After selling some 3,500 of their groundbreaking MP4-12Cs, British Formula One specialist McLaren updates the mid-engined supercar with the 650S. Just how much better can it get?
It was about 7:30 am as we rolled into the heart of the Laguna Seca Raceway, the air dense with moisture. Like cotton gauze the fog hung thick, chilling the air but doing nothing to cool off our anxieties. In fact seeing the wet asphalt underfoot, slick with morning rain, our apprehension only grew. But so did the excitement.
Then we saw them, just off the paddock entrance: a row of McLaren 650S supercars parked in disciplined order. Like mechanical gorillas in the mist, quiet, brooding. Somebody in our group let out a girlish squeal like a Belieber in rapt proximity to His Douchiness. Then I realized that squeal was my own.
In this profession you are offered the opportunity to drive a vehicle of true exception only a couple times a year. The McLaren 650S is without a doubt one of those opportunities. And to drive it on the hallowed tar of the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, well, then all the better.
The name McLaren will spark different thoughts for different folks. To a casual observer, the British marque might raise more questions than answers. To the seasoned gearhead (or Formula One aficionado), the name is legend. The second most winningest Constructor in F1, trailing only Ferrari, McLaren has claimed championships with the bloodlines of Niki Lauda, Alain Prost, Lewis Hamilton and Ayrton Senna, among others.
In 1992, after technical director Gordon Murray convinced CEO Ron Dennis to try his hand at streetcars, McLaren unveiled the truly game-changing F1 — the world’s first supercar. Built around Formula One technology never before seen on a streetcar (like a carbon fiber monocoque tub and central seating), the $1,000,000 F1 was not of this world. Nor was it long for it, as production shut down in 1998 after only 106 cars. (Although their allure has only skyrocketed, with a F1 auctioning last summer for record $8.5 million.)
Continue reading LIAS McLaren 650S Testdrive after the Jump…
“The end result is a daily driver that rides sedan soft in Grocery Mode, but can be dialed into a Porschivore with a twist of a dial…”
In 2011, after more than a decade concentrating on their Grand Prix efforts, McLaren returned to the streetcar game with its first true volume “production” car, the benchmark MP4-12C. Like the F1 before it, the 12C was an apotheosis of engineering.
So why, after only three years, is McLaren already retiring the 12C in favor of its successor? Because they must. Knowing full well its prime competitors Ferrari and Lamborghini aren’t slowing down anytime soon (case in point, the updated 458 Speciale and recently unveiled Huracán), McLaren decided to implement some of the many advancements it has learned from engineering their brand new, truly celestial P1 hypercar — the $1.6-million hybrid road grader some are calling the best production car ever built.
One could call the 650S the MP4-12C 2.0, as the car is based 75% on that vehicle. It’s kept all that the 12C did well (which is just about everything), while tidying up the couple loose ends it was criticized for.
The most salient evolution is in the front fascia, clearly influenced by the P1. This similarity isn’t just to create brand cohesion (although that doesn’t hurt), but to implement the superb aerodynamics of the P1 into the 650S. With its Nike Swoosh-like LED headlamps, the 650S dramatically increases downforce up to 24% via new air intakes and redesigned front splitter. Another corollary advantage of the makeover is styling; many complained the 12C was too generic, too “Supercar 101”, and that offense can definitely not be waved at the 650S. You cannot mistake it for any other car on the road, except for maybe a P1.
The second evolution was to the twin-turbocharged 3.8-liter V8, which receives a 10% overhaul with new pistons, revised cylinder heads and new exhaust valves —improvements also made from the development of the P1. Power was increased to 641 horses, and torque to 500 lb-ft (up from 616 and 443, respectively). Mated to a recalibrated gearbox, these power gains catapult the 650S from standstill to 60 mph in 2.9 seconds — and from 0-125 mph in a cheek-melting 8.3. That is cannonball explosive, yet somehow, with a rated 16/22 mpg efficiency, this fantastical creature avoids the Gas Guzzler Tax.
