McLaren 650S first drive: Brit supercar contrasts comfort with savage performance

McLaren is riding on a wave right now. Hot on the heels of the £1-million P1 comes this, the McLaren 650S. It's a riposte to those who think of McLarens as a little safe, a little boring, a little lacking in drama compared to the obvious alternative from Ferrari.

Regardless of what you think of the brand, it's hard not to admire what McLaren has done to date. Riding the success of the F1 team, McLaren Automotive has basically built a car brand from scratch. Yes we know there was an F1 and the SLR before this, but they weren't the product of the same people and ideology or process. McLaren is now building a car company to rival Porsche and Ferrari, not hand-build occasional one-offs. And if it's going to succeed, the 650S needs to stand objective judgement against some fiery Italians.

The McLaren MP4-12C was proof the company had something fundamentally right, straight out of the box. Performance-wise it stood toe-to-toe with Ferrari, Aston Martin and Lamborghini. It cost roughly the same, you didn't need to make excuses for it and, best of all, you could drive it every day - the 12C had an easy-going, unassuming nature that made it surprisingly easy in a city centre, where other supercars can be tedious.

But the 12C lacked a little something. Its styling was sharp, but hardly exciting. And the engine, although doing the numbers, wasn't the aural firecracker that buyers expect at this level. Cue the 650S, here in its coupe form.

While it might look like a facelifted MP4, McLaren argues that the 650S is essentially a new car. It's running a new version of the engine - it uses new valves, pistons and makes 25 more horsepower more than the 12C. The 650S is lighter too, despite being better equipped. It has a new active aerodynamics pack and, perhaps most importantly, it receives numerous styling changes - most notably at the front, where it gains the family-face introduced with the P1.

Translated into the real world what does this mean? Well, in the Top Trumps stakes you'll no longer be muttering excuses about the importance of buying British when chatting to your Ferrari owning mates. The MP4-12C was hardly a slouch, but now with 650 horsepower (hence the name), the 650S will slingshot your from 0-60 in three seconds dead. The Ferrari 458 by contrast delivers 3.4 seconds. This may be grown ups territory, but it's still important to have playground bragging rights.

But it's the way the McLaren puts you there that boggles the mind. Clunk the "dihedral" - read that as "up-and-forward opening" - door shut, shuffle down into the incredibly figure-hugging, fixed-back bucket seats (again, from the P1) and for a moment the world outside is hushed.

Forget the performance figures for a minute, and take in a cabin that you wouldn't complain about living in for several hundred miles. Again, it seems to owe much to P1 - those little trademark jet-engine air vents poking out the top of a slim, simple dashboard that's covered with Alcantara.

The slim centre stack of the P1 remains too, complete with the portrait-format touchscreen running McLaren's bespoke IRIS infotainment system, including a Windows Phone-like tile home screen (tiles which are now equally spaced in terms of gutter and pixel width). Navigation is standard in the 650S, although we didn't use it in the race track confines of our test drive.

Thumb the starter motor on the centre console, and the hush calm of the 650S cabin is broken by a fast whirr of a starter motor, and the big bi-turbo V8 behind your head catches with a flare of revs. It remains slightly industrial sounding, lacking in the aural delights of something made in Italy.

In its Normal mode - there are Track and Sport modes too - the McLaren is civilised, easy to drive even. It lacks the fear factor that comes over you whenever you step into a race car, or even the likes of a V12 Lamborghini. But it's part of the appeal - the McLaren is the more refined; it's even more supple than many sports saloon cars when left in its most relaxed state. McLaren says the suspension system offers best-in-class dynamics but also comfort levels. We're not going to quibble.

Picking up speed, we switch into Track mode - selected by a beautifully turned knob on the spare centre console. Now the 650S uses something McLaren calls "inertia push". Using harvested kinetic energy, it provides a torque boost as you click the paddle for the next gear. It means you don't ever feel like you drop out of the power band and - for the first four gears at least - just get one continues torrent of acceleration that forces you back, hard, into that already snug-fitting bucket seat.

The kind of performance the 650S offers will ultimately feel nuts to anyone used to driving regular machinery. Which, let's face it, is most of us. And so a few tenths of a second off the performance figures compared to the 12C probably won't feel that different to anyone stepping out of the old car - because it's still fast. Still, nice to know it's now quickest in class.

Power is nothing without control though, and beyond the engine changes McLaren has worked hard to not only retain the comfort and ease-of use qualities of the car but give it greater precision and driving edge. Given our short test drive, it's hard to judge whether the company has truly succeeded, but what we do know is that the 650S feels incredibly stable at speed - even though it was teaming with rain during our test.

The revised active aerodynamics of the car provides extra downforce and lift when required, and are constantly changing and being managed by the computer depending on the driving scenario. The 7-speed dual clutch gearbox has been revised too so it's less clunky at low speeds (it wasn't bad in the first place) but also quicker changing during fast driving.

The extra drama is taken care of by the "exhaust flare" which in the Sport mode cuts the spark of ignition on upshifts momentarily, and then reignites the fuel, causing a pop or flare, which spits out of the exhaust.

But while the changes to the engine and exhaust flare function definitely add drama, there's still a certain industrial quality to the McLaren's V8 which makes it less spine-tingling than the flat-pane Ferrari V8. It's arguably still the weakest aspect of the car.

Where you'll probably notice the biggest change - if you're stepping in from an 12C anyway - is in the brakes. All 650S come as standard with carbon ceramic brakes, which combined with the rear air brake, makes for a car which can wipe off speed with the same style of violent force as the acceleration which put you at that speed in the first place.

For all this, it's the friendly, accessible nature of the 650S that still dominates the experience. Its performance, should you want to access it, is utterly savage. But the car feels small and snug around you, it's easy to drive at low speeds, and best of all the design means it's terrifically easy to see out of and place on the road. These are both rare commodities for supercars where lowness, width and gun-turret slim windows typically make them daunting in the face of urban speed humps, width restrictors and narrow B-roads. The 650S's design, and the feedback of the controls allow you to build trust in it quickly. the 650S feels like it's on your side.

Which means that what McLaren has created with the 650S is simply an uprated, much better version of the MP4-12C. They'll hate us for saying that, because the last thing the company wants is this to be seen of as a 12C facelift. What we mean by that statement, however, is that the 650S maintains all the likeable, unique characteristics of the 12C while adding some extra appeal in the dynamics and performance department.

Overall the McLaren 650S is a truly wonderful thing to drive and be in. Whether those lucky enough to be able to afford one see it as preferable to the Ferrari 458, or new Lamborghini Huracan, is likely to come down to brand preference as much as objective judgement. Objectively however, the 650S makes a strong case for itself as the new leader of this class.



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