“Do you have any experience in a supercar?” That’s a loaded question. Every enthusiast hopes to get behind the wheel of a supercar one day. But the question itself implies that driving a supercar is very different from any other car. And you might think it is.
You might, like we did, have a preconceived notion that supercars are hot, heavy, and uncomfortable. You might think that they have compromised ergonomics and questionable quality, making them difficult to spend time in. But you’d be wrong.
Throughout our introduction of the 2015 McLaren 650S, everything seems to be right where you expect it. Sure, the seat controls are under your knees on the front of the seat and the mirror controls are where you’d expect to put a key. But other than that, wheel, paddles, pedals, mirrors – all familiar. That helps to ease the lump in your throat. The truth is, no, you don’t have any experience in a supercar. Sure, you’ve driven a 560hp, AWD sports car, but this isn’t that. It’s a mid-engine, rear drive supercar. With 640hp and a price tag in excess of $315,000, that’s a pretty big lump.
Despite the 650S being low and wide, it’s not all that difficult to drive. Even with the top up, visibility is only slightly compromised. On the buckled and rutted streets of New York City, and without the optional front end lift, we were worried about the low nose. But with some watchful driving, the McLaren had little trouble traversing a cobbled street. By the time we made it across the George Washington Bridge and onto the Palisades Interstate Parkway, there wasn’t anything left to be scared of. The seats are supportive, the diving position is ideal, and there isn’t any wind buffeting.
Once it began to sink in, we pulled off the parkway to take it all in. This is bucket list stuff; one day, 200 miles, and a McLaren 650S Spider. Opening the dihedral doors, climbing out over the carbon fiber tub, we paused to take it in…and to take some pictures. The Tarocco Orange paint, an expensive “Elite” color option, radiates in the sun. Every angle and crease in the McLaren’s body is accentuated. A mix of carbon fiber, aluminum, and lightweight plastics are used to keep the dry weight under 3,000lbs. The alluring shape isn’t just for show. The McLaren’s bodywork, include the optional carbon fiber side sills and sideblade, are designed with aerodynamics in mind. Low drag, high downforce, and efficient use of airflow for cooling and combustion all result from the science behind the aesthetics. Only after you understand the engineering behind McLaren’s design can you properly appreciate its beauty.
It was time to get back on the road. We were headed to Bear Mountain and the surrounding topography. These rough-and-tumble roads would put any car’s ability to handle daily abuse to the test. Merging back onto the pristine Palisades tarmac, it was time to put the pedal down. The 650’s optional sport exhaust growled to life. Sound and speed progressed linearly thru 3,000rpm. Without warning, you’re walloped in the chest by the acceleration. The bark of the exhaust is displaced by the sound of air being compressed to 21psi. 500lb-ft of torque attempt to wrench the impossibly wide Pirelli P Zero Corsa rear tires loose from their grip on the road. This is exactly how you imaged a supercar would be.
The back end squirms – a problem resolved with a slight throttle lift – then settles. The torque curve stays flat thru 7,000rpm. Scenery flies at you as the engine screams onward to its 8,500rpm redline. The same 7-speed dual-clutch gearbox that offered torque-converter smooth engagement in stop-and-go traffic flashes into the next gear before you could ever react. From a standing start, the McLaren achieves 60mph is just 2.9 seconds. In another 2.9 seconds, it passes 100mph. Side effects of the McLaren 650S Spider nervous laughter, dry mouth, and a Cheshire cat grin. There is no known cure.
The 650S’ lightweight skin is anchored to its carbon fiber tub. It’s a foundation so stiff that McLaren didn’t have to make any modifications or add any reinforcements to develop the 650S Coupe into a Spider. While the aerodynamics and carbon MonoCell are impressive, they aren’t the engineering marvel that sets the McLaren 650S apart. The key to the McLaren’s duality, allowing for a remarkably compliant ride while still preventing unnecessary body roll, is its Proactive Chassis Control. The 650S utilizes a double wishbone suspension with coil springs. However, there are no anti-roll bars. Instead, the dampers are hydraulically linked. The system can pressurize and depressurize automatically or based on driver input. The complex panel of buttons and knobs set into the optional carbon fiber center console are all tied to the “Active” button. Activate the “Active” button and the dials glow orange, indicating driver control. Power and Handling knobs toggle throttle and suspension configurations independently between Normal, Sport, and Track. Buttons to control the active aerodynamics, transmission mode, launch control, and winter mode sit below the toggles. You can enjoy the sound and fury of the 3.8L V8 in Track mode without race-ready stiffness in the suspension.
What sets the McLaren apart is that you have all the upside with almost none of the downside. Modern supercars, of any brand, don’t really conform to the supercar stereotype. But just because supercars have become more civil doesn’t mean that they’ve all become the same. If you ask us, the prancing horse has the passion and the raging bull has the attitude. But McLaren, they’re a bit more clever. McLaren has the engineering to separate themselves from the others. And you can tell they’re quite proud of it.
McLaren might build their reputation on their engineering, but that doesn’t mean the passion, the attitude, and the appeal isn’t there. Everywhere we stopped, a crowd gathered. And while almost everyone would rather know how much it costs or how fast it can go instead of asking about the advantages of an open rear differential with Brake Steer system as opposed to the more traditional limited slip rear differential, the supercar appeal is there. So the next time we’re asked, “Do you have any experience in a supercar?” Yes, yes I do. One day.