The McLaren 650S – Once More… With Feeling (Part 1)

8/5/2014 4:18:38 AM

Another orange supercar... and another measure of sympathy. This time, feel sorry for McLaren's 12C. While the motoring world revered its engineering achievements and marvelled at its unique mix of urbane civility and neck-snapping acceleration, no-one really loved it. As celebrated as the 12C was, it seemed to lack a little something in the loin-girding department - something that its natural rival, the Ferrari 458 Italia, had by the Tuscan wine barrel.

The visceral Italian stirred the blood with the automotive equivalent of dramatic hand gestures, whereas the Englishman straightened its tie and clicked to the next Power Point slide. Make no mistake, the 12C was a wonderful car, as fast and as agile as the Italian and, thanks to the settings available in its ProActive Chassis Control (PCC) system, easier to live with as an everyday vehicle. But still, the 458 got the nod. What to do then if you were sitting behind that powerful computer in Woking? Well, first, you could confuse everyone.

McLaren has incorporated styling elements from the P1 hypercar into the 650S

McLaren has incorporated styling elements from the P1 hypercar into the 650S

When the 650S was first revealed at the Geneva Motor Show in March, McLaren announced it would slot in between the ultra-exclusive P1 hypercar and the 12C. And car fans were left dumbfounded. While the price - $418,335 (a good $55,780 more than the 12C) - certainly suggests it's a different car, that new nose aside, you'd be hard-pressed to point out any other exterior and interior differences between the two.

Soon after the international reveal, McLaren sensibly suspended production of the 12C, so the 650S does replace it. And, yes, it is based on the same carbon tub as the donor car and, yes, it is the same powertrain, but the 650S differs a lot more than you would think. For one thing, 25% of the parts are different and the changes McLaren has made are focused on functionality and improving the performance.

The 650S's 3.8-litre twin-turbocharged V8 engine develops 641bhp

The 650S's 3.8-litre twin-turbocharged V8 engine develops 641bhp

The most noticeable change is that Pl-like nose. More than just aligning itself with the design of the hypercar, it represents significant aerodynamic lessons learnt from the hypercar. At 240 km/h, this nose increases the downforce by 40% while also improving cooling. You need to get behind the wheel to notice the other two major changes, though ...

Firstly, thanks to new pistons, cylinder head, cam timing, exhaust valves and a little ECU remap wizardry, the same engine that did duty in the 12C now delivers 478 kW (up 18 kW) and 678 N.m of torque (up 78 N.m). And, secondly, Woking's white-coats have reworked the spring and damper settings. At the pre-drive briefing, McLaren's staff not only described the 650S as quicker than the 12C, but it also used phrases such as "more engaging", "more communicative" and boasting "a heightened sense of urgency".

Airbrake deploys to improve stability when lifting off or cresting a hill

Airbrake deploys to improve stability when lifting off or cresting a hill

To show us exactly what the engineers meant, McLaren invited us to drive the fixed-roof and Spider versions of its new creation on the mountain passes of Malaga in Spain and on a very special racetrack - the famed Ascari private race circuit that loops along the Andalusian hills.

In a nutshell, yes, the car is noticeably faster - and we'll get to that later - but most apparent is the difference in the ride and handling. The PCC system still allows you to toggle between normal, sport and track modes, but the spread of talents between those markers has grown. On the oft-broken asphalt of Andalusia, in normal mode the 650S displayed a level of damping a car of this nature simply has no right to have - in fact, it's even more civilised than the 12C. McLaren's engineers have reworked the suspension top mounts to include a layer of nitrogen gas that further dampens any vibrations transferred into the cabin from the road surface via the 235/35 R19 (front) and 305/30 R20 rubber. These, incidentally, are Pirelli P Zero Corsa tyres, which were an option on the 12C.

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