of terminal velocity, but that’s not the point. Instead, the new McLaren seeks to impress with its high-tech solutions for cutting the fastest possible lap times. With the benefit of an F1-inspired brake steer system and a more active, moveable rear wing, the car allows the driver to dive deep into the corners under braking, confident that everything will work out just fine in the end.
As on the 12C, the rear wing deploys under braking to help scrub off speed. But on the 650S, the wing is also used to keep with stability when cresting a rise. The activity of the rear wing takes some getting used to; under heavy braking, the driver’s hands must stay straight on the steering wheel otherwise the brake steer effect will come into play and upset the balance.
There are three different powertrain settings and three different handling settings on the McLaren - normal, sport and track. During a day at Monticello Motor Club in upstate New York, we were given free reign to explore all three powertrain settings, which dictate shift speed and throttle response, and received very strict instructions not to explore the most extreme handling setting.
The handling dial triggers the level of assistance from the stability control system; track mode offers the least help and, thus, the most skill from the driver. During one of the later sessions, yours truly mistakenly set the powertrain to “sport” and the handling to “track”. This miscue left me wondering why the 650S was so eager to slide sideways around one of the track’s quick right-hand bends at about 240 km/h. (Those were some eye-opening moments.)
Although every manufacturer of supercars is quick to mention the “everyday” drivability of their respective rides, McLaren may have the most right on this claim. A quick jaunt along country roads near the track revealed that the 650S is incredibly adept at soaking up imperfections; there was no sense that the car would bottom out, nor that the car’s tyres or wheels would suffer damage. This aspect of the car was remarkable.
Negatives? Well, the 650S is pricier than its predecessor 12C. The new model starts at $441,500 for the 650S Coupe and $486,250 for the 650S Spider – or $43,500 more than the existing MP4-12C Coupe and $44,470 dearer than the MP4-12C Spider, respectively. That pricing makes it more affordable than the Ferrari 458 Italia ($526,950) and 458 Spider ($590,000). But it is dearer than the all-new Lamborghini Huracan, which in Coupe guise sells at $428,000.
There are many fast cars out there, but very few of them have performance capabilities that require the driver to up his level of skill so profoundly. On the open road, the McLaren 650S is decidedly simple to drive. Just select automatic shifting and the “normal” setting for the powertrain and handling. Done.
But on a closed circuit, the 650S becomes a genuine test of bravery and skill. Long story short, McLaren has taken what was already a fantastic super-sports car and transformed it into one of the most focused track weapons on the planet.