Monterey, CALIFORNIA — So you’re riding the logging flume at the amusement park, and you make that final steep plunge down into the big pool. The log hits the still water, a colossal spray of cool droplets cascades for the next second or so, and you think, “You know, I’d like to ride this thing again.”
And this is exactly the feeling that the 2015 McLaren 650S is meant to give you.
Chris Goodwin, McLaren Automotive’s chief test driver, says, “We’ve put everything we learned in the development of the McLaren P1 into improving the McLaren MP4-12C and producing this new car. Just like the McLaren P1, we want the 2015 650S to make every drive so special that when you put the car away at the end of the day, you’ll want one more drive, one more lap.”
Welcome to the track
The little bit of time before first practice at the track always has a special magic. Everything is quiet, the cars are lined up in pit lane, and you can sense the promise of the day to come. And that’s what we’re feeling as we see eight, brand-new examples of the 2015 McLaren 650S lined up in pit lane at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. The thick morning fog drifts in wetly from Monterey Bay, soaking the pavement and leaving the cars dripping with moisture.
While the 650S looks slightly different than the 12C, it still doesn’t grab you around the throat. It’s essentially the 2011 McLaren MP4-12C, only with the swoosh shape from the McLaren logo added as styling flourishes. Even so, we’re taken with the range of bodywork colors that are so brightly 1970s, a time when McLaren’s Can-Am sports cars were the fastest racing cars in the world.
If you have the right kind of eyes, you can see how resolutely functional the McLaren 650S is. The new front aero splitter and the reshaped front deck add aerodynamic downforce. The big front ducts cool the new carbon-ceramic brakes, while the ducts in the rear quarter panels manage the cooling of the twin-turbo 3.8-liter V-8, which now develops about ten percent more power, some 641 hp @ 7250 rpm and 500 lb-ft of torque @ 6000 rpm.
Light this candle!
You’ll probably lead with your right foot as you step into the cockpit, then slide across the tall, wide sill of the 650S’s rigid yet lightweight carbon-fiber chassis tub. Since you’ll have your right foot heavily on the gas for most of the day to come, you might as well get used to it now.
When you fire up the McLaren M838T V-8, this engine with its flat-plane crankshaft and twin IHI turbos has more presence than an Audi V-8, yet it never tries to overpower you like a Ferrari V-8. And we’re prepared to say that 641 hp should be enough for anybody. This is, after all, about the same amount of power that Denis Hulme had in his McLaren M8D’s 6.7-liter Chevy V-8 while racing in the 1970 Can-Am.
The M838T comes alive in a rush of power, combining the drivability of a broad rpm band of gradually increasing torque with the satisfying reward of a power peak at 7250 rpm. We made just one pass from a standstill to extreme speed with the 3050-lb 650S coupe (we didn’t even engage the launch control), and the combination of the twin-turbo V-8 and quick-shifting, seven-speed, dual-clutch Graziano transmission got us to the crest of the hill in Turn 1 so quickly that we actually felt lightheaded. (Love the way the turbo V-8 pops between shifts in Sport mode just like a racing engine.)
As we lined up on the racing line toward the power poles on the other side of the hill at Turn 1 and then plunged down toward the braking markers for 180-degree Turn 2, we felt pretty good that the McLaren 650S carries some pretty good brakes as standard equipment. There are15.5-inch carbon-ceramic rotors with six-piston calipers up front and 15.0-in carbon-ceramic rotors with four-piston calipers in the rear. Plus the 650S’s tires are reassuring as well, since they are 235/35R-19 front and 305/30R-20 rear Pirelli PZero Corsas.
Actually, we were pretty nervous about the carbon rotors at first, because such brakes often bite abruptly and are hard to modulate. So imagine our relief to find that the brakes engaged with complete predictability and then delivered a steady increase in stopping power with pressure from our foot rather than just the stroke of the pedal (which is the way it’s done in racing machinery).
The drive-it-up, drive-it-back land speed record
The McLaren guys are really proud of the way they have toughened up the 650S in comparison to the MP4-12C. They’re eager to tell you that there’s 24 percent more overall downforce at 160 mph, spring rates are increased 22 percent in front and 37 percent in the rear, the adaptive dampers have been firmed up (notably in Sport mode), and the wheel alignment has changed for more precise steering. Even the stability control is more permissive, so it no longer intrudes as if legendary McLaren director Ron Dennis (a former racing mechanic) were barking at you over the intercom in your helmet.
Of course, we’ll bet you a dime that you won’t really feel the difference. We drove the 2015 McLaren 650S over Laureles Grade and back (not far, but far enough), and found it even more poised and supple at civilian speed than we remember from putting a couple hundred miles on the McLaren MP4-12C in metropolitan Los Angeles. This is an exotic that’s great to drive at all speeds, not just top speed.
