McLaren 650s. How does it stand up today?

McLaren 650s. How does it stand up today?

It feels extremely weird to be writing about a car that would have been the stuff of dreams 10 years or so ago. Growing up, the McLaren was always the poster car for me. Everything about the F1 just felt special and so it should. But even as they catapulted even further into unobtanium, the general formula still grabbed me in a way that a Ferrari never quite did.

So when I was in my early 20s and I heard the news that there would be some ‘affordable’ McLarens on the market, excitement would have been an understatement. Still the stuff of unrealistic dreams I thought, but sometimes it’s just like that – brands that you are simply drawn to without much logic involved.

Fast-forward some time and plenty of other ‘lesser’ childhood car goals ticked off, and I somehow through a bit of luck and lots of hard work found myself awaiting a call to see if I could take home a dream car.

Like proper boyhood poster stuff.

By the time it came, I was sleep-deprived owing to late nights watching YouTube videos to decide if I’d made a mistake or not in opting for the McLaren over something Italian. I get that some people are fortunate to buy and sell cars like these at a whim. I’m one of those sad cases that will obsess over a car, learn about it, grow with it, make some memories with it, modify it – and importantly drive it.

A big part of getting through the hard times in life has been jumping in a car, so the car obsession tends to be in the territory of somewhat tragic – I’ll happily admit.

When I finally went for pickup, I had a nervous 20 minutes in an Uber before awkwardly waiting nearby to the car. I’d even worn some carefully selected shoes – sad I know. Hoping the anticipation would amount to never meeting one’s heroes heavy on my head, I turned a corner and the car simply looked stunning in the metal. More so than in photos.

Maybe it was the colour dancing in the sun, or maybe it was that it had lots of additional carbon bits – but photos simply didn’t do it justice. Looks are entirely subjective, but I don’t think there is a bad angle on the 650 in the right colour and spec.

My first impressions of the 650 were mixed when I first jumped in – in a positive way. On the one side, it was stunning to me – particularly with all of the extra carbon added by the original owner (carbon fibre will always win me over). It is very function over form with purposeful vents placed around its silhouette, a prominent supercar stance, active aero and a sloping, aerodynamic pose.

Some don’t like the P1-inspired front – I think it’s aged well and is frankly stunning. I also love how it sits against the angular, more aggressive rear end with the high-level exhaust outlets. Again, some don’t – but the curvaceous, softer, flowing tail of the 570s doesn’t sit right with me. It’s pretty – but I don’t love it.

I weighed up a lot of cars when deciding, including adding a little extra to take home a Ferrari 488, Huracan or a cheaper Gallardo Superleggera. This car had only 800km on the clock, so owing to its condition, late registration (2018) and added extras, it fetched a bit of a premium. But having never (ever) owned a new car, it seemed fitting that the dream car purchase was the right one. All brilliant cars in their own right, I was fortunate enough to find myself in the position of being able to look at.

Test-driving other cars, the Huracan felt a little bloated by comparison, and while I loved the V10 wail, I already had a heavier AWD car in the GT-R. Yes, I know you can’t exactly compare a two-seater Lambo with a 2+2 front-engine V6 turbocharged beast, but the differences are perhaps not as pronounced as they seem in the real world.

I really wanted to love the Lambo – in reality, I just didn’t get on with it from the get-go. I wanted something more focused and lightweight – the likes of a Performante or STO drifted well into territories beyond what I was looking to spend.

Personally things like ‘prestige’ don’t really mean much to me when buying a car – or I would have never gone for the GT-R previously – not that McLaren is particularly short on it as far as its racing history goes, or record-holding road car pedigree. But I couldn’t help but think that the Ferrari was in contention – in my mind – primarily because it was a Ferrari.

Part of why a supercar has always made my inner child chuckle is the sense of occasion. And the McLaren has that in spades. What car with vertical doors doesn’t – even a Toyota Sera gives me a giggle. Climbing over the sills of the carbon tub and dropping into the cockpit adds to the feeling, and that’s where things get a little more multi-layered.

The interior is fairly spartan. Surprisingly comfortable with a reasonable amount of wiggle room, but bare nonetheless. You’re greeted with a tacho adorned on either side by two small multifunction displays, a steering wheel with not a single button on it, no glovebox, and a centre console that houses a small portrait touchscreen, two purposeful knobs and three gearbox buttons – go, stop going, and go backwards.

The back-to-basics layout took a little adjusting, but I find myself focusing on the drive more than fiddling with the radio, and it’s been no more than a fleeting thought on the first drive. There is a stalk for the computer (which also operates things like the lift control) and another for cruise control. You need that one.

The 488 was a more involving affair with some styling added to the dash, quality-feeling leather everywhere, indicators mounted as buttons on the wheel, next to various drive mode selectors, whereas the McLaren takes an approach of ‘you have a wheel, some paddles, go drive – and only drive’.

And I instantly loved the sentiment. But I’m a bit weird like that – I don’t always see the odd cheaper bit of plastic as something to whinge about – in the same way that I wouldn’t complain about having to go for a takeaway over going to a fancy restaurant.

Poke the starter and the engine snorts to life, backed by all 670-odd bhp from the twin-turbocharged, mid-engined V8. Funny, I actually vowed to go for something naturally aspirated given my recent cars included an E92 M3, which I loved, a GT-R and a brilliant, supercharged Mustang R-Spec.

It perhaps isn’t the most characteristic tone, but is throaty nonetheless and does have a nice, deep V8 note, particularly when blatting through a tunnel that requires the mandatory window drop and childish guffaw. It sort of reminds me of the lovechild of the Mustang and the GT-R in a way.

