2015 McLaren 650S first drive
More than just a facelifted 12C
Marbella, Spain – McLaren has always prided itself in being the thinking man's supercar, if indeed one can consider buying anything with 600+ horsepower and a $350,000 price tag logical. Indeed, even from its earliest days — think the mid ‘90s and the now legendary F1 — it was the company's emphasis on equal parts practicality and performance that made it stand out from the supercars of the day. Yes, it was the fastest thing on four wheels, but one could — indeed, quite a few wealthy banker types did — drive it on an everyday basis.
The same applies today. When the company's marketing and engineering gurus can be persuaded — and it can take some doing what will all that British diplomacy and equanimity — to compare their cars to arch rival Ferrari's, the trait always emphasized is their accessibility. Indeed, seldom will a McLaren engineer stress exactly how fast his supercar is, rather emphasizing how easy it goes fast. Making the MP4-12C as fast as the 458 Italia was important; making it easier to drive fast was, by far, more important.
So, to have customers tell them they wanted their supercars a little less pragmatic and perhaps, well, a little more unruly must have come as something of a shock. No matter how silly it is to complain about the performance of a 616-hp supercar, more performance was indeed the takeaway of all the company's focus grouping, even it meant the loss of a little of the civility that the MP4 is famous for. Oh, and a little more noise from the motor would not go remiss and we wouldn't even be all that bothered if the ride got a little stiffer. More impassioned Italian, less stiff-upper-lip British was the message.
What the customer wants, the customer gets
So, McLaren's bread-and-butter, the 12C (formerly MP4-12C), has morphed into the 650S, complete with 25 more ponies (now 641 hp in all), carbon ceramic brakes as standard equipment and stiffer suspension (22 per cent harder springs in the front; 37 per cent on the rear). All are dedicated to improving track performance, the two last — ceramic brakes and a significant stiffening of spring — not usually associated with superior on-road comportment (the stiffer suspension is self-explanatory, but carbon ceramic brakes usually improve high-speed stopping at the expense of low-speed feel).
Surprisingly — focus groups being notorious for asking for something and then refusing to buy the very changes they requested — the changes have met with almost universal customer acceptance. Indeed, so popular are the revisions that the 650S — initially slated to be an addition to the 12C in McLaren's lineup — that the original is now being discontinued.
So, is the customer, as the marketing adage dictates, always right?
One would have to give that one a pretty emphatic yes. Certainly, the complaint that the MP4-12C lacked personality — that the engine felt a little flat in comparison to Ferrari's 458 and the steering a little less communicative, again compared with the 458 — no longer applies.
Change for the better
Thanks to new cylinder heads and pistons (both completely reshaped for more power and better cooling) and engine control electronics that now see the twice-turbocharged V8 bark like an F1 car on over-run, the engine is now more engaging. No, McLaren's twin-turbo V8 doesn't sound quite as glorious as Ferrari's normally-aspirated, flat-plane-crank V8. But even the Italian has signaled that it too will soon have to switch to emissions-reducing, but sound-deadening, turbochargers. More importantly, no one will be complaining of Toyota-like flatulence emanating from the tailpipes of a McLaren anymore. Sound finally matches fury, the exhaust note now as dramatic as its P1-inspired headlights.
McLaren, of course, wants everyone to note that the 650S is also faster — 3.0 seconds to 100 km/h instead of 3.1 and an even more impressive 8.4 seconds to 200 km/h rather than 8.8. It's certainly more than scary fast enough — anyone needing more is looking at a million dollar price tag for the P1 or Porsche 918 — but I defy anyone to be able to sense the difference between the 12C and 650 without a data recorder and the world's most precise GPS system.
The connection is real
What everyone will notice — even the dilettantes who, unfortunately, are the main customers for high-priced supercars — is that the driver feels more connected to the chassis. No, the 650S still doesn't steer quite as quickly as a 458 — such razor-sharp response can be both a blessing and a curse — but the feedback through the steering wheel now feels more, well, supercar-like.
The obvious reasons for the improvement are those stiffer front springs — along with revised damping in the adjustable ProActive Chassis Control dampers, of course — and the Corsa versions of Pirelli's already-sticky PZeros. But the unsung hero of the 650S's superior handling is the engineer who redesigned the front suspension arm's rubber bushes. More flexible vertically — so that those stiffer springs don't torture the mistress in the passenger seat — they are much stiffer longitudinally, making the connection between suspension and sub-frame feel more, well, connected. With less flexibility between tire and steering wheel, the driver feels more confident in deciphering what the pointy end is doing.
Friendly, even at the limit
More confidence in the front end means one feels more at home playing silly buggers with the rear tires. Flip the chassis control up from Normal to Sport, for instance, and the electronic stability control system will allow even Walter Mittys like Yours Truly to hang the rear end of the 650S with something approaching abandon, computer control ensuring that powerslides end just before the ham-handed get into serious trouble. Toggle further up the terror scale to Track mode and, besides further stiffening of suspension, the ESC essentially switches off allowing you to step the rear end out as far as you dare.
And dare you will. Mid-engine supercars are typically the scariest of beasts to oversteer, their willingness to slide matched only by a propensity to continue sliding once they've started. Not so the 650S. So precisely do the engine and steering follow the driver's commands that keeping things (semi) under control becomes possible for even we of modest talent. Indeed, my last few laps had me sliding all around Spain's famed Ascari motorsport park, my enthusiasm never once threatening to out-pace my talent. Any 641-hp supercar that actually encourages, rather than tolerates, such misbehavior is worth selling your soul to the devil for.
Can a supercar be a pragmatic purchase?
For those who bought their MP4-12Cs with their left brains (that would be the rational, logical side) fear not, McLaren has not scarified the pragmatics. The ride, despite all this talk of stiffening and connection, is still more than livable, the engine as docile as always and, perhaps most importantly, the interior still as ergonomically correct and superbly appointed as before. Indeed, even one of those performance additions — the carbon ceramic brakes — has been made more liveable with a P1-inspired variable ration brake booster that overcomes their natural tendency to feel "wooden" when driven a normal city speeds.
Indeed, the magic of McLaren is that, despite raising the performance of the MP4-12C substantially, the 650S ($287,000 in coupe guise and $305,500 for the Spider) is just as easy to drive as the car it replaces. Try as they might, McLaren cannot make an impractical car, not matter how super it is.
2015 McLaren 650S
Price (650S / 650S Spider): $287,000 / $305,500
Type of vehicle: RWD mid-engine coupe or hardtop convertible
Engines: 3.8 L, DOHC, 32-valve V8 turbocharged
Power/Torque: 641 hp/500 lb.-ft.
0-100 km/h: 3.0 seconds
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Fuel consumption (city/hwy): TBA
Competition: Audi R8 5.2 FSI, Ferrari 458 Spider, Lamborghini Gallardo, Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT Roadster, Porsche 911 Turbo S Cabriolet
More power -- always a good thing
Styling tweaks make it less anonymous looking
Easy to drive, even at the limit
In need of a better name
Very limited dealer network
Likely to have made 12C owners unhappy
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