Once upon a time, and not so long ago, it was the Ferrari F40 that was the poster on every junior (and not so junior) petrolheads’ bedroom wall. Nowadays however, the Italian stallion image is likely to have been replaced by one of a McLaren, born not in Italy but in the good old United Kingdom, not a country renowned for the manufacture of supercars.
Chances are, too, if the poster is up to date, that the car will be none other than the stunning McLaren 650S Spider, proudly produced by them in Woking, not an English town traditionally associated with the best in automotive excellence, but now firmly on the motoring map.
So when the opportunity arose to play with one of these exalted beasts, the opportunity had to be seized with both hands.
Now, I’ll let you into a secret. I’m no shrinking violet when it comes to driving. Whether it be a car, a double decker bus, an articulated truck or a full blown main battle tank, I’m happy and eager to be in the driving seat. Yet, for the first time ever, I arrived for this test in a state of some apprehension. Why? For starters, would I even be able to tame that incredible 650 hp? If that was not enough, the car is almost 7 feet (2.1 metres) wide and to make matters worse the test car was left hand drive. Not too bad on a motorway – but the test route was around the narrow, leafy Hampshire lanes – great for a gentle Sunday afternoon drive in an MGB perhaps but surely not in the least suited to a screaming supercar. Was this a recipe for disaster, in a car retailing, as tested, at a cool £264,990 – more than many peoples houses?
All of these concerns were however exploded in a delightful afternoon recently spent driving Woking’s superb Spider.
First impressions on seeing the car was that it looks even better in the metal, or rather carbon fibre, than it does in photographs, as mere photos just do not do justice to how well the whole shape of the car blends together in three dimensions.
As Frank Stephenson, McLaren’s Design Director points out, the shape of the 650S takes inspiration from the animal world: “Animals that are built for speed are always lean, light and agile. Evolved for a single purpose, their skin appears shrink-wrapped over their bone and muscle. The cheetah is a perfect example of this optimised design. It looks fast even when it’s standing still. Taking the same approach to the bodywork over our car’s mechanical skeleton reduces volume and strips excess material. It also reduces the surface area and lets us remove weight from the car. The result is a supercar that’s lean, light, beautiful – and stunningly quick”
The detailing and finish was impeccable, with a depth of gloss to the signature McLaren orange paintwork that would not be out of place on a prestige saloon. The test car was kitted with a good helping of optional carbon fibre exterior upgrades including the front splitter, door blades and rear bumper centre, which certainly added an extra, if expensive at over £18,000, dash of added style to the car, not that such a stunning shape really needs it.
Whichever angle you view it from, this car just looks right, and there aren’t many cars you can say that about – most have at least one aspect where the stylists just have not been able to get their act together. Moreover, unlike most convertibles, it looks right with that two-piece hardtop – which operates in only 17 seconds – either up or down.
Those huge gullwing doors, which look as if they could be incredibly unwieldy, were in fact remarkably easy to open & close, thanks to some impressive design work on the hinge mechanism from McLaren’s engineers. Indeed, this level of exquisite detail extended to every aspect of the machine, and it has to be said that the undoubtedly high starting price of the car, of £215,000, does buy you what is without doubt almost, if not the very, best in cutting edge automotive technology.
Interestingly though, it would seem to be cutting edge technology with reliability. Expecting to open the engine compartment cover to see all the oily bits visible to be worked on, I was staggered to discover that the “bonnet” was in fact only a small carbon fibre panel giving access to little more than the oil filler and dipstick. And that’s pretty much all the magic McLaren will need between services, according to the McLaren team who were on hand. Those services, by the way, are at either 10,000 mile intervals, or annually, just like the average family saloon.
A further option fitted to the test car was a pair of carbon fibre racing seats, at £5,120. Incredibly snug, and definitely not for those of more ample proportions – although knowing McLaren they will be ahead of the game and ready & willing to provide seats tailored more precisely for larger drivers – and passengers!
Once in the seat, though, the cockpit and indeed the whole car appeared to fall snugly into place around the driver, almost as an extension of one’s body. Everything was in reach and visible – this was clearly every inch a drivers car. In fairness, there was an initial level of unfamiliarity, as most controls & dials have been radically re-engineered by McLaren to provide the best possible driving experience. However, this was quickly overcome by a quick talk-through of the controls by McLaren staff. One example of this initial unfamiliarity is the gear selector. We all expect to see a selector lever, to be pushed back & forth for drive & neutral. Not so the McLaren – it has just three simple buttons, for drive, neutral & reverse. Beyond that, all gear selection of the 7-speed sequential transmission was made using Formula 1 style paddle shifters on the steering column. Come to think of it, given McLarens racing profile, they probably are Formula 1 paddles…………….
The centre console display also merits more than a second glance, being mounted in upright, or portrait, mode rather than the more traditional landscape format. This does however work perfectly effectively. Indeed for many applications such as sat nav, it makes more sense than the traditional panel as it allows more of the map ahead of the car to be seen.
