Is Woking's Super Series car more than just a rehashed 12C?

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Having given both the 12C and the subsequent Spider version a full road test examination, it’s possible that we could be accused of showing McLaren’s mainstay a little too much attention.

The latest 650S, however, is much more than simply the recipient of a cut-and-paste copy of the P1’s shapely nose.

The McLaren's roof folds away in about 15 seconds, at the push of a button

The Surrey-based manufacturer claims that more than a quarter of the car is new, and while the fundamentals remain – including its carbonfibre tub and twin-turbo 3.8-litre V8 – this is a go-faster version in every meaningful respect.

McLaren insists that the 650S is the product of lessons it learnt while building not only the 12C but also the much quicker and more sophisticated P1.

Between them they make up the car’s immediate family tree, but more distantly there are the road cars built before the firm dedicated itself to purely automotive pursuits — namely, the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren and the F1, the latter proving influential enough to provide a hypercar touchstone almost 20 years after production ended.

The 650, of course, stands for the engine’s metrically measured power output, while the S stands for Sport. One could be forgiven for thinking the designation redundant in McLaren’s tiny line-up, especially since the firm confirmed that the 12C would be discontinued.

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The car that is, in effect, then, the 650S’s predecessor rather than its range sibling provides one of the more obvious questions: is this the car the 12C should have been from day one? Is it wholly fabulous or still very slightly flawed? Let's find out.

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McLaren 650S Spider carbonfibre blades

That the MP4-12C became the 12C and now the 650S in just three years indicates two things.

First, that McLaren is a road car company still finding its feet, and second, that it’s a road car company capable of making changes at race-team speed.

The McLaren's twin-turbo V8 has been tuned to produce more mid-range torque for the 650S

Visually, the distinction between 12C and 650S is relatively broad. The new headlights are the biggest tell between the two models and are P1-inspired. But it’s the changes that are less visually obvious that are the most significant.

The M383T-designated twin-turbocharged V8 engine in the 650S is ostensibly the same one we know well from all of McLaren’s cars. The Woking firm takes great pride in the fact that, depending on where you find it, the engine will make anything from 532bhp (or thereabouts, in the forthcoming P13) all the way to 737bhp in the P1.

Here in the 650S it makes 641bhp. The hardware differs from that used in the 617bhp 12C thanks to new pistons and a redesigned cylinder head. There are also new exhaust valves and the cooling circuits have been redesigned to better deal with the inevitable extra heat that comes with such a power increase.

Camshaft timings are different, too. These are said to improve both economy and throttle response, while a new exhaust system is lighter than before. McLaren’s intention was to improve the perceived response of the engine. As such, torque now builds from 3000rpm to 7000rpm rather than plateauing, so the more revs you have, the faster it feels.

The engine drives the rear wheels through a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, as before. But while there are no changes to the hardware, the software has been altered to elicit faster, crisper shifts.

In Sport mode, the ignition is cut between shifts but the fuel is not, giving a pop from the exhaust when changing up. In Track, the gear engages before the revs drop, to give a momentary surge in acceleration as the ratio bangs home.

All of which sounds like McLaren  is trying to introduce more drama to the 650S experience, given some of the verdicts on the 12C (though not necessarily ours), namely that it was too efficient for its own good.

One area in which it has always remained extremely efficient, mind, is in the way its suspension works; interlinked hydraulic suspension retains its absence of anti-roll bars, and this has given McLarens to date a spellbinding ride quality.

Here McLaren aims to keep the same ride quality in the softer suspension mode while stiffening it in Track mode, which, coupled with 24 percent more downforce, is said to improve steering precision and road feel.

And finally, the carbonfibre tub, which weighs just 75kg and gives the 650S its torsional rigidity, is retained unchanged. This 650S is also available as a Spider, too, a fact that, unlike in any rival, is extremely easy to forget.


McLaren 650S Spider interior

You rarely meet a McLaren employee who wouldn’t be slim-hipped enough to slip into a racing bucket seat and compete in a GT race if the need suddenly arose.

The same build is clearly expected of its customers. The fixed-back, Alcantara-covered sports seats of our test car were so snug that anyone with a BMI higher than 20 can forget about squeezing into them comfortably. Occupant space is, mercifully, otherwise generous.

Once, seeing out of a supercar was a nightmare. But decent mirrors and sensors mean that's no longer the case

Alcantara extends almost throughout, with attractive contrast stitching across the fascia and door facings. Where that material isn’t found, carbonfibre presents a suitably purposeful impression – on the skinny centre stack, door consoles and steering wheel.

