Now, we know you’ve just read about the new McLaren 650S in a recent cover story in Autoweek, and we have featured it here on the interwebs more than its fair share so, keeping that in mind… here’s another story! Woo hoo!
We just drove the thing at Laguna Seca, flat-out, about as quickly as we could probably go around that storied track (the naming rights of which belong to Mazda; there, we’ve fulfilled that obligation) and we’re here to tell you this thing may be the best sports car you can buy right now short of one of the 918/La Ferrari/P1 triumvirate. And if you can’t buy it, you should at least consider switching the focus of your sports-car lust away from the Ferrari 458 for a minute, the latter a car which we haven’t driven in a long while, and put it on this car. Sure, the Ferrari looks better, with more fluid, flowing shapes congealing into a magnificent Italian sensuousness that will rival almost any form outside of nature and many forms within. And yes, the rival 458 is engineered superbly, the best of anything in the Ferrari lineup after maybe the La Ferrari, which not all of us have driven yet. But everyone has a 458. LA is littered with them. They’re stopped at every corner, stacked up at valet parking four deep. No one has a McLaren.
And you don’t have to wait long to take delivery of a McLaren. While Ferrari creates an artificial shortage of cars to “maintain exclusivity,” with desperate tifosi begging, threatening and cajoling dealers for a spot on the waiting list, McLaren just creates great sports cars, period. Buy all you want, they’ll make more.
As you no doubt have already read here, the 650S is an evolution of the MP4-12C, which was already a pretty solid item to begin with. To make the MP4-12C into a 650S, McLaren engineers revised the front splitter to give more turning performance to allow you to carry more speed into corners. They changed the suspension hardware, incorporating what they learned from development of the mighty P1. That means the adaptive damping and hydraulic antiroll bar systems are revised to give better handling and feedback without being overly harsh. Spring rate changes moved the balance of the car slightly rearward. New Pirelli PZero Corsas increased steering feel. The engine has been tuned for additional torque. Gear shifts are “sharpened up.” And brake-pedal feel was made even more precise.
As McLaren development driver Chris Goodwin said, “You can have a car that is comfortable but handles well.”
He said that just before releasing us into the wild in our 650s. First was a leisurely drive behind a bunch of very slow cars over Laureles Grade in Carmel. After driving no more than 14 feet in the new car, it was immediately obvious that this was something special. ALL the feedback it gives is very clear. If this was a relationship, you wouldn’t need couples therapy. The steering, the throttle, the brakes, are more communicative than a PR campaign and less irritating. You know exactly what this car is doing at all times.
You also realize pretty quickly that, like so many great cars with great aerodynamics, it has a ridiculously low front splitter. If we were engineers (Ha! Run!), we’d make those low front splitters with some kind of simple, lightweight flip-up lever for crossing rain gutters, a simple mechanical cable that raises them up to make everyday driving less delicate. Alas, the car has a flaw.
So does Laureles Grade — it inevitably has traffic. Thus, on ourfirst drive of this wonderful machine, we plodded along in a string of cars behind a big dump truck. But even here, the car was perfectly comfortable and livable. The shifter was smooth and quick and the fact that it was an automatic meant life in the resident hell of LA traffic would be perhaps more bearable than something with a manual.
Then it was back to the track… ah, the track. Is there a better racetrack on which to fling a sports car than Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca? Maybe, somewhere, who knows? We do know that flinging this sports car on this track was profoundly delightful.
The 650S exited the pits with a mighty roar. We paddle-shifted ourselves instead of leaving it in automatic, and the shifts cracked up through the gearbox with an immediacy not seen outside of a SpaceX rocket launch. We don’t know how quick the upshifts came – maybe .02 second? — but who cares? They were quicker than we’d ever be able to do with a manual.
Then the turns – oh lawd, the turns. The steering is so well connected to the road that it’s like you’re sitting on the front axle with a tie rod in each hand. The grip seems endless. We got about five laps, and for the first two or three, the stability was in sport. We felt no slippage at all, only great, glorious grip. Who knows what the handling limit was on this beast, but we sure hadn’t hit it. Switching to track mode, we still didn’t feel any slip. And it wasn’t like we were plodding around. We were passing everybody else on the track. This was fun. Such a great car. There is a way to turn off stability control all the way, but we were not allowed this option by our in-car minders. That was understandable, given the unknown level of press pool driving talent on hand. But that’d surely be fun.
The only weirdness came under braking, when the car would wander. A lot. This was entirely unexpected, but not really a danger. The phenomenon was explained away five different ways by five different McLaren staffers, each explanation sounding like it was being made up on the spot. It was weird, and the only thing about the car on the track that didn’t feel right.
2014 McLaren 650S Coupe specs and pricing
Finally, on an autocross course in the racetrack’s empty paddock, we got a chance to safely exceed the handling limits of the 650S and slide around a little. Each bump up in stability control from normal to sport to track allowed a little more slip. We never felt any understeer, and only felt it break loose in the rear under acceleration, more so with each stability control change. But even powering out of a fast corner in track mode, when the rear started to slide, it was easily controllable, very easy to bring it back in line and keep the power on. All day with many different people doing the same thing, no one spun a 650S, even the lifestyle writer guys from New York who rode in taxis all the time and never drove.
The only thing missing from this wheeled gem is a little more styling on the outside. But as McLaren designer Frank Stephenson said at the introduction of the MP4-12C, he was limited by function. Function dictated what the form would be. And it’s still a mighty attractive car.
Nonetheless, if we could choose any car in the world, it’d be this one, unless the P1 was on the list. OK, if we could choose any car in the world except a P1 (or a La Ferrari or 918) we’d chose this one. There, we said it.
So yes, we liked this thing. Take that as a recommendation.
Base Price: $265,500
Powertrain: 3.8-liter, 641-hp, 500 lb-ft twin-turbo V8; RWD, seven-speed dual-clutch transmission
Curb Weight: 2,932 lb DIN dry weight
0-60: 2.95 sec (mfr)
Fuel Economy: 20 mpg European Cycle