2016 McLaren 650S Spider Review: Driving Jabal Jais, UAE's highest mountain road

Rating: 9.0
$505,750 Mrlp
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Where's the best place to take a McLaren 650S Spider? Up the highest mountain in the United Arab Emirates, of course.
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The United Arab Emirates, and Dubai in particular, has become synonymous with huge buildings and luxury cars. The oil-laden nation is also becoming known for its high calibre and spectacular driving roads.

So, with that in mind, we could barely pass up the opportunity to take the 2016 McLaren 650S Spider for a drive from Dubai to the top of Jabal Jais, the highest mountain in the United Arab Emirates.

In typical Dubai fashion, it was 45 degrees in the shade when we ventured over to the McLaren dealership to collect our wheels.

The McLaren 650S Spider used to be McLaren’s entry-level vehicle, but recently had that role taken by the new entry-level 540C and the more expensive 570S. Further up the McLaren spec list from the 650S Spider are the more expensive 675LT and P1.

The sleek styling and appeal of the 650S is impossible to miss, especially when finished in this Aurora Blue colour with a number of black and carbon fibre highlights.

Every single angle on the car holds purpose, with the company paying heavy focus on functional aerodynamics and cooling. The side intake vents have increased in size since the outgoing MP4-12C and the radiator angle of attack has also been modified to optimise cooling.

These aspects are incredibly critical in climates like the UAE where temperatures can reach 50 degrees Celsius and the car needs to maintain its high levels of performance.

A beautiful clear engine cover drapes over the engine, while dual-exhausts earmark the 650S’s intent. The rear diffuser and retractable spoiler help to keep the rear down at speed, with the spoiler also acting as an aero brake and stabiliser at higher speeds.

A quick push of the concealed rubber button under the doorsill opens the uniquely shaped doors. They open outwards and upwards in a manner not dissimilar to the BMW i8, and they reveal the side portion of the car’s carbon fibre tub.

It’s not the most elegant car to get into and out of, given you need to slide over the carbon fibre tub to gain entry, but it’s easily mastered after a few attempts. Thankfully for passers by, I wasn’t wearing a skirt this time.

The interior is a beautiful place to sit. The test vehicle’s Alcantara interior — everything from the dashboard to the steering wheel — was pleasantly matched with carbon fibre highlights and contrast yellow stitching to match the brakes.

McLaren has gone to great lengths to simplify the presentation of the 650S’s interior. Climate controls are located on the doors, with most of the centre stack reserved for engine and performance controls, which is just the way it should be in this type of car.

A seven-inch vertically-stacked colour LCD screen sits in the centre and controls infotainment functions, allowing the user to run applications (such as online radio streaming), enter navigation addresses and change vehicle settings.

Beneath the LCD screen is arguably the most important aspect: the vehicle performance settings. Two switches feature Normal, Sport and Track modes, with the left hand side reserved for the suspension and aero, while the right controls the engine’s running tune and stability controls. There’s also a launch control button, but more on that later.

The roof can be opened or closed within 17 seconds and at speeds of up to 30km/h. Surprisingly there are plenty of storage spots within the cabin and a very generous front boot, in which I managed to fit a big-sized suitcase. Find me another supercar that can manage that feat!

There’s no point going any further without mentioning the engineering feat living under the rear bonnet.

McLaren’s claim to fame is its ultra-sharp and responsive twin-turbocharged 3.8-litre V8 engine that produces an exceptional 478kW of power and 678Nm of torque. That engine sits within a body that weighs just 1419kg, which makes it good for a 0-100km/h dash in 3.0-seconds when using launch control.

The entire package is mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox that’s operated either automatically or via rocker-switch carbon fibre paddle shifters mounted to the steering wheel.

Starting the car in the underground car park of the dealership sent chills down my spine. It doesn’t sound anything like a traditional V8. It has a hint of small-capacity Formula 1 V8 to it (previous generation) and sits there with a melodic thrum until the throttle is jabbed.

Visibility out the front, sides and rear is surprisingly good, so setting off from the dealership to the base of Jabal Jais was smooth sailing. The only complaint is the low-quality reversing camera, which doesn’t work great both during the day and at night.

Shadowed by the dizzying Burj Khalifa, we took a B-road to the super-highway that would take us north toward Ras Al-Khaimah, the province that leads toward Jabal Jais.

I was told that the best place to open up the 650S would be freeway onramps because, believe it or not, the UAE is riddled with speed cameras. Most have a tolerance of 20km/h, but nevertheless, I wanted to play it on the safe side.

As I entered the highway, I nailed the throttle and was shoved back into the seat as the two turbochargers began force-feeding the 650S Spider with hundreds of litres of stinking hot 45-degree heat. The noise was utterly sensational. There was a heightened mix of turbocharger induction noise, wailing V8 engine note and a deep, sonorous exhaust note bellowing out of the twin pipes.

The acceleration was equally unrelenting with each gearshift happening just shy of the V8’s incredible 8500rpm redline. Each new gear brought with it another wave of torque that only let up when I let off the throttle.

So, in a straight line the McLaren 650S Spider proved itself as an incredible hauler. But did it all come undone on the highway? Well, surprisingly it didn’t.

