First Drive: McLaren 650S Spider

The average house price in the UK is somewhere in the region of £250,000. On my meagre motoring journalist income I can only dream of average, settling instead for a three-bed semi in Huntingdon.

Still, it’s better than my first flat. That had a kitchen small enough to allow me to touch the wall on both sides at the same time.

I could probably do better, but I have a habit of buying cars that aren’t entirely necessary, and certainly not cheap to run. The truth is I get more satisfaction from something with wheels than I do from something with bricks.

It was with a grin as wide as the fens that I hastily grabbed the keys from the nice man at McLaren who’d offered me their new 650S Spider to try out.

For something with just two seats and no boot to speak of, it’s a bit expensive. The model I was trusted with starts at £217,000, but the team at McLaren had foisted an extra £54,000 of options on this, taking the asking price to £271,000. That would get you a lovely four-bedroom detached house in Ely, so the McLaren had better be good.

The hardware suggests it will be. Sitting behind the driver is a 3.8-litre V8 engine with twin turbochargers bolted on. This produces 641bhp, or almost the same as eight Ford Fiesta’s. That engine is attached to a carbon fibre tub with aluminium front and rear structures, which means a total weight of just 1,370 kg, which is only a little more than a Ford Fiesta.

All that power goes through the rear wheels, with Pirelli tyres over a foot wide given the task of gripping the tarmac.

Drama is guaranteed then, but you can tell that before you even set foot in the car. The flowing lines that look like they’ve been sculpted by the air give way to bold carbon-fibre intakes on the side, but the big clue is the doors.

They go up. Gull wing doors, or dihedral as McLaren like to call them, have always been cool, and will always be cool. It’s automotive law. Swing the door up, climb over the sill and slide yourself in to the cockpit and you’re presented with a master class of minimalism.

While the Ferrari 458 confuses you with countless dials and switches mounted to the steering wheel, the 650S has an elegant three-spoke wheel trimmed in Alcantara, with just a couple of paddles behind to work the gears. Behind that lies a simple instrument panel that houses a large rev counter in the centre, flanked by digital displays of things the car considers relevant.

The heating and ventilation controls sit on the door, which catches you out when you’re trying to turn the air-con on for the first time, while the centre console, clad in carbon fibre, houses what looks like a large iPhone and a small array of buttons and dials that control everything from navigation to active aerodynamics.

Settled in, the engine is fired up and… well, it’s a little muted actually. The burbles and crackles that made October’s Jaguar F-Type so dramatic are dismissed as being inefficient, and it’s only when you bury the throttle that it makes much noise.

At that point you can hear a whooshing intake sound backed up by the high-pitched whine of the turbochargers. It sounds like a spaceship rather than a sports car, and it leaves the line like a rocket.

You can reach 62 miles per hour in just three seconds, while 124mph takes just 8.6 seconds, which is less time than it takes to read this sentence.

Performance is simply staggering. Whatever you’re doing, wherever you’re going, you will simply be going faster than the law allows. Reigning things in is harder than you think, as just breathing on the throttle puts you back in three figure speeds.

On track that’s great, although you do sometimes notice a little bit of a dead spot while the turbochargers spool up, but keep them spinning and you’ll never run out of power. Grip levels are immense, although it is possible to move the back end around in an anti-social wall of tyre smoke, but you have to be misbehaving to do that.

Instead, trail brake in to the apex of a corner, then power out and you have a finely balanced supercar that doesn’t feel the need to scare you. Get it wrong and sensible understeer shows first, although the laws of physics will eventually take over.

Out on public roads, aside from the blink-and-you’ve-lost-your-licence acceleration, the McLaren is a pussycat to live with. For something so brutal, the ride quality is incredible, thanks to adaptive dampers that take the sting out of any bump long before you’ve noticed it. The steering is also light and easy to use, leaving the 650S requiring nothing in the way of heft to manoeuvre.

Push it harder on some quiet roads and you realise that you’re barely using 25 percent of the capabilities of the car, It’s just too easy, too refined, and therein lies the only significant problem with the 650S.

Supercars should be spectacular in every way. You should look on them in awe, marvelling at the brave men and women behind the wheel prepared and able to fight a car to the limit. The McLaren doesn’t do that, being no harder to drive around the mean streets of Cambridge than a Fiat Punto.

It might feel a little neutralised then, but there’s no denying its incredible abilities and depth of talent.

I don’t have £271,000 kicking around to buy a 650S, and if I did I’m sure my wife would rather I spent it on a house. But I can sleep in a car, and I can’t drive a house, so the car wins.

Model tested: McLaren 650S Spider
Price: £215,250 (£271,650 as tested)
Engine: 3.8-litre turbocharged V8 petrol
Top speed: 204 mph
0-62 mph: 3.0 seconds
Power: 641 bhp (650 PS)
Torque: 678 ft-lb (500 Nm)

Combined fuel economy: 24.2 mpg
Road Test economy: N/A
CO2 Emissions: 275 g/km
VED Band: M / £500 per year
Car insurance group: 50 (Est)
Kerb weight: 1,370 kg


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Phil is a motoring writer for print and web, failed racing driver, car hoarder and banger rally competitor. Nominated for the Headline Auto Rising Star award and a MGMW member, Phil freelances for outlets as diverse as Diesel Car magazine, DAD.info and Cambridge Magazine, amongst many others. He also maintains a fleet of unloved motors, but spends most of his time driving an old Corvette.

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