McLaren 650S. FIRST DRIVE takes the brand new McLaren 650S for a spin on the international launch in Spain

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Having run a McLaren MP4-12C for a long term test it’s a car I know rather well, not to mention have a very deep affection for. I love its Jekyll and Hyde personality, going from sedate to psychopath with a flick of its mode switch. Never has a supercar been so useable yet so great to drive. So the news that McLaren has discontinued production of the 12C (they claim temporarily) means that I approach the new 650S with very high hopes and expectations. According to McLaren, the 650S takes everything that’s great about the 12C and makes it a bit better, incorporating what they’ve learnt during its development of the truly bonkers P1 and filtering it down to the 650S. Most intriguingly there seems to be a focus on increasing the fun factor of the 12C, a car that had been criticised by many for being clinical in its approach.

Let’s start with those looks. In the pictures the 650S looks very nose heavy due to the very P1 inspired front end, but in the flesh it’s far more visually balanced than I expected, although to my eye it isn’t as cohesive a design as the 12C. It’s certainly more dramatic looking than the 12C at the front, but I feel a bit let down by the rear of the car, which hasn’t carried over the fascinating rear of its P1 big brother. Nevertheless, it’s a very striking car.

McLaren 650S Launch 2014 Ascari

Swing the doors upwards and forwards and you’re greeted by very much the same interior architecture as the 12C, which is no bad thing. Like the 12C, the interior is dominated by the carbon fibre of the monocoque. Alcantara is now standard on the 650S and our test car is spec’d with the optional carbon fibre racing seats out of the P1. I drop awkwardly into the hip hugging seats, swing my legs over the sills and pull the door down firmly behind me. So far, so 12C.

Where there is a very significant improvement over the 12C is in the raw performance numbers. With the 12C’s 616bhp and 442lb ft outputs increased to 641bhp and 500lb ft, the claimed performance is mind-blowing: a 0-100kph time of 2.9sec is impressive, but it’s the 0-160kph time which really sets out the 650S – just 5.7sec, more than half a second quicker than the legendary McLaren F1.

Most of the extra straight line performance over a standard 12C (which hits 100kph in 3.1sec) comes from the reworked engine, which has new pistons, cylinder heads and exhaust valves and revised cam timing. While the new nose allows some of the kudos created by the P1 to rub off on its little brother, when combined with the new adaptive rear wing it brings aerodynamic benefits as well, with downforce up by a claimed 40 per cent, the 650S now generating 100kg at 240kph. Meanwhile the junior McLaren now tops out at a very unjunior 333kph. McLaren goes out of its way to point out that these numbers shade those of the stripped out version of its rivals, i.e. Ferrari 458 Speciale.

McLaren 650S Launch 2014 Ascari

The big question is how do the eye-popping numbers translate when we hit the road? And what a road it is, we’re in Ronda in Southern Spain, which complements its beautiful scenery with some of the best driving roads on the planet. These incredible roads deserve an incredible car and I can safely say I’ve got one underneath me today. In a nutshell the 650S is stunningly good to drive. With the Handling and Powertrain mode set to Comfort it retains the 12C’s spookily smooth ride despite the fact that the spring rates are up by 22 per cent at the front and 37 per cent at the rear. When the roads get more interesting, flick the Powertrain to Track and the Handling to Sport (Track remains too stiff for most use) and the 650S suddenly gets feral. The combination of the stiffer springs and the Corsa rubber means that you seem to get better initial reaction as you turn into a corner and then more confidence to lean on the front end. There is a bit of understeer to manage through the tighter corners but by and large the car is simply stunningly fast and completely composed without an ounce of slip.

One of the main niggles faced with the 12C was its brake feel, particularly when equipped with ceramics. The 650S now comes as standard with carbon ceramic discs, but where there used to be a horrible dead feeling at the top of the pedal travel followed by an abrupt application of pad to disc, there is now superb feelsome progression  that’s up there with the best that Porsche has to offer.

McLaren 650S Launch 2014 Ascari

Bizarrely, considering the improved numbers, the way the 650 delivers its power is less abrupt than the 12C which always felt turbocharged and very elastic in the way it flung you down the road. Despite the extra 58lbft, the 650’s flatter torque curve means the acceleration is more linear and slightly less dramatic. This is still a shockingly, brain-frazzling fast car, it just gathers its speed in a more refined manner. The soundtrack of the 650 continues to be the Achilles heel of the car, while far from being unpleasant it isn’t a match for its sonorous Italian rivals that have more of a taste for the flamboyant in the audio department. There’s supposedly a new cylinder cut on upshifts, but sadly I couldn’t really detect the added drama it was meant to imbue. Meanwhile the double-clutch gearbox continues to be one of the best in the business

The tremendous grip and ballistic performance mean that exploring the outer edges of the handling is not something easily done on a public road no matter how brilliant it is. Luckily McLaren has booked the fabulous Ascari racetrack for the day and I can confirm that the boys from Woking have succeeded in dialling in a more playful dynamic when you do eventually break traction. You can get the 650 to oversteer if you’re on the throttle with the boost building early enough or when you attack a corner a bit too quickly, even with the TC in Track mode and not totally switched off. For a road car on road-legal tires the speed that the 650 can carry through Ascari’s fast yet highly technical corners is seriously impressive.

McLaren 650S Launch 2014 Ascari

In conclusion McLaren has succeeded in its goal of creating a car that’s better than the 12C in just about every area, making it amongst the best cars money can buy at any price. Speaking of price, at $285,000 the 650S is a relative bargain when you consider the standard equipment that it comes with relative to the $35,000 premium over the 12C. Conversely McLaren’s decision to apply the upgrades from the 650S for owners of the older car makes the 12C a very attractive used proposition. Either way you can’t go wrong, regardless of the numerals in the model name, Mclaren is on a bit of a roll at the moment and making really special cars.

Technical specifications available on page 2

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