It is a beautiful, fast and extremely capable machine – the stunning McLaren 650S.
It is a beautiful, fast and extremely capable machine – the stunning McLaren 650S.

McLaren 650S road test review | Put this ‘baby’ in a corner

IT'S hard to say anything against the McLaren MP4-12C. In certain parts of Australia, it's probably grounds for being burned at the stake as a heretic. It is a beautiful, fast and extremely capable machine, but its successor - the stunning 650S - has taken the fundamentals, added 25% new bits and made what is arguably the car the MP4-12C could have been given time and, of course, money.

The 650S, just launched in both coupe and spider forms, uses the same lightweight, super-strong carbon fibre tub, it uses a tweaked version of the same 3.8-litre, twin-turbo V8 and dual clutch seven-speed 'box.

But with more time on the engineer's desk, more money to play jiggery pokery with the set-up, and more laps in testing, the better things get. And this is exactly what has happened.

The most obvious change is the look - bringing it more into line with McLaren's hypercar wunderkind, the P1. It's ridiculous to be writing about a car that smashes to 200kmh in 8.5 seconds, and then have to refer to it as the "baby". But that is, essentially, what the 650S is. That said, it doesn't cost $1.5m dollars, either.

In fact, it's a 'mere' fraction of that with unoptioned machines at $441,500 for the coupe, and $486,250 for this delightful Spider.

It certainly takes the scrap to the Italians. As a supercar should be, it's an assault on the senses, pure and simple.

Power comes on almost gently through a tidy clutch set-up that allows enough slip to stop owners looking like learners when they're, heaven forbid, stuck in traffic. But boost builds so rapidly that as soon as the turbo duo is ready to go, you're headed towards the sunset like a bullet.

The legal limit flicks up in just on three seconds - it doubles that quickly and, apparently, is capable of a maximum speed of 333kmh. To reiterate, yes, it's the baby one.

While some prefer their supermachines to come in straight-forward, easy to drive packages, dripping with intervening technology to make sure nothing comes unstuck, thankfully the McLaren machismo is alive and well.

The 12C, it could be argued, wasn't quite as lively as it could have been. But if there's anything to that criticism, it's been well and truly put to bed with this car.

As the revs peak in first gear, and the right hand readies for the flick of the paddle to shift up into second, there's a cheeky wiggle from the back that says "go on then, give it a go". So we did.

The big puzzle with cars like this is whether or not they'll ever get used - most don't spend time in traffic purely because they don't like sitting still. Or having enough vision around the car to avoid idiots or concrete things.

While the McLaren is reasonably tractable in urban situations, it's like taking a Bren gun to an arm wrestle. And without ticking the boxes for parking sensors and reversing cameras, it's risky. The absolute must-have is the vehicle lifter, which is actuated from a stalk by the steering wheel, pushes the body skyward by the couple of inches needed to avoid judder bar damage or bruising that pretty face scraping into driveways.

Get out on the motorway and it's hard not to feel that tingle of anticipation, as the engine quite happily burbles its way along in top gear, carrying only a few revs, keen for some curly country roads away from the rubberneckers and revenue gatherers.

In all fairness, supercars aren't exactly built for our roads. Not that there's nowhere to exploit their potential - although that would be naughty - but the outright quality is patchy. Potholes, dicey cambers, crumbling edges and sharp dips all lay in wait to claim a slice of someone's ever-so-pricey pride and joy.

So when we saw the back of beyond appear in front of us, it was with a degree of trepidation that the power was let loose. With a V8 and its twin hairdryers, the award-winning M838T has no shortage of power - it delivers 478kW at 7250rpm, screaming all the way. The 678Nm-odd that's on tap between 3000 and 7000rpm isn't dumbed down by the traction and stability controls, although the ProActive chassis control keeps things in good order.

Weighing in at just 1330kg, it maintains a firm grip on the road - soaking up dents and divots with absolute ease, even when they're cunningly placed mid-apex. It's rare to get a big bump back through the steering, which is surprising considering the 235/35/19s at front (305/30/20 at the back), and while the rack is extremely direct, and the suspension very solid, it never smashes into your hands. This is true in the Normal, Sport and Track dynamics modes, and while it doesn't have that magic carpet feel of the 12C, with its hydraulically controlled suspension, it is arguable the perfect set-up, with plenty of feel and balance, and no sharp surprises.

And the proof is in the play - the 650S is best treated in the fast in/fast out manner, especially considering the row of zeros on the insurance papers. Once the monster carbon ceramic brakes have warmed through, it's a case of jumping on the anchors to pull up in time - on paper it will stop from 100kmh in 28.5 metres - picking a decent line out and giving it heaps. The back may try and pick a fight, but the directness of the steering makes beating it back into submission a relatively easy task.

As the right hand taps through super-slick changes, active aeros come on line to keep the car stable, and when it's time to slap down a cog or two, the big airbrake pops up to stop it as stably as possible.

Interiors in supercars tend to leap from the bizarre to the ridiculous - some beautiful, most complicated and the occasional one just plain comedy.

McLaren's made an effort to keep the alcantara-wrapped cockpit functional and clean, avoiding insane touches. The centre dash to centre console is barely a hands-width across, housing a touch screen infotainment interface that looks like a smartphone - it even runs Google's Android operating system. Phone, audio and nav functions are all as simple and usable as you'd want them to be, and even opening and closing the folding roof of the Spider is fast and painless.

It's hard to know where to criticise this car - for the money there's not a lot that you'd park next to it on Lotto day. Sure it's not as rapid as the P1. But the next gen of hypercar like the P1, and La Ferrari, Porsche 918 et al, will eventually see firebreathing lightweight supercars like this one confined to the "good old days" file. 275g of C02/km won't be acceptable in the EU in the coming decade, so the noise and emotion that the 650S wears on its sleeve will fade to a whisper way back when.

If you've got a lazy half million lying around, you'd probably be doing yourself a massive disservice by not grabbing the best seat and hitting the road.


Model: McLaren 650S.

Details: Two-door two-seat mid-engined supercar.

Engine: 3.8-litre twin-turbo V8 engine producing 478kW of power at 7250rpm and 678Nm of torque at 6000rpm.

Transmission: Seven-speed automatic.

Consumption: 11.7 litres/100km (combined average).

CO2: 275 g/km.

Bottom line: Coupe $441,500; Spider $486,250.

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