British supercar hits new peaks of accomplishment | By Andrew Frankel
What level of performance would you ascribe to a car that does 0-60mph in 5.7sec? Twenty-five years ago, such pace was the province of the pure supercar, but today it is the mark of the merely quick. But what about a car that reached not 60mph in that time, but 100mph? What kind of machine would that be?
You’re looking right at it. Now the 12C is no more, this 650S is McLaren’s staple product and if you want a real glimpse at how far we’ve come in not very long, consider it is now quicker not only to 60mph but all the way to at least 100mph than was the McLaren F1 20 years ago, undoubtedly the most ground-breaking supercar in the history of the genre. This comes courtesy not only through dark arts such as launch control, sticky tyres and near-instant gearshifts, but also from more honest-to-goodness power and torque.
Yet it is the McLaren way to provide all this without fanfare or ceremony. The 650S is now an attractive and distinctive car in a way the 12C, from which it is derived, frankly never was. But it’s still visually subtle compared to its far more outrageous Italian opposition. While I have always suspected the majority of Ferraris and Lamborghinis are bought first to be seen in and then to be driven, I have equally little doubt the reverse is true of the McLaren.
You settle down in a cockpit free of pantomime. There’s a big central rev-counter because that’s the best place for it, but the steering wheel is as devoid of furniture as a Ferrari’s is laden. The cockpit is airy and spacious. McLaren has succumbed to an engine start button but when the motor fires, it won’t be to the fleeing of local wildlife, the glee of young boys and the irritation of almost everyone else. The twin turbo 3.8-litre V8 just starts and settles into a steady idle at a hardly quiet but still civilised volume.
To turn the 12C into the 650S, McLaren has done far more than graft a P1-alike new nose onto its face. It claims a quarter of its components are new and focused on almost all areas of the car’s endeavours. For instance, the engine receives its second power upgrade so it now produces the 650PS referred to in what is also the second new name the design has received in just three years. That equates to 641bhp, a figure about which it is too easy to be blasé; so it’s worth remembering that we all goggled at the power of the ultra-specialised Porsche 959 when it was introduced 30 years ago, but this standard production McLaren is now 200bhp ahead of that mark and producing almost 170bhp for every litre of capacity.
To back this up, the seven-speed double-clutch gearbox has had its shift strategies rethought (again), while both the hard- and software of the suspension has also had further development.
I often drive cars claimed to have had far more attention lavished on them and emerge wondering why they bothered, but this is not the case here: however good the 12C, and latterly it was very good indeed, the 650S is simply and clearly better.
That said, I’d not claim to notice the additional performance. I’m sure it’s all there, but at this level the assault on the senses in either is just too strong for nuances to be apparent. Does the extra power really dictate whether in perfect conditions the car can make it to 60mph in precisely 3sec or a tenth less? What you do notice – and immediately so – is the car’s response. Despite increasing power without increasing displacement, the 650S seems to have less lag and answers the call of your foot with an immediacy you’d not expect from a forced-induction engine. True, it’s not sabre-sharp like a normally aspirated Ferrari, but neither are you any longer inconvenienced by the traditional limitations of turbo motors. The engine even sounds good, or at least until you hear a Ferrari V8 at full cry.
Power is nothing without control and so long as you have the powertrain switch in either ‘Sport’ or ‘Track’ position rather than its default ‘Comfort’ setting, the gearbox will keep the engine in the thick of its torque band with a rapidity and smoothness that those who drive an original 2011-specification 12C would simply not recognise. Oddly enough, I didn’t even miss the option of a manual gearbox. While Ferrari’s decision not to put a third pedal in the 458 denied us what would surely have been one of the greatest driving pleasures you could have in public, a stick shift would seem entirely out of place in a car as efficient and modern as the 650S.
But perhaps this is not what you want to know most. If there is one thing McLaren’s modern road cars stand accused of most, it is a clinical, antiseptic quality to the way they drive, offering an experience more likely to impress than inspire the driver.
Because it lacks a searing soundtrack and the ultimate throttle response of a Ferrari, the 650S still cannot operate on quite such a nakedly emotional level, and if that’s a failing – and I think it probably is – then so be it. But to say it doesn’t entirely involve the driver is no longer a credible accusation. In its linearity, weighting and feel, the 650S steering now has the quality of the finest Porsche systems, while its interactive suspension system offers the body control of the best damped passive systems you can buy, but with a ride quality that appears to resurface the road in front of you.
It’s also an easy car to drive fast, which is entirely in keeping with its character. I actually don’t require some cars (like those with horses on their snouts) to be endlessly accommodating, because I like reaching journey’s end feeling I have been tested and that whatever small skills I possess have been able to make some genuine difference. The McLaren’s personality is not like this: it doesn’t choose to ask questions of you, but answers them instead. You are in it together and, while the results may be a little less obviously exciting, they are no less rewarding for that. For its speed, precision and ease of driving, the 650S lives among the very finest of its era, an achievement made all the greater by the fact that when you don’t want to drive with your trousers on fire, you can switch everything to ‘Comfort’, simply waft on that extraordinary suspension and always be genuinely sad to reach your destination.
For me this is the car that finally lifts McLaren to the top level of the supercar game. There’s no individual part that’s dramatically different to a 12C, but as a whole it is more than merely optimised, it is transformed. Put it this way, of those genuine super cars I have driven and that are not limited in production, I’d put it on a par with the Ferrari 458 Italia, with only Maranello’s more expensive F12 offering a yet more compelling blend of dynamic ability, pure driving pleasure and long-distance practicality.
At the start of this story I promised myself there was a phrase I would not use because it’s trite and lazy, but now I see there is no avoiding it: the McLaren 650S really is the car the 12C should have been from the start. Now it has been delivered I can only stand and wonder what McLaren might do next.
Engine: 3.8 litres, 8 cylinders, twin turbochargers
Power: 641bhp @ 7250rpm
Torque: 500lb ft @ 6000rpm
Transmission: seven-speed double clutch
Top speed: 207mph