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2015 McLaren 650S Review

McLaren is releasing new models at an astonishing rate. In 2011, the brand entered the sports car fray with the remarkably competent but visually bland MP4 12C. One year later, the even more dynamic 12C Spider was added. In 2013, the P1 supercar debuted to high acclaim and was an immediate sellout. For 2014, the news is the 650S, which replaces the MP4 12C. Now, already, we have a replacement for the 12C. Compared to its predecessor, the 650S looks funkier, boasts a torquier and more powerful engine, is better equipped, and it's even more fun to drive.

All McLarens share the same basic DNA. Among the key common components are the carbon-fiber chassis and cabin tub, a double-wishbone suspension, a twin-turbo 3.8-liter V-8, a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, and the unique cockpit layout featuring a narrow center stack and A/C controls located on the door panels. For the 650S, the engine output increased from 616 hp at 7500 rpm to 641 hp at 7250 rpm. At the same time, maximum torque climbed from 443 lb-ft at 7000 rpm to 500 lb-ft at 6000 rpm. While other manufacturers attempt to keep the peak twist action constant over several thousand rpm, McLaren prefers a progressively rising torque curve for enhanced emotion. To prepare the M838T engine for the extra load, it received new pistons, cylinder heads, cam profiles, and exhaust valves. The exhaust system was redesigned for reduced backpressure and a more aggressive soundtrack. Part-throttle upshifts are now accompanied by a brief cylinder cut out for that magic blat-blat noise.

There are very few sports cars at any price that can match the 650S for acceleration and top speed. Both models—the coupe listed at $265,500 and the $280,225 Spider—will accelerate in 2.9 seconds from 0 to 60 mph. The hardtop version takes a mere 5.7 seconds to beam itself from a standing start to 100 mph, and it will hit the 300 kph mark (188 mph) after only 25.4 seconds. The top speed is a claimed 207 mph. The 2868-pound (dry weight) two-seater compresses space and time in a manner reminiscent of the hybrid P1, which responds to full-throttle orders with a mighty e-boost urge. Up to 125 mph, nothing this side of a Bugatti Veyron (and the P1/LaFerrari/918 Spyder threesome) can match or beat the 650S, at least not when official performance figures are the yardstick to go by.

Predictably, the dynamic virtues of the new McLaren are not restricted to the more powerful engine. Improvements were also made in the chassis department, where the front springs are now 22 percent stiffer and the rears have been firmed up by 37 percent. At the same time, the damper setting in Normal mode is now a little softer so that the ride comfort remains reasonably compliant. But since the dampers cannot be decoupled, Ferrari-style, the setup automatically goes from hard to harsh as you twist the DNA selector knob to Sport and then to Track. On the circuit, this is perfectly okay. But on undulating two-lane roads, you have your hands full making recurrent small corrections at the wheel because the directional stability is frequently dented by lateral deflections. That's the bad news. The good news concerns the even stronger grip, which makes turn-in at the limit so much more confidence inspiring. The steering, too, feels now more responsive, more progressive, more alive. Although the handling balance can be easily tweaked by adjusting the torque flow, roadholding remains tenacious all the way to the breakaway zone, where steering, throttle, and tires modulate the flight path.

Pirelli developed a special rubber compound for the P Zero Corsa tires fitted to the 650S. The stuff sticks like licorice on dry tarmac, but in the wet the shaved tread pattern is bound to be at odds with puddles and aquaplaning grooves. Through the second-gear corners of the Ascari circuit, there was always enough oomph on tap to kick the car's rear end into screeching smoke mode. With increasing enthusiasm, we flicked our way through the three distinctly different dynamic settings. Normal is comfort-oriented, safe and stable, but you can still push the 650S relatively close to its limit, be it mild understeer or beginning oversteer. Sport ups the ante, calls for quicker reflexes and more attention, occasionally requiring a flick at the wheel or brief lift off. Then there is Track, which permits unexpectedly adventurous cornering attitudes—after all, stability control is still active, although only just. Which is why Track will send you into a veritably panoramic spin if you're not on the case throughout the bend, from entry to apex to exit.

It's a cool car, the new 650S, but patience and composure are not its prime strengths. Instead, the McLaren cultivates a more extroverted stance, a more urgent delivery of power and torque, a more intense sequence of input and response, a more involving interaction between man and machine. Take, for instance, the gearbox, which blends rapid-fire downshifts which very physical kick-in-the-butt upshifts. Brace yourself for the brake response that grabs the carbon-ceramic discs with the vigor of a hungry snapping turtle. Relish the ground-effects chassis, which increases downforce by 24 percent at 150 mph, making the car carve through angst-inducing high-speed curves with breathless poise and awesome precision. Finally, check out the adaptive aerodynamics. On the motorway, the rear spoiler will fold flat at speed, providing the same DRS effect as Woking's F1 racer. When driving fast over a crest, the tail rudder will momentarily rise to generate more downforce. Under full deceleration, the blade turns into an almost vertical aero brake.

About 25 percent of the parts in the 650S are modified or redesigned. The most obvious visual changes concern the P1-inspired front end, the more neatly integrated side blades, and the more purposeful rear end treatment. The wheels, the rocker panels, and the optional carbon-fiber kits (exterior and interior) are also new. With the exception of the more readable in-dash monitor and the extra-cost lightweight race buckets, the cockpit remains virtually unchanged. That means owners must continue to live with the extra-wide sills that impair entry and exit, the tight cabin dimensions, and with the mediocre ergonomics. Driver assistance systems are still conspicuous by their absence, as is a head-up display, and a single driving mode selector like the manettino fitted to every Ferrari. On the credit side, we note the additional standard equipment, which now includes carbon-ceramic brakes, LED headlights, full Alcantara or leather trim, navigation, and satellite radio. Options include racing seats, a backup camera, a power-adjustable steering column, and carbon-fiber interior trim.

The 650S costs about ten percent more than the MC12. It now falls about halfway between a Ferrari 458 and the F12, it is notably more expensive than a fully loaded 911 Turbo S, and it ranks about on par with the new Lamborghini Huracan. Furthermore, the McLaren engine doesn't sound as sexy as the Lambo V-10, it lacks the Porsche's all-wheel drive foul-weather talent, and it can't match the Italia for space efficiency and ergonomic finesse. But the face-lifted Brit does outperform the big name competition with surprising ease, its handling could not be more beautifully balanced, and the entertainment value deserves ten out of ten points on our let's-do-it-again scale.

2015 McLaren 650S

  • On sale Now
  • Base price $265,500/$280,225 (coupe, Spider)
  • Engine 3.8-liter V-8 twin turbo
  • Power 641 hp @ 7250 rpm
  • Torque 500 lb-ft @ 6000 rpm
  • Transmission 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
  • Drive Rear-wheel
  • Weight 2868 lbs (coupe, dry weight)
  • Wheels 19 x 8.5 in front, 20 x 11 in rear
  • Tires 235/35R19 front, 305/30R20 rear Pirelli P Zero Corsa
  • 0-60 mph 2.9 seconds
  • 0-100 mph 5.7 seconds
  • ¼ mile 10.5 seconds