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We drive McLaren's hot-blooded 650S

By: Denis Droppa

Malaga, Spain - More intensity was what McLaren was after in the 650S, the newly-launched follow up to the highly acclaimed MP4-12C mid-engined sportscar.

The McLaren 650S is a supercar with spectacular cornering and braking capabilities.Its 3.8-litre turbocharged V8 pushes 478kW and 678Nm.The 650S made its spectacular debut at the Ascari track in Spain.The McLaren ProActive Chassis Control (PCC) suspension system has been further enhanced for the 650S.The 650S is available in SA now, from Daytona Group, with prices starting at R4.5-million.The 650S is available in SA now, from Daytona Group, with prices starting at R4.5-million.Cockpit styling is somewhat austere for a sports car, but the 8 500rpm redline on the tachometer is what really matters.Cockpit styling is somewhat austere for a sports car, but the 8 500rpm redline on the tachometer is what really matters.

As fast as it was, and as accomplished at scorching around racetracks at physics-cheating pace, there were some who felt the 12C lacked a little character and that it wasn’t quite a Ferrari in making onlookers go weak at the knees.

So the British carmaker reskinned the car with a curvier new body inspired by the McLaren P1 hypercar launched last year. The makeover’s given the 650S considerably more visual drama than the 12C, but the swan-shaped new headlights and air intakes aren’t just about grabbing gazes but improving downforce as well. At 240km/h the aerodynamics press the 650S into the tar 40 percent harder than the 12C.

The added downforce is part of a suite of engineering upgrades. Although heavily based on the 12C, the 650S – which too is available in coupé and open-topped Spider derivatives – has been revised to be faster, grippier, and generally more hot-blooded than the now-discontinued 12C.

TWEAKED V8 TURBO

A carbonfibre tub remains as the sportscar’s rigid but lightweight backbone, but behind it sits a tweaked version of the 3.8-litre turbocharged V8 engine, with power hiked from 460 to 478kW and torque from 600 to 678Nm. The 650 refers to the car’s output in horsepower and the S is, quite understandably, for Sport. The steroid boost cuts the 0-100km/h time to three seconds flat and the quarter-mile sprint to just 10.5 seconds, while top speed is 333km/h.

Technologies with links to the company’s Formula 1 heritage include full wishbone suspension, Brake Steer for enhanced agility, carbon ceramic disc brakes (standard) and active aerodynamics. As part of the improved stick-to-the-road package, the pop-up airbrake doesn’t work just under braking like before, but deploys whenever it senses additional downforce is necessary, for instance at the high-speed crest of a hill.

The 650S is now available in South Africa from Daytona Group at a price of R4.5-million (coupé) and R4.7-million for the Spider.

The 12C was notable for not being just a hardcore track machine but for its relatively civilised driveability in normal commuting, and the 650S follows the same path. McLaren has stiffened the springs and revised the dampers to achieve the apparently contradictory result of added sportiness without reduced ride comfort.

Does it succeed? We got behind the wheel of the new 650S at its world launch at Spain’s Ascari circuit last week:

FLAT OUT

“It’s okay, you can take it flat out.” Those were the words of McLaren’s test driver, seated next to me in the company’s new roadgoing missile, the 650S. He was referring to the right-hand kink near the end of Ascari’s back straight, which the McLaren was roaring towards at a frightening rate.

I’d driven the tricky Spanish circuit before in some lesser-endowed sportscars and happily gone flat through that particular kink, but those cars hadn’t been pushed along by 478kW of galloping ferocity. Despite the test driver’s assurance, I must admit to a failure of testicular fortitude on my first lap of the track. That kind of power has a way of announcing itself in a robust fashion and the pace seemed too high to make the turn. Driven by uncomfortable visions of a spectacular and embarrasing off-track excursion in the R4.5-million sportscar, I lifted off the throttle before taking the kink.

But as the ensuing laps were rolled off, the 650S and I developed a rapport and the kink was taken flat out. Realisation came that the spitting ball of V8 fury was harnessed in a chassis of great capability, particularly in the way that it resisted understeer, the dreaded handling trait that can ruin an enthusiast driver’s day. As confidence levels grew and limits pushed ever harder, the 650S continued hugging those apexes without the nose pushing wide.

LIGHT AND NIMBLE

The car has the best power-to-weight ratio in its class – at 367kW (500hp) per tonne – and its lightness comes through in its nimble and flickable cornering attitude. The excellent carbon-ceramic brakes took punishment for lap after lap without fading. The seven-speed dual-clutch transmission fires through its gears with slick precision, and it’s at least as good as Porsche’s PDK.

The 12C’s ProActive Chassis Control (PCC) suspension system has been further enhanced for the 650S, and the driver’s able to separately adjust the powertrain and suspension settings to Normal, Sport or Track. In Track mode the suspension’s set to full firmness and the stability control to limited intervention, which allows some sideways action in the rear-wheel drive car before the electronics save your bacon.

Ascari has every kind of corner: long sweeps, tight hairpins, tricky chicanes, and rollercoaster-like elevation changes. It’s a track that will quickly show up any deficiency in a sportscar, but the 650S doesn’t seem to have any.

Apart from its supreme grip and rampant acceleration, it’s a visceral machine that triggers your adrenal glands with its direct steering and high-revving engine roar.

After thrashing the 650S on the track it was time to test her on public roads, where she displayed very civilised manners.

Visibility is good for starters, and you don’t have to peer out of impractically small letterbox-sized windows. Secondly, the ride’s really quite good for a hardcore sportscar. Yes it’s low and firm, and with those low-profile Pirelli P Zero Corsa tyres it almost feels as if you could braille-read the lettering on manhole covers as you drive over them. But it’s not hard in a jarring, teeth-loosening sort of way, and after driving it for a couple of hundred kilometres my body wasn’t screaming for a chiropractor.

The brakes feel well modulated in normal driving, and unlike earlier carbon-ceramics they don’t need lots of heat to start working.

SMART, SPORTY CABIN

The two-seater cabin’s relatively roomy and the standard alcantara-covered bucket seats offer good comfort and support (fixed-back carbon racing seats are optional). Getting in and out of the low-slung car over the wide sill can be done gracefully with a bit of practice (although it’s not recommended to try it with a miniskirt) and the bells-and-whistles count is quite plentiful. The cockpit’s smart and sporty in an understated way, while optional carbonfibre cabin trim is available to add some visual flamboyance.

The Spider version offers an electrically folding hard top, and the rear window can be opened independently of the roof so you can better hear the howl of the high-revving V8 right behind your back. -Star Motoring

Listen to the McLaren 650S Spider roaring through a tunnel in our video:

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