First Drive: McLaren 650S Spider draws everyone into its web

Only the wealthy and extroverted should seek to own the head-turning McLaren supercar

McLaren 650S
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Year: 2015
Fuel: Petrol

A wise man once told me that unless I could park a car in the street, lock it up and walk away without a second glance, then I could not afford that car. After three days with the McLaren 650S Spider MSO, I know for sure this car is well beyond my budget. To be fair I kind of knew that before I picked it up.

But three days with this supercar was an eye-opening experience. I got followed into dimly-lit car parks by strangers who just ended up taking pictures and asking questions. Other drivers almost ran me off the road in their desperation to secure smartphone footage for Facebook pages.

In fact, despite the car taking pride of place on my Facebook page and a lot of jealous messages from friends suggesting I was, indeed, living the dream, I privately wished for an anonymous Japanese saloon so everybody would stop looking at me. It didn’t last long, in fact it was a speck in the rear-view mirror every time the road opened out, but it was definitely there. You need to be an extrovert to soak up the constant attention that goes with running a McLaren 650S Spider.

The MSO stands for McLaren Special Ops, which is the bespoke division of the supercar manufacturer. In this case, it means more than £85,000 of options to take the final price of the car above and beyond £300,000. The euro equivalent is €414,000 – and before you add the second mortgage that is the vehicle registration tax due to the Government if you were crazy enough to put Irish registration plates on it. We tried to work out an estimated cost but we couldn’t see the final calculation for all the zeroes at the end and the blood rushing from our head. Let’s just say it’s a choice between a roomy pad in the leafy suburbs of southside Dublin or this car.


Diamond-cut wheels

So what does such a monumental motoring investment buy you? Bespoke Saigan Quartz paint, a carbon rear diffuser, side skirts, side sills, mirror casings, custom side air intakes, a cover for the windscreen wiper, lightweight diamond-cut wheels and a sports exhaust system. And this is just the start.

If your pockets are deep enough then the sky is the limit. McLaren will build you a whole new car around the basis of the 650S. It has done it before, producing the X-1 that looked like a 1950s vision of a future supercar based on the original MP4-12C. Most clients don’t go that far and the MSO touches can be as subtle as a few extra flashes of carbon fibre in the cockpit, but for those who worry their McLaren might not stand out from the crowd, which really isn’t an issue for normal people, it’s comforting to know that their car can be infinitely tailored to suit.

Now the MSO is no faster than the standard 650S Spider, it doesn’t stop any quicker and it isn’t any better through the bends. But it really doesn’t need to be.

That’s because the 650S Spider is so far beyond the public road that additional performance would be gilding the lily. It would have been simplicity itself to achieve, as the 650S is powered by a 3.8-litre twin turbo and simply turning up the wick on the chargers could have liberated more horses, but when you have 641bhp to start with then more is just redundant.

That’s because the 650S Spider is stupid fast, rocketship fast, put-you-in-prison-in- the-blink-of-an-eye fast. With the aid of launch control it will hit 100km/h in 3.0 seconds, yes really, three seconds, and it will do 200km/h in 8.6 seconds, which is fast enough to leave other cars’ licence plates spinning cartoon-style on the road. It won’t run out of steam in seventh gear until you’re through the 328km/h mark, too, which should be scary. The most disconcerting part is that it isn’t. At all.

Even with a traditional British downpour that makes the elegant folding hardtop pale into insignificance, I find myself goading the car with ever more violent bursts of acceleration that follows a similar pattern. I bury the throttle, blow my mind with the speed of it all, recalibrate my brain and go again. Only once does the car step out and then it’s so easily gathered up that the natural racing car balance of the lightweight carbon-fibre chassis shines through.

Wide footprint

A carbon-fibre tub that helps keep the kerb weight down to 1,370kg joins forces with trick, interlinked hydraulic suspension, a wide footprint and perfectly weighted steering to make a car that simply feels beyond the public road.

My twisting test route down the Devon coastline, which also makes for a stunning photo location on brighter days than this, is as challenging a road as you’ll find and the 650S simply devours it. Before long I’m travelling at speeds that are, frankly, disrespectful considering the tight lanes and the long drop to one side. But the car just inspires that kind of confidence.

It comes as no surprise that racing tech runs to the core of this car. Formula One is where McLaren made its name, producing championship- winning cars since 1963 and taking the likes of Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Mika Häkkinen and Lewis Hamilton to title glory. It also produced the legendary McLaren F1, which is often named as the greatest supercar of all time, and had a hand in the less impressive McLaren- Mercedes SLR. But unlike Ferrari, McLaren did not harbour ambitions to become a serious road car manufacturer until recently.

The MP4-12C was its first attempt and this, the 650S, is its effective replacement Truthfully, it’s the car they should have built in the first place, but then considering this is the company’s first real mass-produced road car, it’s a remarkably refined creation.

Of course, the stitching on the Alcantara dashboard covering is perfect, that's to be expected from the notoriously detail-orientated McLaren chairman Ron Dennis. But the proprietary sat-nav and in-car entertainment, one of the original car's weak points, was a radical move that has paid off in spades. The separate climate control for the driver and passenger and a level of refinement that mean I step out in Plymouth, more than five hours after leaving the factory thanks to heavy traffic, as fresh as the moment I left, are what make the 650S Spider truly remarkable. But then, it has to be.

The McLaren goes toe to toe with the company’s on track rival and the 458 Italia is a hell of a car. Car magazines have attempted to separate them and the 650S seems to edge it, but it is by fractions, and those fractions are irrelevant Top Trumps arguments that are had in the bar, not on the road. The truth is that the choice to buy a McLaren or Ferrari is an emotional one and it has almost nothing to do with the technical parts of the car. It’s about what they represent.

Inverse snobbery

Ferrari polarises opinion like no other brand. There are those that love the history, the nostalgia, the pomp and the ceremony. They even love the fact that every Tom, Dick or Harry is opening a 10-year-old Fiat Uno with a key attached to a Ferrari-branded key ring. Others have come to hate the Italian marque for exactly the same reasons and there is a bizarre inverse snobbery that has grown up around Ferrari. For some it's the obvious choice, the brash idiot's supercar.

For these people, the McLaren is the perfect foil for the outrageous, flamboyant Italian. It's the Hugo Boss suit compared with the lurid Valentino. Cool, clinical, engineering-led, it's the polar opposite of the Ferrari ethos, which is enough to clear McLaren's shelves of stock for years to come.

Of course, the reality is somewhat different. The reality is a world of smartphones, stalkers, offers to swap cars and sweaty-palmed fear when you leave it parked up. When you buy a car like this it’s for other people, as much as yourself, and even though I want to be with every fibre of my soul, I’m just not sure I’m flash enough. And I definitely cannot afford it.

The lowdown: The MSO McLaren 650S Spider
3.8-litre twin turbo
Power: 641bhp
0-100 km/h: 3.0 seconds
Top speed: 328km/h
Price: £300,000 in UK (and before VRT)