For a manufacturer of super-sports cars, it’s a huge advantage to have a record of high performance. Your reputation must precede you – and it must have been built on the racetrack.
If you accept this as fact and assume that Formula One racing represents the pinnacle of motorsport competition (a fair assumption), then two manufacturers rise above the petrol-powered throng: Ferrari and McLaren.
A number of car makers have tried their luck in F1 racing, either as an engine supplier or a constructor. Yet, for all their respective accomplishments, none can lay claim to an uninterrupted record of involvement in Formula One – 64 years in the case of Ferrari, 51 for McLaren.
Neither can they say that their sole manufacturing facility is responsible for building both F1 cars and road cars. These two facets elevate Ferrari and McLaren to a level that is unattainable by all others, no matter how large the investment or the commitment.
While Ferrari has also been making road cars from the start, McLaren is gaining ground with an unconventional approach to the road car business for a niche manufacturer – namely, releasing a new model every year.
The McLaren 650S Coupe and Spider replace the 12C Coupe and Spider, which is a tricky bit of business – imagine you’re a 12C owner and your car is “out of date” two years after it was introduced to the world. But a non-traditional approach applies here as well: McLaren provides free upgrades to bring older models closer to the performance levels of new releases.
When the 12C Spider arrived in 2012, a year after the coupe, it had more horsepower (616 hp versus 592), so all existing coupes were given a software boost. Now, with the arrival of the 650S, all customer 12Cs are eligible for another upgrade that brings the horsepower up to 641 and ratchets the torque up from 443 lb-ft to 500.
While that should keep the McLaren faithful happy, there are aspects of the 650S that can’t be recreated, no matter how lofty the starting point. During a day of track sessions at Monticello Motor Club in upstate New York, we were given free reign to explore the car’s prodigious capabilities. Compared with the 12C, the new McLaren coupe/convertible is roughly 25 per cent different, says Chris Goodwin, the race driver tasked with developing the company’s road cars. These differences touch on most aspects of the 650S, including the aerodynamics (there’s 24 per cent more downforce than with the 12C), braking system (more linear feel), steering (quicker turn-in) and balance (a slight shift to create more of a rear-biased feel).
The result: The 650S is diabolically fast with 100 km/h appearing on the speedo in just 2.9 seconds. Even more impressive is the way in which the McLaren carves corners. With the benefit of an F1-inspired brake steer system and a more active, moveable rear wing, the car allows the driver to dive deep into the corners underbraking, confident that everything will work out.
It comes down to this: McLaren has taken what was already a fantastic super-sports car and transformed it into one of the most focused track cars on the planet.
But there is one significant disadvantage to making a focused track car – it demands more skill from the driver. More downforce means higher speed through the corners ... if you dare. In addition, the action of the rear wing can be unsettling.
The wing is far more active than on the 12C – it deploys under braking to help scrub off speed, but it also now helps keep the McLaren planted to the ground when cresting a rise. Under heavy braking, it’s critical that the driver’s hands are straight on the steering wheel otherwise the brake steer effect will come into play and upset the balance.
As with the 12C, the 650S features three different powertrain settings and three different handling settings – normal, sport and track. Drivers were expressly warned not to attempt to use the track setting for the handling, which triggers decreased levels of assistance from the stability control system, higher slip angles and, thus, much higher expectations of the driver.
“For those of you who have a lot of track experience,” said Terry Borcheller, a vastly experienced race driver who was directing the day’s activities, “this is a different beast.” Truer words, and all that.
During one of the later sessions, yours truly mistakenly set the powertrain to “sport” and the handling to “track.” This miscue left me wondering why the pace driver was vanishing into the distance coming off the corners and why my 650S was sliding luridly around one of the track’s quick right-hand bends at about 240 km/h.
Those were a few eye-opening moments, to be sure.
There are many fast cars out there, but very few of them have performance capabilities that require the driver to up his level of skill so profoundly – the McLaren 650S is a challenge and a wonder and a reward all rolled into one.
The writer was a guest of the auto maker.
Base price: $287,000
Engine: 3.8-litre twin-turbocharged V8
Transmission/Drive: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic/rear-wheel drive
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 11.7 (combined driving)
Alternatives: Ferrari 458 Italia, Lamborghini Huracan, Nissan GT-R Nismo, Porsche 911 Turbo S
Looks: Observers considered the 12C to be “too plain;” the front end of the 650S is definitely not that.
Interior: A clean and focused cabin that, nevertheless, won’t trigger any concern over at Ferrari HQ.
Performance: Without question, the 650S upholds the McLaren tradition for high performance.
Technology: Infotainment isn’t the focus here, but there’s seriously advanced thinking when it comes to engineering safety.
Cargo: This is a mid-engine, two-seater supercar, so set your cargo-carrying sites low.
Verdict: 9/10, in a world of fast cars, this is a fast car.
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