The wheel itself is flat-bottomed but otherwise perfectly proportioned, located quite high and upright, with more reach adjustment than any of our testers required. In a contrast to Ferrari design philosophy so stark that it couldn’t be coincidental, there isn’t a button or switch on it. McLaren’s wheels are for steering with, pure and simple. Bravo.

The central tacho dominates an instrument cluster with colour LCD screens to either side and a small digital speedometer whose symbolic understatement somewhat undersells the sheer pace of the 650S.

A one-piece aluminium shift paddle rotates with the steering wheel and is bordered by aluminium control stalks. Lower down, slightly incongruous-looking plastic stalks are fitted for cruise control and menu navigation functions. These apart, just about everything here has a convincing aura of quality. All of the switchgear is symmetrically designed which should keep even those with OCD happy.

For cabin storage, there are two decent-sized cupholders and a small tray hidden away behind the centre console. Which is about as practical as a mid-engined supercar’s interior needs to be, in our book.

The 650S’s portrait-orientated screen is touch-sensitive, or can be marshalled using the rotary controller immediately below it — the latter being the easier on the move.

The nav is more reliable and robust now than it was in the earliest 12Cs. Programming is straightforward and satellite reception is improved, so it seldom mistakes your position. One bugbear remains: you zoom in like you would on an iPad, pinching or spreading your fingertips, but it doesn’t work too well because the system can’t refresh quickly enough.

Bluetooth connectivity is good. Pairing is painless and sound quality is good enough to allow voice calls at motorway speeds with the roof down. The Bluetooth media streaming function is also good and reliable, and complements an audio system with plenty of power and good listening quality. There are USB and auxiliary connection sockets in a cubby between the seats.

All in all, attention to detail is better here than you’ll get from plenty of rival supercars, where multimedia functionality is still too often considered of secondary importance. Another nice touch is that the Meridian sound system and the climate control over compensate at the retraction of the roof, providing a seamless experience, while the ability to retract the rear window allows you to enjoy the V8's poignant soundtrack when you grow weary of the radio.


McLaren 650S 3.8-litre V8 engine

You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of cars we’ve ever figured that are quicker than the 650S. Up to 100mph it is nothing short of spectacular, smashing through the three-figure barrier in just 6.3sec – faster than a Ferrari F12 and as fast as a McLaren F1.

Beyond 100mph, the 650S ultimately cedes ground to those cars. And yet the combination of an excellent launch control system, a superbly quick-shifting dual-clutch automatic gearbox and 450lb ft of torque from 3000rpm quickly rising to a full fat 500lb ft make the car almost intimidating in its willingness to accelerate at all times.

A McLaren F1 would have to hit 140mph to start pulling ahead of a 650S in a drag race

On MIRA’s mile straights, it not only hit 180mph in two directions through the gears but, more tellingly, also topped 160mph even when locked in fifth and sixth gears

For the record, the ‘normal’ 12C Spider we figured last year was almost a second slower through the gears to 100mph and more than two seconds behind to 150mph. So if you thought this was the same machine given a light facelift, think again.

While throttle response still isn’t as perfect as that which you’d expect from a naturally aspirated performance engine, it’s above reasonable criticism. At very low revs, with the gearbox in manual mode, you can find some turbo lag – but only if you go looking for it.

Most of the time – and always when it matters – the 3.8-litre V8 wakes up when you prod it. The quick-witted gearbox undoubtedly plays its part here, dropping into lower ratios very smartly in automatic mode.

But the fact that the car takes off as hard as it does from medium revs seems like more than enough compensation than is necessary for the hint of softness in the accelerator pedal – most of the time.

Occasionally you do miss the rapier-like powertrain control you get in a good naturally aspirated supercar; that much is undeniable. But more often, you just wish the 650S’s engine made a more soulful noise.

The flipside of the car’s still-reserved, tuneless vocal character is that it’s fairly quiet – pleasingly economical, even – at a low-rev cruise. Fair enough, but such things aren’t what we’re looking for in what is primarily a thrill machine.


McLaren 650S Spider hard cornering

Within the context of day-to-day road use, the 650S is an uncannily gifted and broad-batted drive. This is a 641bhp mid-engined supercar, as fast to 100mph as the very fastest production car in existence until a few years ago.

And yet the steering is light, intuitively paced and always benign, never nervous or overly direct. Lateral grip levels are high, but straight-line stability is still excellent.

Braking stability is superb, with no fade or tiredness even after many, many laps

The optional Pirelli Corsa tyres fitted to our test car work well enough in the wet and the standard P Zeros should work even better.