While the highway to Ras Al-Khaimah was predominantly smooth, it did have its moments. With all the performance settings switched off and the suspension in its Normal mode, it was smooth sailing with only a moderate amount of tyre noise coming into the cabin. Most of the noise was offset by the air conditioning, which was working particularly well given the 45-degree heat outside the cabin and the demand for it to cool the inside to 23 degrees.

If you’ve never driven in Dubai, you will find the terrain scarce, sandy and barren. Scenery is limited to new constructions and sand dunes, but the 120km/h speed limit helps shorten the trip between cities considerably.

With Dubai far behind us, we reached Ras Al-Khaimah. The road to Jabal Jais isn’t signposted in Ras Al-Khaimah, so it’s literally a case of entering a GPS coordinate for a road that leads out of the town towards Oman. The road is literally a goat track with deceivingly high speed humps, car-sized potholes and not another supercar in sight.

Before long, a winding road to the top of a huge mountain comes into view. Jabal Jais sits within the top 20 highest driving roads in the world and is the highest mountain and driving road in the UAE. Jabal Jais straddles the border between the UAE and Oman, with the driving side of the road within the UAE.

Almost as if the road was closed just for our drive, the two lanes up and one lane down are almost perfectly paved with a number of toilet huts along the way, should you need to stop.

We switch the 650S Spider into its most aggressive suspension setting, we enter the Sport engine mode which adjusts gear shifts and relieves traction control intervention, and enable the aero spoiler which acts for both down force and stopping assistance.

The aero wing increases down force by 20 per cent and will retract during hard acceleration to reduce drag and increase the slick profile of the car. During hard braking the wing deploys to act as an air brake to make sure there is no issue with pulling the 650S Spider up.

As we barrel into the first set of sweeping bends, the communicative and near-perfect steering begins to shine. The rack uses hydraulic fluid pressurised by an electric pump and ensures an optimum balance between steering feel and weight.

Equally as impressive is the braking package. Using carbon ceramic rotors, the braking system measures 394mm in diameter at the front and 380mm at the rear with six-piston calipers at the front and four-piston calipers at the rear.

The braking package works in unison with Pirelli P Zero Corsa tyres that measure 235mm wide at the front and 305mm wide at the rear to ensure traction is available through the rear wheels.

It soon becomes immediately obvious that the McLaren 650S Spider is weapons-grade track material. Not only was it sitting flat through corners, but the acceleration and grip levels were absolutely second to none on the Jabal Jais mountain road. As we approached the tighter switchbacks, traction was compromised by sandy silt sitting on the top layer of road. This would cause the car to squirm under brakes and the back end to become a bit loose under throttle. Despite this, it was still easy to manage and control.

Unlike some sports cars in this segment, the 650S certainly needs to be kept on boost for maximum engagement. On boost, the throttle remains razor sharp and speed in km/h is added in increments of 10s and 20s, not ones.

Traction is further helped by a technology called brake steer. Brake steer is controlled by the McLaren’s on-board computer and will apply braking force to the inside rear wheel after it has determined the optimum corner trajectory. It works well in practise, given the amount of torque being rammed through the rear wheels.

We reach the equivalent of automotive nirvana near the top of Jebel Jais where the 650S’s exhaust note is bouncing off the mountain range as we hit warp speed into a sweeping right-hander.

Then, it ends. The Emiratis are yet to finish the road and it ends with a gravel patch to the top, which we didn’t bother driving.

It’s slightly cooler at the top with temperatures sitting at around 35 degrees. It was also perfectly timed given we were down to under a quarter of a tank worth of fuel left and the range showing 30km — despite the nearest petrol station being 40km away.

Without wanting to risk third-degree sunburn, we tested out the 650S Spider’s drop-top driving mode during the night, where the temperature was still sitting at 37 degrees around midnight.

It’s certainly a more enticing experience with the roof off, but the 650S Spider doesn’t have that explosive and raucous engine note at low speeds that a Ferrari or Lamborghini does. It still has presence, but it blends in more than an Italian supercar would at low speeds.

When it comes to selling McLarens, the Emiratis have recently taken the sales crown, with Dubai’s McLaren dealership yielding the most vehicle sales of any McLaren dealership in the world — even exceeding sales of the company’s London arm.

Most of these cars will sit in the hands of people that will drive them on a highway or on a weekend to the Dubai Mall. It’s a great shame, really, because the McLaren 650S Spider is an incredible, uncompromised supercar.

Even with the searing heat, it performed incredibly well and didn’t falter once. This car is an engineer’s masterpiece and one of the main reasons you wouldn’t bother spending more money for a 675LT or even a P1 — this is the perfect all rounder.

Our stint in Dubai included time at the high-end Armani hotel located inside the Burj Khalifa. This ultra-luxury, high-end hotel aptly matches the McLaren 650S's persona and has a car park to match. If you have enough time, it's also worth squeezing in a visit to At.mosphere Restaurant on level 122 for amazing views.

At $505,750 locally in 650S Spider trim, those after a more conservative 650S can save $46,500 by opting for the 650S coupe instead. Either way, this car is guaranteed to put a massive smile on your face, whether you drive it up the highest mountain in the UAE or down the Great Ocean Road.

Click on the Photos tab to see a full McLaren 650S Spider image gallery by Paul Maric.