Test Drive: McLaren 650S Spider

A weekend behind the wheel and loving every nanosecond

by Michael Frank

There is a moment while I’m driving the $285,000, 642-horsepower McLaren 650S Spider that physically hurts. The car is hurtling fluidly around a corner with so much tenacity and grip that I can feel the g-forces bending against my body, tugging my sinew one direction while the British-built supercar scratches with all its might and muscle to arc through a narrow bend that descends, twists and simultaneously climbs. It’s a gorgeous instant—a gut-punch of engineering brilliance pounding everything that’s dull and predictable from the motoring world in one triumphant concussion. Then, to drive the point home, there’s the finger-to-the-planet punctuation—the tandem roar of wind-tunnel lid-lessness topping 80mph, combined with the massively uncouth curse of a twin-turbo V-8 reaching its crescendo. But, to be fair, that instant of pain and pleasure must be weighed against other trifling ones when you could be disappointed if you should find yourself behind the wheel of the McLaren 650S Spider.

McLaren does not make boring or even vaguely normal cars.

The navi doesn’t speak with a British accent, even though the 650S—and all McLarens—are entirely made in England. There is no glovebox, and the cupholders (there are two) are inconveniently located—but chances are your 40-ounce latte won’t fit. Nobody will know what you’re driving, ever. People will ask which Lamborghini it is, or they will wonder aloud about Ferrari straying off-brand from red, to flame-orange. The seats are race-car firm, and the exhaust note is loud—bordering on deafening. Should any of these factors bother you, you’re the wrong customer. McLaren (which started life as a Formula 1 “constructor” and continues to care primarily about building the world’s fastest racing cars) does not make boring or even vaguely normal cars.

If you want a two-seat convertible that is absolutely without limits on any road that isn’t a racetrack, you’re going to want to keep reading, because the drive in a 650S is simply astonishing.

Before you switch on the 650S Spider, you’ll likely first notice that limbo-ing beneath its scissoring doors takes agility, because you also have to step over a broad, and somewhat high door sill made of carbon fiber. The material is used throughout to comprise the rigid safety monocell (25% stiffer than if it had been made of aluminum). As a result, the cockpit weighs a mere 75kg. In fact, despite a hardly diminutive 3.8-liter V-8 snugged behind the two-seat cabin, the car weighs an exceptionally light 2,930 pounds—the benefits of which manifest themselves with exceptional acceleration and handling.

Aesthetically, the cabin is all business. It’s not entirely devoid of personality—with cross-stitched Alcantara surfacing (analine leather is an option) as well as carbon fiber trim panels of the genuine stuff (not the faux veneers seen on lesser machines)—but the message, as it is in a comparable 911 GT3 or Turbo, is that these quarters were built for driving as hard and fast as possible.

As if you could really miss that point by studying the 650S Spider from its exterior, where heavy signals are borrowed from the prior P1, including a revised front splitter that is said to increase downforce on the front wheels, and massive side scoops that feed the hungry turbos and dual side-mounted radiators that cool down the engine. The razored angles continue right back to the rear wing, which isn’t merely used to reduce lift at high speeds, but pivots completely perpendicular to the 650S when you tromp hard on the brake, helping massive, 15-inch carbon-ceramic brakes haul the 650S down from 60mph in a physically painful 100 feet. If you find yourself needing more brake than this car can provide you’ve driven not just over your head, but well beyond sanity.

There is a launch control mode to the seven-speed, dual-clutch transmission. And there are three suspension/transmission/engine modes (normal, sport and track) allowing you to quickly change the car’s demeanor from screwed to the road, pure track menace, to nearly reasonable groceries-fetcher. The front trunk is large enough for a case of champagne and, naturally, a few petite jars of caviar.

When you toggle the transmission into Track mode two important things will happen. ProActive Chassis Control (PCC) will engage, which allows the flow of hydraulic fluid to the shocks at all four corners of the car. The advantage of which is that when you load the suspension in a corner it can actively resist the force. Likewise, when you do hit that Launch Control switch, the system can counter the tendency of the 641hp V-8 from sending too much weight rearward. Best of all, PCC doesn’t have to make the ride stiff during straight-line, low-speed driving, so unlike stabilizer bars that are by default, rigid, the 650S is firm, but not harsh riding—until it needs to be.

For example, when you engage Launch and feel 124mph arrive in a remarkable 8.6 seconds the car is enabling shifting as fast as the V-8 reaches toward redline, and it even overlaps the two clutches in what McLaren calls “inertia push,” which saves up the torque driven through the prior gear and passes it along to the next, giving the gearbox a near seamless clean-ness to gear changes. Indeed the only dual-clutch we’ve experienced that’s this easy to operate (and as free of undue shift shock) is Porsche’s PDK.

All this speed and precision is pure joy, but here’s the brilliance: the 650S Spider is also a breeze to drive hard. At one point, with the traction nannies turned off, I bent the car around hard, pushing and poking at the limits. The steering, probably as connected a rack as exists on any car on earth today, wired tire adhesion information directly to my hands and brain. All I had to do was steer, brake, add inputs to the throttle and howl with happy expletives.

Put the car in Sport mode and rat-tat through some upshifts and anyone following the car will hear “cylinder cut” technology on display. That is, you get a tiny bit of exhaust flare (read: explosions) on upshifts. The spark is cut for a nanosecond and then reignited, causing a fantastically exciting “pop” to the exhaust that’s more American muscle car than Euro supercar.

Stuffy Brits? Hardly. Maybe that’s why the navigation system doesn’t speak polite Queen’s mother tongue. This beast is anything but, and the world is a better place for it.

Images courtesy of McLaren