McLaren 650S Spider Road Test
It’s 9:00am, late July. The British summer has been kind this year, the clouds charitable in their absence, the sun unusually conspicuous.
Today, it’s wet. We’re on our way to McLaren, Woking. The incessant torrent is relentless, and visibility on this particularly drab, grim day is laughable. Or not. It’s Friday, the ABS-reliant commuter mafia are linked together like railway carriages, the visibility so poor, I can’t make out which sales rep(robate) bogie has decided our arse a suitable place to couple.
Avoiding the standing water, I ponder the sanity of the upcoming weekend’s exploits. The rain, it seems, will be following us as we tunnel under the channel and emerge on the continent, by which time, the inherent safety of our current four-wheel-drive system will be replaced by just two. And not the relatively predictable front wheel type, but the ever more challenging rear. Irrespective of weather conditions, the transition from all-wheel drive to rear is not usually something that fazes, but when said transition encompasses a mighty leap from a mere 200 bhp to a monumental 640 bhp, the thought of dry tarmac becomes an altogether more enticing proposition.
The McLaren 650s, to date, will be the most powerful mid-engined, rear-wheel drive car I’ve ever driven. And it’s pissing down. Upon arrival, one is immediately struck by the design of McLaren’s Technology Centre. It’s a curious place, clinically clean, unapologetically sparse. As we traverse one white panelled corridor to the next, I can’t help but recall 2001: A Space Odyssey. Not averse to a bit of science fiction fantasy, I revel in its fastidious spectacle. This Earth-based space station is rather extraordinary and unlike any other automotive facility I’ve witnessed before.
As we slip quietly past the main show hall, I try to sly a shot of McLaren’s stunning lineup of former F1 glory, but I’m politely reminded that McLaren Automotive and McLaren Formula 1 are two quite separate entities (though F1 technology certainly crosses the borders).
Mild bollocking received, my fond recollections of Senna and Prost duking it out in Marlborough-emblazoned race rockets quickly subside, as I catch a glimpse of our weekend ride. Beautifully proportioned and finished in Pearl White, our 650S Spider exudes understated ability. Shouty, flamboyant Italian this is not. Nor is it simply a pricey means to extend one’s appendage, though if you feel the need, by all means, put your name down – it’ll probably do that, too.
I’ve always preferred tin tops and although today’s folding hard tops have no doubt improved, a compromise in visual spectacle is always apparent. The 650S, however, is a triumph, being equally striking as a fully clothed conservative or topless exhibitionist. And unlike some of its Italian adversaries, performance between the Spider and the Coupe are nigh on identical.
I wasn’t overly enamoured with the decision to graft the P1’s hooter on to this extensively updated 12C, but the more time spent with the refined racer, the more correct its racy beak appears. But to purchase a 650S purely on cosmetic merit is to miss the point entirely.
McLaren’s confidence in the reliability of the 650S is such, that not only is it a ‘daily use’ super car, but one that can be driven to track, have its pretty little hide spanked, then simply driven home again. This prospect excites greatly, and before my rear has even glanced the leather, I want it for myself. And while ‘mpg’ is a filthy acronym and a moot point around these parts, it should be noted, the 650S returns extraordinary figures per performance.
Based on McLaren Automotive’s first exercise in engineering greatness – 2011’s 12C – the 650S is around 25% new and improved. Sporting the same award-winning and hugely efficient twin turbo-charged 3.8L V8 heart, power has been increased from 590 bhp to an extraordinary 640 bhp. A monumental figure by any standards, but all the more impressive when considering the motor’s relatively diminutive size, in super car terms at least. ‘No replacement for displacement’ in such elite company sounds lazy and obsolete.
Slick, practical interface mastered and it’s destination Belgium. I’m keen to press on, the prospect of seeing the 650S GT3 race car making its debut in the Total 24 hours of Spa is an enticing one. A gruelling test of reliability and absolute pace from both car and driver. Only the best need apply. I’ve heard a certain Bruno Senna is in McLaren’s driver line up.
As the Woking plant disappears in our mirrors I regret greedily snapping up first dibs. The rain now diagonal, the roads shallow rivers. Having the power of CERN under one’s right foot in such conditions is unsettling. Not one to celebrate killjoy electronic driver aids, today, I take solace in their presence. They work, too. Giving the Spider the proverbial beans initially necessitates a good deal of clenched buttock. To state this car is quick, is to mumble Elle Macpherson vaguely attractive. 0 – 125 mph in 8.4 seconds is borderline obscene, but even in these hideous conditions the McLaren has levels of grip that simply shouldn’t exist. That clamped posterior soon subsides and confidence in the car’s remarkably adept management systems rises. Stopping power should be measured on a planetary scale, enormous carbon ceramic discs make light work of frankly audacious speeds. With a reported maximum velocity of 207 mph, astronomical brakes seem entirely appropriate. It’s a phenomenal machine.
Having made quite the nuisance of ourselves while painstakingly negotiating the standard jalopy width carriages, we emerged in France with the elements unchanged. Frustrating. Time to swap.
Riding shotgun, mind freed from hyper car responsibility, I’m struck by how supple and compliant the ride is. As is the norm these days, you’re offered a variety of handling settings, but it’s how well judged they are in the McLaren that impresses. Cunning changes to the 12C’s overall suspension have resulted in more bite on track and yet improved comfort on road, as clearly evidenced when cruising in ‘Normal’ with not a single crash or bang endured. However, switching to ‘Sport’ prompts the car to hunker down, stiffen and cleverly allows all but the most talentless a little leeway to get wayward and mildly sideways. Throttle response is sharpened and gear shifts hasten.
The third and final mode is ‘Track’, which I’m reliably informed transforms said car into a fully weaponised racing car. In the current deluge, I have neither the inclination, prowess or, quite frankly, the jewels to risk a momentary and spectacular loss of talent. I’ll take their word for it.
As usual, tunnels stir my inner yob, and the 650S owns a deliciously raw, authentic, race-bred snarl. The McLaren’s thoroughly honest bark can be reduced to a contained rumble with the simple press of a button if one desires. I, however, do not.
Trimmed in blue leather, the craftsmanship is impeccable. The Spider’s cabin is a wonderfully clean, unfussy design. It’s beautifully refined, no nonsense, all business. This car’s for driving. The dash is suitably dominated by a sizeable tachometer, with a reassuringly clear, concise digital speedometer to assure the safety of your licence for just a little longer. Perhaps.
Being part of the McLaren club feels wonderfully exclusive, and resisting an underlying smugness proves challenging at times. Throughout our journey, the car intrigued all who witnessed it, eliciting overwhelmingly positive reactions everywhere we travelled. And although Spa Francachamps was brimming with all sorts of fire-spitting exotica, our arrival was quite the spectacle, being mobbed by bedraggled motor racing fans jostling to snatch a look.
The McLaren 650S is a monumental accomplishment. A supercar that does it all? I can attest to the car’s astonishing repertoire. Finally, a true jack of all, master of all. If I had the means, they’d have had my deposit yesterday. I’m off to raid the family silver.
The 650S Spider starts from £215,250. Visit the McLaren website: www.mclaren.
Charley Speed studied drama and managed to blag his way into several films and most recently appeared alongside Elle McPherson as a judge on Britain’s Next Top model. A respected and popular presenter, well dressed, well-travelled and well fit, Charley’s main side passion in life is motor vehicles. Any of them. Follow him on Twitter at @CharleySpeed.