“Apparently, McLarens only eat asphalt on command. How very considerate…”
But perhaps the biggest advancements were made on the 12C’s already world-class suspension. As the P1 program ran parallel with the 650S’s, their unique hydraulic ProActive Chassis Control system was improved. In lay terms, all four wheels are connected via tube circuit. When the car needs more performance, it pushes more liquid into the loop, making the hydraulic circuit denser, tightening up suspension. When you want a more compliant, softer ride, liquid is released back into the reservoirs to loosen the ride. The end result is a potential daily driver that rides sedan soft in Grocery Mode, but can be dialed into a Porschivore by simply twisting the “Handling” dial on the center console.
There are no sway or anti-roll bars; it is a completely hydraulically driven adaptive damping. Mated with 22% stiffer springs up front and 37% stiffer in the rear, the 650S should take what was already a maniacally precise car to, well, I couldn’t yet imagine.
“At McLaren we go to the track and optimize as much as we can,” explains Chris Goodwin, the brand’s Chief Test Driver. “Sometimes [in Formula One] we start with a bad car, but we improve it [throughout the season] better than anyone. The car is totally different from race to race.” This sort of ceaseless obsession grounds the same philosophy that McLaren extends from the F1 paddock to their pristine factory in Woking. Designers and engineers work hand-in-hand on a daily basis, constantly driven to improve product. With the 650S they aimed to shift the balance of the car, make it even sportier. To engage the driver ever more, and make the car feel more alive.
So let’s cut to the chase: how does this thing perform? The 650S simply runs. And cuts and jukes like a peak-era Allen Iverson. On the track of Laguna Seca we did lead-and-follows, essentially chasing professional racers who were probably doing their taxes while sweat sprayed from our brows keeping up. On places like Laguna’s fabled Corkscrew, the 650S’s bespoke Pirelli PZero Corsa tires (designed specifically for the 650S) dug into and bounced off the S-curves like an Olympic skier crowning moguls.
When we had the MP4-12C a couple summers ago, we (allegedly) tackled Mulholland Drive at ludicrous speeds. No matter what we threw at it, the McLaren handled it with nary a twitch. It was thrilling, alarming and even a bit disheartening, knowing this car could dispense with anything we challenged it with. The same can be said for the 650S, with the slight amendment that the increased downforce up front actually connects you to the track even more. The handling and suspension are so profound that you’ll be left in the dark, plumbing in vain for their edges. The car is so well engineered it is dizzying.
But it’s not just about lap time. There is a connectedness with the 650S that is even more visceral than the 12C. While both are brilliantly engineered, the minds at Woking have managed to infuse even more virility into the driving experience.
The car also has incredible recuperative properties — unless you’re a complete imbecile, the 650S will save your ass effortlessly. Huge, revisioned carbon ceramic brakes aren’t grabby, but they’ll stop you with a warrant. When activated (via dedicated console button), the rear wing will constantly change in pitch and directory, judiciously increasing downforce or reducing drag. And when needed the wing pops up 90-degrees, the huge Airbrake not only scrubbing speed but also adding massive amounts of downforce. McLaren is the only automaker to use an Airbrake like this, making you wonder why it’s not more ubiquitous among the Pebble Beach set.
The day ended all too soon on the autocross, an ad hoc track coned out in the massive central parking lot of Laguna. It is here where the quarter-million-dollar machine was truly experienced. ($265,500 for the base Coupe and $280,225 for the Spider). Without fear of going off course, of making love to a barrier wall or really causing any damage to the carbon fiber body, you could press the 650S to your — certainly not its — thresholds. Dialing through the settings, it was clear how quickly you could transform the McLaren into a vicious, tautly sprung performance machine. There is simply nothing like a mid-engined, rear-wheel drive car sports car. It provides balance and precision unlike anything else on the market, and the 650S is one of the finest examples. Blisteringly fast on straights, a slam of the ceramic brakes would have the front digging into the asphalt, ready to turn into the corner and accept another bequest of throttle. A throaty explosion of petroleum, and off you went down another straight. If you remained focused and hung on tight, no matter how much you pushed the 650S no orange cone were devoured. Apparently, McLarens only eat asphalt on command. How very considerate.