A Supercar for the Ages

During the 900 miles I drove a McLaren 650S Spider, my heart only stopped twice.

Once was at a gas station at Spirit Mountain Casino in Grand Ronde near the Oregon coast.

When you come to a halt in the McLaren, it takes the transmission a couple of seconds to realize you really are stopped, and then it shifts into neutral. But for a brief moment, the car continues to edge forward.

I had taken my eyes off the road, and looked up and braked just before the very expensive nose of the English supercar nearly plowed into the rear of a Jeep Wrangler being towed behind a motorhome. Disaster avoided.

Reporting an impact to the gods in McLaren Land would have been a sad phone call indeed.

The other heart-stoppage occurred on the Northwest Passage, a tour by the Oregon Region of the Porsche Club of America. Fifty cars were entered, mostly late-model 911s, Boxsters and Caymans. Compared to the 4-cylinder cars we see on many vintage rallies, these cars could hustle. The McLaren fit in perfectly, as the twin-turbo belle of the ball.

Team SCM hits the road

Team SCM — consisting of me and friend Doug Hartman in the 650S, SCM contributor Paul Hardiman and Ailsa Barber in our Porsche 996 Twin Turbo, and SCM writer B. Mitchell Carlson in the Dodge Viper GTS ACR — were driving down a quiet street in Silverton, OR, in the early morning, looking for a place to gas up.

I was sandwiched between the Porsche Turbo and the Viper, when suddenly, a Silverton police car swooped in between us, lights flashing.

“Crap,” I thought. “I’ve gotten a ticket while driving the McLaren, and I haven’t done anything really fun to deserve it.”

The officer, very polite, came up to the car and explained. “You were going a little above the 25 mph speed limit, but really I just wanted to see the car. Carbon-fiber chassis, 650 horse, right?”

How fast do you want to go?

The 650S is featured in several video games, including “Driveclub,” “Forza Horizon” and “Need for Speed Rivals.” Consequently, wherever we stopped we were immediately surrounded by groups of teen McLaren enthusiasts. Even though this was clearly the first time they had seen the car, they could recite its specs. “Five-hundred foot-pounds of torque” was their mantra.

Aside from the switches on the dash to choose between Normal, Sport and Track mode, your right foot also acts as a reality selector. At partial throttle, your grandmother could use the car to get groceries. The plentiful torque and smooth-shifting 7-speed automatic (“Seamless Shift Gearbox” in McLaren-speak) allows it to move easily away from a stop. It always seems to be in the right gear whether shifting up or down.

When you select beast mode with your foot, the Godzilla within is unleashed. An entirely different granny would be behind the wheel at this point, one with body piercings, tattoos and an orange mohawk.

The 650S at full chat is a video game come to life. According to published specs, the car gets to 100 mph in 5.8 seconds, and through the quarter mile in 10.6 seconds at 138 mph. Top speed is said to be 204 mph.

I found no reason to disbelieve these numbers. Our car, in Volcano Red, was outfitted with the optional sport exhaust ($6,650). With the top down, at full throttle the sound from the alloy V8 seemed to move forward like a reverse surround-sound. You were instantly enveloped in a mechanical interpretation of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.”

When passing on long, straight sections of two-lane roads, the scenery started to rush past like the scene in “Star Wars” when the Millennium Falcon goes into hyperspace. I was no stranger to 140 mph.

At the same time…

At first I tried playing with the paddle-shifters to select gears, but unless I was rushing down a hill at speed and wanted engine braking, the gearbox made better decisions than I would have — and executed them more quickly as well. This also allowed me to keep both hands on the nicely padded steering wheel.

The active suspension offered a combination of roadholding and comfort. The massive 19-inch front and 20-inch rear Pirelli P-Zero Corsa tires have a minimal sidewall, yet the suspension felt compliant in a turn, as if the car had 60-series tires. Consequently, you drove quickly through the turns without needing a mouth guard to keep your upper and lower jaws from slamming together.

The bar is high

You might think that the $330k MSRP is a lot of money. But it’s chump change in the land of $850k Porsche 918s and $1.5m LaFerraris.

Over in the affordable section of the “Big Boy” sales room, the $400,000 Lamborghini Aventador, the $320,000 Ferrari F12 berlinetta and the $230,000 Mercedes SLS AMG sit next to the 650S.

There are three requirements a contemporary supercar has to meet:

First, it needs to offer a complete performance package; docile as a cat basking in the sun or as spitting mad as a wolverine squared off with a grizzly bear.

Second, it must have a compelling visual presence — distinctive, elegant and powerful without being a caricature of itself.

Finally, it must offer swagger. Kids of all ages, from 6 to 60, must immediately know what it is, and want their picture taken next to it.

The 650S has all three. You can order up as much or as little of the astounding performance as you wish, it has svelte, sophisticated and timeless appearance, and everyone who sees it knows you have just driven it — at 204 mph — off the screen of a video game.

If I were selecting one supercar, to drive daily, to race an F-16 from coast-to-coast now and then, and to draw large crowds wherever I stopped, it would have to be this McLaren. Yes, it is that good. ♦

 

Keith Martin

Keith Martin has been involved with the collector car hobby for more than 30 years. As a writer, publisher, television commentator and enthusiast, he is constantly on the go, meeting collectors and getting involved in their activities throughout the world. He is the founder and publisher of the monthly Sports Car Market and bi-monthly American Car Collector magazines, has written for the New York Times, Automobile, AutoWeek, Road & Track and other publications, is an emcee for numerous concours, and has his own show, “What’s My Car Worth,” shown on Velocity.

Posted in Shifting Gears