Driven: McLaren's ballistic 650S

Before being shown the factory-approved way to climb into a McLaren coupe, via those distinctive dihedral doors, I’d assumed the price of owning one was to always wear a few bruises on your forehead. I certainly copped my share when entering and exiting a 12C test car a couple of years ago.

Once you are in the know and well practised, it’s simply a matter of lifting up the door, turning to face the back of the car (counterintuitively), throwing your left foot inside first (even more counterintuitively) and then executing something like a slow motion commando roll over the high sill, eventually flopping down behind the steering wheel.

The 12C doors remain the same with the 650S, but McLaren has changed the name, changed the face and upped the performance.

The British company has also improved the value-for-money equation, if value-for-money is quite the right term for cars in this part of the market. The base price is $441,000 plus on-road costs.

The car was supposed to be a more extreme stablemate for the 12C on which it is based, in the same way Ferrari’s 458 Speciale complements the 458 Italia. However, against a claimed 1000 pre-orders for the new car, McLaren canned 12C production and shifted that capacity across to the new model.

Newer, faster, better

As a buyer, it would be hard to find a reason to go for the older car. Unlike the Speciale, the 650S isn’t a lightweight, bare-bones model. The 650S’s 1370-kilogram dry weight is similar to the outgoing car, while the equipment level is higher and now includes, for example, ceramic brake rotors.

The new name denotes the output of the dry-sump, twin-turbo 3.8-litre V8 – sort of. This engine turns out 650 metric horsepower (also known as PS), an uncommon measure that fortuitously gives a larger and more rounded number than brake horsepower (it has 641 bhp) or the usual metric measure (478 kW). The S rather unnecessarily stands for Sport.

Torque is 678 Nm and the new 0-100 km/h time is three seconds flat, matching the claim for the Speciale we tested recently.

This compares with 3.2 seconds for the last iteration of the 12C, and 2.8 seconds for the legendary F1 McLaren road car of the early 1990s.

However, McLaren is even bigger on quoting the 0-200 km/h time for the newcomer – a dazzling 8.4 seconds – saying it is quicker than both the Speciale and its own F1 road car.

The extrovert emerges

The 12C, first seen in 2011 as the MP4-12C, looked surprisingly restrained. The re-nosing, aside from giving downforce advantages and allowing the fitting of extravagantly shaped LED headlights, well and truly corrects that.

It now shares the aggressive styling cues of McLaren’s new P1 hypercar and is in many ways the extrovert machine that many demanded in the first place.

The interior is quite restrained, but well laid out and surprisingly easy to live with, once you’ve mastered ingress and egress.

The extra power and torque (18 kW and 78 Nm) is noticeable from the moment you shift the central powertrain dial from “Normal” to “Sport”. In the first setting, the 650 is docile and easy to drive smoothly. In Sport it’s blisteringly fast. In Track it doesn’t feel legal.

The chassis, underpinned by McLaren’s effective hydraulic active suspension system, can be adjusted separately to the drivetrain with a similar three-stage switch.

Like a roller-coaster

On our route through the Royal National Park, south of Sydney, recommended speeds for the corners sink to as low as 15 km/h. The 650S felt not just as if it was on rails, but that it had “upstop” wheels under the tracks too, like a roller-coaster carriage. The steering is fast and direct, the body stays almost perfectly level through the winding stuff and the engine produces its breathtaking fireworks with minimal turbo lag. It helps when you start with a torquey V8, of course.

The ceramic brakes grab a bit around town, though are superb once they have some heat in them. During heavy braking, the rear spoiler pops up to create an air brake, filling the rearview mirror in the process. The engine is on display under the glass of the rear hatch, but frankly it isn’t particularly interesting to look at. Likewise, the engine noise is not as formidable as that of a Ferrari or Aston Martin in the lower rev ranges.

Nonetheless, there are some new tricks to boost the drama at closer to the red-line, including an exhaust flare when shifting up through the gears at high revs and an induction noise “increaser”, which is essentially a valve linking the engine bay and passenger compartment.

Cosy quarters

Inside, the seats are deliberately close together for weight distribution reasons, though it can make it a little cosy with two decent-sized occupants.

In the centre of the dash is a touch screen shaped like a smart phone, which controls a variety of functions, and does so quite intuitively.

The cabin trim is mainly Alcantara, the artificial suede that costs more than real suede. This is lighter, longer lasting and less likely to develop shiny, wear patches.

At no extra cost you can opt for leather, “no extra cost” being a phrase you don’t often hear in the supercar world. That’s not to say McLaren is a philanthropic organisation.

Our car was fitted with a sports exhaust ($12,000), various carbon-fibre add-ons inside and out ($30,200), parking sensors ($3820) and a height raiser ($10,260) to avoid snotting spoilers and skirts on kerbs and driveways.

The extras helped lift the price to $527,400 plus on-road costs.

On the other hand, that’s still below the price of a base Speciale. I’m not sure they are in direct competition. Although their performance specifications may be similar and they are both from F1 manufacturers, they have a very different character.


Price: $441,500 excluding on road costs ($527,400 as tested)

Engine: 3.8 litre twin turbo V8

Power/torque: 478 kW/678 Nm

Fuel economy: 11.7 L/100 km (combined cycle)

CO2: 275g/km

This story originally appeared in the Australian Financial Review's Life & Leisure magazine.

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