But the real perplexing thing is how compliant the car is to pilot from point to point. The visibility is surprisingly good for a supercar, you get a nice view of the body around you while still having enough visibility to not feel intimidated by drive-throughs or tight city roads. And it’s smooth. Gosh is it smooth! You would be excused for mistaking being behind the wheel of a much more supply suspended sedan as you waft along, but you still always feel connected amidst the liquid gear changes. Always aware of what’s going on.

I could go on and on about the drive that leaves most of the contemporaneous alternative supercars in its wake from what I’ve driven. Admittedly, I would have now driven this harder than I’ve had a chance to others – owing to it being my car. It’s hard to find a 50km country road to explore some of the car’s capabilities even within the scope of speed limits – with a suit-clad salesman kicking and screaming next to you.

I like my cars to be bumpy and firmly damped, however, so I tend to find myself selecting the ‘active’ button – which applies the settings that you have selected on the mode selectors. The left being chassis (with a centre button that toggles the active aero on or off), and the right being drivetrain (with a centre button this time slipping the gearbox – which is super slick I might add – into manual mode).

Each dial has N – Normal, S – Sport and T – Track to select from. Having a play, I selected ‘Track’ until a message telling me that the traction control had been disabled reminded me that I should cool my jets a little. In Sport mode on the road, everything is dialled up, excuse the pun. Bumps are more bone-shakingly transferred to your spine and the whole car tightens up.

It’s no exaggeration when I say that going from a heavy yet brilliant car in the GT-R to the 650S in Sport mode literally feels go-kart communicative. Zero play, the wheel falls dead centre with assuring stability, and when you push on and tip it into a corner, you know with all of the car’s willing exactly what is going on.

And it gets addictive from there. The whooshing from the turbos draws you in, before you stomp on the remarkable carbon-ceramic brakes to haul your face right off your head, as you turn in with a level of grip that feels like it defies physics. You very, very quickly realise that you can easily reach the sort of speeds that get you hauled off to the clink with ease.

The car feels so adept at soaking up every bump on a country road while maintaining the utmost composure, that I find myself wanting to go out and drive more and more rather than keep her locked away keeping the kilometres low – it would be an utter waste. With the powertrain in Track mode, everything is just gorgeously aggressive. Double-click the gearbox to drop down into the appropriate gear with ease, squeeze the trigger and the power unleashes with a squirm from the rear end. The car, not me.

I briefly and accidentally slipped the handling into Track, and am happy to admit that it is for someone a lot more proficient than myself – but I am hugely looking forward to exploring its limits on the track. You can tell after a very short amount of seat time when a car is naturally at home on the track, and this is one of those times.

I’ve said it before with my GT-R and I’ll say it again with the McLaren with full commitment – anyone that says it is ‘too focused’ simply hasn’t driven one properly. Maybe those are simply the sort of cars I enjoy, ones that you have to really grow with and drive to appreciate. But what it lacks in an artificially aural tone, it makes up for in a purposeful symphony of induction, V8 roar, performance and – surprisingly – relative comfort when needed.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m looking at an aftermarket exhaust to put that tiny bit of garnish on what seems to be a perfect meal for me – and they used the cheapest possible latch for the petrol cap, which means mine is currently secured with double-sided tape (when locked a pin holds it down, but without the tape the cap currently opens when you unlock the car). But then, as a petrolhead, I personally wouldn’t want a car with absolutely nothing to ‘improve’.

The range of foibles with the car generally ranges from insignificant to ‘first world problems’. The battery likes to be kept charged for one. The Meridian sound system is vocal enough, but audiophiles will find it a little flat, and some of the switchgear doesn’t have quite the reassuring clunk that some other premium cars might. None of which are why I aspired since as long as I could crawl to own a supercar, and let’s be honest, none of which are anything new to supercars.

The money tends to get spent on things like styling, aero and performance, and less so on the perfectly engineered window switch. The realm of cars with perfectly finished knobs and dials tends to come with an extra zero in the price tag.

As you’d expect, it holds the usual supercar level of practicality – a front trunk that will hold a weekend-sized holdall or two, minimal internal storage (it does have two cupholders behind the centre console, which I’ve managed to fit a large Macca’s drink in) and non-existent fuel economy. All as they should be.

Mine does have the nose lift, and I wouldn’t be buying one without it. Especially if, like mine, it is covered head to toe in carbon fibre. As a result, it’s surprisingly less stressful than the GT-R to pilot around town, which has bottomed out on spirited runs (thanks to the aftermarket exhaust) and occasionally scrapes entering and exiting petrol stations.

All in all, the McLaren was a case of love at first sight for me, but thankfully it was a love that was warranted. It’s one of those cars, though – in the same way that the GT-R simply ‘does it’ for me, so does the McLaren – for many, it simply won’t. But that’s the beauty of having cars like this out there to cater for those who want something different from the typical Ferrari or Lambo.

TLDR version: I love it, and while I’m sure I’ll lust after other cars in the years to come, it’s the one car I’ve had where I haven’t immediately started dreaming ‘what’s next’. A car that on release was referred to as “hypercar fast”. A notion that might be a little outdated by the ever evolving standards that we find ourselves immersed in, but reflective of how this ever-increasingly good value supercar performs amongst its peers.

Ultimately it’s somewhat wasted if you don’t treat it to a track outing, but even as a road-going weekend warrior, it is a serious piece of machinery.

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