All things considered, although it’s come from a company that’s only really known the demands of motorsport for almost half a century, the 650S is a bit of a pussycat and, like the 12C before it, profoundly a machine for normal, everyday service.

The way the car combines its uncompromising grip and body control with a fluent, dexterous ride has to be experienced to be believed. Just as it did in the 12C, the 650S’s interconnected, accumulator-primed damping system means it doesn’t need anti-roll bars.

What’s more, the chassis’s electronic management system seems to work quickly and cleverly enough to take the sting out of a bump during the suspension’s compression stroke, so much so  that it hardly causes the body to rebound. There isn’t another adaptive damping technology we know of with such range and effectiveness.

Truth is, the body does rebound ever so slightly. Instead of being apparently vacuum-sucked to the surface of any given road, the 650S seems to hover half an inch above the ground, allowing that critical bit of compliance while bobbing millimetrically on its springs as the chassis works its voodoo.

A gentle vertical bob only presents over a really testing surface, but never does it cause the car to pitch or porpoise, or disturb the authority and consistency of the steering – which is always a joy to use. And body roll never, ever becomes even the merest factor in the handling mix, either.

The McLaren’s handling could be a touch more involving at normal road speeds and it could ultimately be ever so slightly better balanced on a circuit, at the very limit of adhesion.

We found McLaren’s 12C lacking in ultimate limit adjustability, but the 650S is better. There’s barely any dive on the brakes (which have good feel for carbon-ceramics) and decent immediacy and accuracy on turn-in.

This is a car willing to corner, and in a steady-state, constant-throttle bend it’s more resistant to understeer than the 12C. But in some ways the 12C’s traits remain: there’s a touch of lag while the turbos spool and there’s no limited-slip diff, so in longer corners the inherent balance is similar.

Tremendous grip gives way to understeer as the turbos catch up, but that eventually gets pushed through into oversteer. McLaren’s preferred way of cornering a 650S is to brake right to the apex, and if you’re going fast enough, that helps to unsettle the rear and quell understeer. At which point you can get back on the power, hard, and exit a bend with a straight steering wheel or half a turn of lock applied.

It’s fast and controlled, but while the 650S likes being driven this way, not all corners or drivers suit it.

But you won’t encounter those limits, or that eventual deterioration in high-speed cornering balance, anywhere other than on a race track. The vast majority of drivers simply never will – and for them, the 650S’s overall handling compromise is a quite superbly well judged one.


McLaren 650S Spider

The usual disclaimer applies here: the 650S’s standard, option-free sticker price starts well north of £200k, placing it comfortably in the silly-money stratosphere where price tags carry little real meaning and running costs none at all.

However, for the record, McLaren claims 24.2mpg combined and a 275g/km CO2 output for the 650S – both impressive considering the power produced, though not exceptional.

Options for the 650S Spider include diamond-cut wheels and an electrically adjustable steering column

The 488 GTB beats it on both fronts, while the Lamborgini’s Huracan is only 1.6mpg behind on economy.

A Porsche 911 Turbo S is considerably better across the board. For what it’s worth, we recorded 23.8mpg on a touring run and 18.1mpg as an overall average – the latter being only slightly less than for the 12C Spider.

A careful owner may well do better, but don’t expect to see much more than 300 miles between fill-ups of the car’s 72-litre tank.

In terms of options, we'd go for the sports exhaust and lifter system that raises the nose. Avoid carbonfibre options where they'd get scraped, and don't go overboard elsewhere.

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4.5 star McLaren 650S Spider

With every iteration of this McLaren, it gets better. At first it was rewarding yet frustrating, but with every modification or model update, the rewards grow and the frustration dims.

Now this is one of the finest driver’s supercars you can buy. It rides with astonishing deftness on the road yet can be tied down on a circuit and lapped, repeatedly, with the kind of commitment, absence of fade and ability to not cook its own consumables that is reminiscent of a Porsche with a ‘GT’ tag, or even McLaren’s own P1.

P1 aside, the best McLaren yet. The gap to Ferrari is barely visible and utterly subjective

So why no final half star? There are sufficient areas we’d still look at to improve – its behaviour in long corners where you can’t brake to the apex, for example, and the rather flat quality of the sound emanating from the exhausts.

It would also be gratifying to see McLaren at least experiment with an active mechanical differential for that last bit of limit adjustability.

But the good things are very good; if we could give the 650S Spider four and three-quarter stars, we would. It is the best convertible supercar money can buy.

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Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes.