Andy Goodwin reviews the utterly magnificent McLaren 650S Spider and finds it’s a little bit special.
The McLaren 12C Spider was only launched in 2011 so why, you may ask, has it already been replaced? Well, in the meantime McLaren decided to build something called the P1, and learnt rather a lot in the process.
These new tricks have spawned the 650S, a fitter, sharper and prettier supercar built around the 12C’s carbon fibre tub. Initially billed as a new model one step above the 12C, its obvious improvements and small price hike (the 650S Spider costs £215,250) meant orders for the 650S flooded in and production of the 12C quietly stopped. It came at a good time too, launched just ahead of the feral Ferrari 458 Speciale.
While the 12C was hardly ugly, it appeared quite reserved to our eyes, especially when painted in dark colours. Its nose lacked visual flair and from some angles the 12C could look too much like a £200k Lotus Elise. The 650S takes any such notions and chucks them straight out of its folding roof. The new P1-inspired nose is not only more get-your-camera-phone-out arresting, it shouts “I’m a McLaren” far more loudly with its signature boomerang LEDs. Its new looks are functional too, with a 24 per cent increase in downforce at 150mph, without creating any top speed-sapping drag.
Sitting in the 650S Spider is an event in itself. The vertically-hinged doors give you an unfettered view of the carbon ‘MonoCell’ and the optional carbon fibre racing seats (a snip at £5,120) gripped my body so hard it resembled a champagne cork. At 5ft 11 and just under 13 stone it’s the only car I’ve driven which so clearly conveyed I was too unfit to drive it properly, and I suppose that’s McLaren’s Formula 1 mentality shining through.
Unlike recent Porsches with their seemingly endless consoles of switches, the 650S Spider has a minimalist dashboard. It’s dominated by a beautifully clear tacho and an infotainment screen mounted portrait, which takes a little getting used to. But, all you really need familiarity with is the wonderful Alcantara steering wheel, rev gauge, speedometer and the two dials which adjust the suspension stiffness and turn the wick up on the engine and gearbox.
With a car like the 650S Spider it would be easy to dismiss this section altogether. But then you drive the McLaren and realise just how comfortable it is. As all those mental images of earplugs and displaced vertebrae melt away, you suddenly picture long trips to Monaco and a distant mountain pass and think checking the size of the boot isn’t such a bad idea after all.
With the engine behind the front seats, you’ll find enough space in the nose of the car for a couple of weekend bags. When the Spider’s roof is up, there’s also some stowage space under the tonneau cover. The cabin has two cup holders, although you might want to be careful about plonking coffee cups in them and flooring it if you want to avoid a very costly valet.
Performance & handling
Wow, wow, wow. That’s the sanitised version of what you’ll exclaim when you finally find a place to hold the accelerator to the floor for just a few seconds. To be honest, even three-quarters of the way down will more than do the trick. As its name suggests, the 650S Spider has 650PS, which is 641bhp in old money. That’s enough force to pass 62mph in 3.0 seconds and 124mph in 8.6 seconds. For reference, the 597bhp Ferrari Speciale A takes the same 3.0 seconds to reach 62mph, but is almost a second behind to124mph, taking 9.5.
As you squeeze the throttle you can sense the 3.8-litre V8’s twin turbochargers spooling up, giving you a brief chance to hold your breath before the onslaught of acceleration.
During full power runs McLaren has developed ‘inertia push’, where kinetic energy is harnessed as the next gear engages to avoid a drop in engine speed, resulting in unabated performance. This is serious stuff, but McLaren has a lighter side too. In sport mode the engine momentarily cuts the spark and ignites the fuel during part-throttle upshifts, resulting in delicious flares from the exhaust. When the 12C first launched it was criticised for lacking aural theatrics and volume, and the 650S counters with a stirring soundtrack. It doesn’t have the earth-shattering wail of the Ferrari 458, but the pay-off is better refinement when you want to relax.
Even crawling out of the car park the steering feels special. It’s perfectly weighted and free from corruption, without being overly nervous. With the suspension left in comfort mode the 650S Spider seems to hover above the road surface, never baulking at road imperfections you see coming and expect to feel jarring the car. Yet, despite this apparent softness, the 650S never feels slack or imprecise and body roll is almost non-existent.
Thanks to its carbon fibre tub, removing the roof hasn’t impaired handling ability in the slightest. Few drivers would be able to truly find its limits (and you’d have to be on track, of course), but far from making the McLaren feel boring or remote, we found ourselves basking in the sheer competence and precision of its abilities. Even if ‘Track’ mode was far too firm for the bumpy B-roads we tested it on, the 650S still didn’t lose its composure or start bottoming out on its suspension.
Economy & environment
While it’s clearly not Congestion Charge exempt, economy of 24.2mpg and emissions of 275g/km of CO2 are considered respectable for a supercar of this ilk. If you did want better economy the Porsche 911 Turbo S manages 29.1mpg and 227g/km and can hit 62mph in 3.1 seconds. At least the McLaren does have a sizeable 72-litre fuel tank, so you won’t be forever pulling over on that trip to the Alps.
Equipment & value
The 650S Spider starts at £215,250, which is around £20k more than the old 12C Spider. You don’t need us to tell you this is an awful lot of money, but is it bad value? Well, consider this: The iconic McLaren F1 is actually slower to 62mph (although it does have a higher top speed), such is the rate of progress. While prices haven’t been confirmed for the Ferrari 458 Special A drop-top, they are expected to be around £220,000, for a car with 44bhp less than the McLaren.
So, yes, the 650S does seem good value. But crikey are the options expensive. Our test car was fitted with a dizzying £49,740 of extras bringing the cost up to £264,990, but almost all of these could be deleted without spoiling the car. We’d keep the sports exhaust (£4,790), carbon fibre side intakes (£2,280) and essential parking sensors (£1,640), but live without the carbon seats, numerous additions of carbon fibre trim (interior and exterior) and uprated Meridian sound system and just enjoy that engine.
While it’s highly unlikely we’ll ever see a 650S crash tested by Euro NCAP, the whole structure of the car fills you with confidence when you drive it. The ‘MonoCell’ has incredible rigidity and you feel cocooned inside it as soon as you drop down into the car. McLaren claims it is 25 per cent stiffer than an equivalent aluminium chassis and acts as a survival cell in a crash, in a similar way to a Formula 1 car’s cockpit.
There’s an argument no matter how much money you have, you’ll always want something better. If you own a run-of-the-mill Golf, you probably yearn for a Golf R. If you’re lucky enough to own a Porsche Boxster, you may sit on YouTube watching 911 GT3 videos. Well, if I owned an Audi R8 Spyder (wishful thinking here), I’d be standing with my nose pressed to the McLaren dealership window. Like the R8 the 650S is so comfortable and uncompromised, you really could drive it every day. But, unlike the R8, the 650S has a seemingly bottomless pit of performance to dig into. To think the 650S is currently McLaren’s entry-level model is borderline absurd.