Directly below the centre display screen and its associated rotary controller lie a pair of rotary switches, which McLaren describe as the Active Dynamic Panel. These control respectively the ProActive Chassis Control, giving Normal, Sport & Track modes, and the Powertrain modes, giving a choice of Winter, Normal, Sport and Track. Between them, these control how the suspension connects the car to the road, how quickly the gearshifts react to the drivers inputs, and even the volume of the 3.8-litre twin-turbo V8, allowing the McLaren 650S Spider to be tailored to your ideal driving preferences.
Immediately in front of the driver, the main centre instrument is the revcounter, with road speed indication relegated to a small but still clearly visible digital set into the revcounter.
The cabin is trimmed in black alcantara, including the steering wheel which feels incredibly tactile and proved superb at hustling the Woking wonder through the lanes. One minor downside – indeed the only one I could spot in the whole of my time with the car – was that the black of the trim is relieved by twin-needle orange stitching, matching the colour of the exterior paint. Nothing wrong with that, in fact it only added to the ambience – except that the stitching over the top of the dashboard was occasionally reflected in the windscreen. A minor point indeed, and one that Adam Gron of McLaren was keen to point out could easily be addressed by a customer specifying his car appropriately!
Right, enough of the discussion, time to take Frank Stephenson’s animal for a drive. Firing up the 3.8 litre twin-turbo engine is a simple push-button operation, accompanied by a delicious spine-tingling burble from the exhaust. Push the button into drive, release the electric handbrake, depress the accelerator gingerly – and nothing much happens other than the car starting to creep forward very smoothly and gently! My first thought, frankly was that all was not well with the car, but as Adam Gron explained subsequently, McLarens engineers have worked damned hard to ensure that despite the 650hp and 678Nm of torque, this is a supercar which is easy to drive.
As such, they had worked particularly to ensure a smooth pullaway rather than the tyre-smoking spectacle which I was half-expecting to unintentionally create. And how they have succeeded! By juggling a raft of parameters, including not just throttle travel and effort but clutch engagement & disengagement speeds and driveline damping they have succeeded admirably in their objective of making the car extremely smooth yet as responsive as possible.
And, boy, is it responsive! Once on the open road, a firmer prod on the throttle was dramatically rewarded with both audible & visible sensations. Audible as the previous burble hardened to a full-throated and intoxicating howl, and visible as the horizon, or at least the next bend in the Hampshire lane, appeared in sight unbelievably quickly. A quick push on the brake pedal quickly brought the speed down, thanks to the huge carbon-ceramic brakes, allowing the car to be turned in to the corner. “Thought into the corner” is probably a more apt description, as the steering was superbly positive, full of feedback yet never intimidating and easy to judge to perfection. This ability to corner at incredible speeds was definitely one of the highlights of the car, and quite simply it literally felt glued to the road, regardless of speed. It was also forgiving of the accelerator being applied a bit too vigorously, merely getting on with the job and getting from A to B as quickly as possible, whereas most supercars would, under such circumstances have been twitching merrily. Doubtless the electronic aids played a huge part in this, and with the Active Dynamic Settings in Track mode things could have been a lot hairier, but there’s only so much excitement a man can take in one day!
The other surprise was just how well the car rides. Hampshires’ lanes tend not to be the best surfaces in the world, but the Spider cruised over them feeling more like a luxury sporting saloon than a roadgoing racecar. The outstanding ride & handling result primarily from the incredibly stiff carbon fibre monocoque, or monocell in McLaren-speak. In what could presage an adoption of carbon-fibre structures into more mundane motors, McLaren’s steady development of carbon fibre monocells has seen the man-hours needed to create them reduced from 4,000 hours in the case of a McLaren P1 to just 4 hours for a 650S – progress indeed! And the results are self evident: despite dodgy road surfaces and the open cockpit removing the added stiffness of a roof, the Spider felt absolutely and uncannily solid. The monocell also contributes in no small part to the Spider’s incredibly low weight – only 1370kg, lighter than many small family saloons. As well as helping performance, low weight also minimises fuel consumption, and, whilst the driver of a 650S is unlikely to be worrying about the cost of a tankful of fuel, the car nevertheless achieves a highly creditable 24.2 mpg on the combined cycle.
The other uncanny thing about the 650S was how the width of the car, and it being left-hand-drive, did not present a problem, thanks to the front wheels being positioned well towards the front of the car and their position being able to be judged to perfection by the gently rising swelling of the wheel arches directly above them. Indeed, far from the narrow lanes being a drawback, in many respects they were the ideal place to enjoy this stunning machine, given the cornering ability coupled with visceral acceleration between corners. Motorway driving would have been much more mundane, throttled right back to keep within legal speed limits, unable to really enjoy that phenomenal soundtrack, and needing to keep a permanent eye open for speed cameras.
Some test cars you just do not want to hand back, and this was one of them. Exhilarating, gorgeous, incredible, magnificent, technologically outstanding, the highest superlatives do not live up to the reality of the McLaren 650S Spider. If you have to sell the house, or the wife – or both – buy one. If you really can’t stretch to it, as most of us sadly can’t, then beg, borrow, steal, or hire one for a drive.
You won’t regret it!
With grateful thanks to Adam Gron and the rest of the McLaren team for
If you found this interesting you can read much more on McLarens 650S Spider website here.