Part of the secret is McLaren’s system for linking all four electronically controlled hydraulic dampers to control ride motions. As a result, the ride can be comfortable in a straight line, and then body control can be delivered instantly in the corners to minimize pitch and roll. As a result, there’s no need for the stiff, track-specific anti-roll bars that inevitably degrade ride quality. But the rest of the secret is even simpler, as it lies in a test conducted during chassis development that was first conceived by F1-car designer Gordon Murray back in the days of the McLaren F1 exotic car.
As McLaren Automotive test driver Chris Goodwin explains, every McLaren is tested at the high-speed oval at Nardo in Italy, just like a lot of cars from other companies. But McLaren drives its car to Nardo over public roads — across the Midlands in England, under the English Channel, through France, over the Alps, and then down the length of Italy. There’s the usual high-speed durability testing on the big 7.8-mile oval at Nardo, and then McLaren drives the car back to Woking. Call it 3000 miles there and back on the road, then 5000 miles of track testing in between. Repeat as required.
Track day special
We can’t quantify for you the improvement in track speed that the McLaren 650S might represent over the 12C, but we will tell you that this is a great, great car on the track. As you whistle into the corners, the brakes just settle the car, so there’s none of that unseemly chassis pitch that can make it feel as if the engine behind you is trying to climb onto your shoulders. Right away, you look over at the apex of the corner and then steer the car through in an unwavering arc while squeezing on the power. You’re always thinking forward, forward, as the car moves up the road without wasting time.
Even better, the McLaren 650S makes all this available to everyone, not just experts. There are three different settings for the powertrain and three different grades of chassis control, yet you always find yourself using the same techniques, whether you’re going fast or slow. This gives you the confidence to constantly improve your driving instead of simply reaching a plateau of acceptable fear.
Your obedient servant cruised around in the transmission’s automatic mode, just as professional sports-car racer David Donohue recommends (it helps you concentrate a bit more on driving, he says). Then Skip Barber school instructor Mike Miller (a former hotshoe in Formula Atlantic), gave us a full-throttle ride in Track mode while working the racing-type pull-push shift paddles, and he told us the McLaren 650S can lap Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca some 2 seconds per lap quicker than a Ferrari 458 Italia prepared for Ferrari Challenge competition. And both of us had enough attention in reserve to hold a conversation during our respective laps, which is always the mark of a great car.
Hard work is the McLaren Way
There are a lot of little things that make the 2015 McLaren 650S different from the 12C, but one thing that has made the real difference is simple hard work. It’s the McLaren way. “It’s like McLaren F1,” Goodwin says. “Sometimes the team doesn’t have the best car at the beginning of the season. But then they work on it every week and every race. And in the end, it’s usually the best car.”
The McLaren 650S doesn’t look sexy enough to turn the heads of those who find their mid-engine ideal in the Ferrari 458 Italia or Lamborghini Huracan. Others will prefer the friendly, stylish practicality of the Audi R8. And we’re okay with this.
But we prefer the 2015 McLaren 650S. It’s a car that you buy for yourself, not for the people who might see you. When you’re in the McLaren 650S, every outing behind the wheel invites you to improve your skills and become a member of that very select group which can really drive. You’re a professional, not a prima donna.
And we have to admit that while waiting at the airport gate for the flight which would take us home from Monterey, we couldn’t help but turn to crazy Jonny (our colleague) and say, “You know, I’d like to drive another lap in that car, wouldn’t you?”
2015 McLaren 650S Coupe
- Base Price $265,500
- On Sale Now
- Engine 3.8L, twin-turbo DOHC V-8
- Power 641 hp @ 7250 rpm
- Torque 500 lb-ft @ 6000 rpm
- Transmission 7-speed automatic
- Drive rear wheel
- Steering Hydraulically assisted rack-and-pinion
- Front suspension Unequal-length control arms, coil springs
- Rear suspension Unequal-length control arms, coil springs
- Brakes Ventilated carbon-ceramic discs, ABS
- Tires 235/35R-19 front, 305/30R-10 rear Pirelli PZero Racing Corsa MC1
- L x W x H 177.6 x 75.1 x 47.2 in
- Wheelbase 105.1 in
- Track F/R 65.2/62.3 in
- Trunk capacity 5.1 cu ft
- 0-60 mph 2.9 sec
- Â¼ -mile 10.5 sec @ 139 mph
- Top speed 207 mph
- Fuel mpg 15/22/18 City/Highway/Combined (est.)