What follows is part 5 of a 6 part series describing my experience driving 5 exotic cars on real roads in real life. This opportunity came through local luxury automotive storage club Auto Vault’s Fantasy Drives service. This particular Fantasy Drive package was a 6 hour event, involving nearly an hour of drive time in each of the 5 cars, garnished with complimentary bakery treats and a gourmet dinner. The 5 cars for the event were an Audi RS7, Bentley Continental GT Concours Edition, Lamborghini Huracán Spyder, McLaren 650S Spyder, and Audi R8 V10. This part will go into detail on my experience in my fourth car of the day – the McLaren 650S Spyder.
My stifling drive in the flamboyant and outrageous Lamborghini Huracán ended at…a gas station. Not to fill up the tanks of the gas-guzzling performance cars of the Auto Vault fleet, but so that the drivers could take a moment or three to breathe, refresh, and get ready for the next leg of the journey.
I especially needed that time, because I was transitioning from Lamborghini’s V10 insanity machine to something even crazier – the McLaren 650S.
McLaren Automotive is a company that’s far older than many might think; they’ve been around for over 50 years. But that 50-year history is full of ups and downs, mergers and collaborations, and a full court press of funding to revitalize the company.
Beyond their racing pedigree, most know McLaren Automotive for the McLaren F1 road car and the production car top speed record it held from the early 90’s through the mid 2000’s. In spite of the technological advancements that made the F1 so far ahead of its time, only 106 units were produced and production ended in 1998.
Their next car was actually built in collaboration with Mercedes-Benz, due to Merecedes’ ties to the McLaren Group’s racing division. This led to the development of the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren, which was by far one of the nuttiest Mercedes ever built (but that’s a post for another day).
Then, the Mercedes-McLaren partnership came to an end, and in 2011 McLaren was set to re-emerge as its own entity once again. 2011 and 2013 brought the MP4-12C and the P1, respectively, which each earned the admiration of enthusiasts everywhere and helped further grow the company.
Ultimately, in 2015 they unveiled an actual product strategy (egads!), consisting of three tiers of products (in order of lunacy): the Sports Series, the Super Series, and the Ultimate Series.
The 650S is McLaren’s first entry into the Super Series, and comes equipped with the McLaren carbon fiber MonoCell tub, a 3.8 L twin-turbo V8 pushing 641 hp and 500 lb-ft of torque towards the rear wheels, and a seven-speed dual clutch gearbox. I was both excited and a little terrified.
When I approached the McLaren, I couldn’t help but take in its shape. The lines are fluid and smooth, and in stark contrast to the Huracán’s jagged edges. McLaren likes to talk about the design of their cars as form following function, which is evident as I could almost see the air flowing around the still car. That is, assuming I could see around the Spiderman-themed wrap the car was wearing.
Getting into the car proved to be a little more difficult than the Huracán. I don’t regularly open dihedral doors, so I was so afraid of breaking them that I didn’t shut them hard enough. Rookie mistake.
Once I got in though, it felt like I took a step into a different dimension entirely. Automakers have done a good job of standardizing the layout of car interiors – the windshield wipers are controlled by a stock on the steering column, the side mirrors are controlled by a switch on the driver’s door, etc.
So when an automaker like McLaren comes along and moves everything around, it makes me feel like I’m losing my mind. For instance, the climate controls are located on the door panels. That’s not the worst thing in the world, but it’s an unnecessary disorientation in the name of “standing out”. I also spent several minutes looking for the controls for the side mirrors but never found them.
After getting past the funky layout of the interior, I decided that I had had enough sun for the day and put the top up. But, I was happy to discover that there’s a small window in the back that can be lowered with the top up to bring the sound of the engine into the cabin.
In a perfect vacuum, the V8 in the 650S would sound pretty mean. However, I had just driven the Lamborghini Huracán, and there really was no comparison. The Huracán simply outdid the 650S in volume, pops/crackles, and tone. That said, despite the relatively small displacement of the V8, I was pretty impressed with the depth of the grunt that the 650S produced.
As we set off, we found ourselves in dense traffic on city streets, which was actually nice because I was still quite nervous. Again, 641 hp to the rear wheels – go on YouTube and you’ll find all sorts of videos of people crashing RWD cars with significantly less power. I was intent on not being the next one.
But the traffic eventually lightened, and we were back on the country roads once again. Rolling onto the accelerator, I felt a distinct shift in the cars personality. The turbochargers spooled to life, thrusting the car forward with jet engine strength. The acceleration wasn’t the snap-your-head-back jarring force, but more of a constant push back into your seat.
By the numbers, Car and Driver says the 650S will do 0-60 in 2.8 seconds, which is the same as the Huracán’s 2.8 second sprint. And yet, driving both back-to-back, it wouldn’t feel that way. Due to the Huracán’s AWD system, it is better able to rocket off of the line, which makes its acceleration capabilities feel far greater. Despite that, once you get the 650S moving, its extra horsepower and torque take over and throw it forward at an alarming rate.
Any RWD car as powerful as the 650S demands respect. As the characteristics of rear mid-engined cars go, when the back end steps out it really steps out, so driving anywhere near that point on public roads will most likely kill you and everyone else around you. But, with judicious use of the throttle and some common sense, the car was by far the most exciting to drive that day.
The turn in response was tight, and the car cornered as flat as any RWD supercar should. The brake pedal had absolutely no travel, and was remarkably communicative with excellent feel. The car felt light and manageable. It really is the full package of raw automotive performance. I loved the car so much that I’m now sucking up to it in an embarrassing way.
The car is so well tuned that it gives the driver a sense of confidence unlike most cars in its class. Some supercars are confidence inspiring in the sense that they ride smoothly, and make you feel like you could drive it every day. The McLaren 650S is not that car. Instead, it makes you feel like there is no speed too great to heave the car through a corner. It’s always pushing you to go faster, corner harder, and brake later.
And, frankly, I don’t like that. Not on the road, at least. Just like keeping a cheetah as a pet, the 650S just doesn’t belong in our world of traffic congestion and stoplights. The only place to truly appreciate the 650S is on a track, and any place less than that feels like a disservice.
So, during the steak dinner that followed my drive in the McLaren 650S, when most of the others in the group said their favorite car so far had been the McLaren, I said it was the Lamborghini. I think the McLaren is far faster and more special than the Lamborghini, but I couldn’t live with the shame of knowing how much I was holding it back.