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Friday, October 17, 2014

McLaren 650S review: Can a cheetah live like a house cat?


McLaren 650S
McLaren 650S

Supercars aren’t meant to be practical. They aren’t well-suited to take trips to the grocery store, drop the kids off at school or even commute in comfort. They are crafted for a combination of speed, handling and attention grabbing on par with Kate Upton in zero gravity.

Consequently, applying normal criteria to evaluating supercars is a waste of time. Take the McLaren 650S, for instance. It has little to no cargo or passenger space, costs as much as a small house and burns a lot of gas and rubber.

 By all measures, it’s an impractical automobile for the average American family. But it’s a hoot and a half drive, looks gorgeous, and will make you look like the king of Siam in even the ritziest zip code.The question I wanted to answer after a few days: Would I buy one if money were no object?

Introduced to the world just prior to the 2014 Geneva Motor Show, the 650S (price starts at $269,000) is available in two flavors: coupe and convertible or spider (which starts at $284,000). It slots into McLaren’s go-fast line-up just above the $241,900 12C and below the $1.2 million P1 hybrid.

There are critics who contend the 650S is only a face-lifted version of the 12C. Why? Because it reuses 75 percent of the same parts as the 12C, including the carbon fiber body tub.

 But after spending a week driving the 650S spider around Long Island’s haute east end, I have to say the 650S is a lot more than simply a 12C version 2.0.

All it takes is one look to see the 650S' sinister intent; it clearly wants to tear up the asphalt. But it’s not overstated like some of its Italian counterparts.

From the front, the 650S is undoubtedly inspired by McLaren’s P1 – edgy and aggressive. It wears a unique front bumper, serpentine grille, and shaped LED headlights. In addition, the engine air ducts have been reshaped with carbon-fiber siding, and the vehicle has been fitted with a recalibrated dynamic rear wing.

 According to McLaren, the P1-style nose and side skirts help develop 40 percent more downforce, which helps with stability and composure, at high speeds.

From the rear, however, the pundits might be right; you'd have a hard time telling the difference between it and the 12C. The diffuser has been redesigned, and there are a couple new pieces of carbon fiber around the taillights. Otherwise, the two cars appear identical.

McLaren 650S
McLaren 650S

Like the P1, the interior of the 650S is an exercise in minimalism – simple yet elegant. McLaren says it wanted to keep weight as centralized as possible, improving balance and handling. Consequently, space is at a premium (that is bad for a portly fellow like me), the center stack is narrow and uncluttered, and the sport seats are mounted very close together.

 Because the center stack is so narrow, the iPad-like touch-screen, which controls everything from the radio and navigation to the temperature and diagnostics, had to be mounted vertically rather than horizontally.

 And the stretch between the seats features only selected set of must-have buttons and switches, including a start/stop button; a switch to control the adjustable chassis and powertrain (Normal, Sport or Track); and push-buttons for D, N, and R (there is no P). All other systems are operated via the touch-screen.

First Gripe: While the console was sleek and uncluttered, the touch-screen’s software was buggy and slow to react to my input. More annoyingly, the vehicle’s $5,000 Meridian sound system flickered in and out, and I had trouble syncing it with my iPhone. I had to listen to FM radio the entire time.

In stock guise, the interior is covered in faux suede and polished carbon-fiber throughout. Our loaded tester, which was priced north of $325,000, was given the leather everywhere treatment. It was buttery, and fit and finish were exquisite — much improved over the 12C.

Second Gripe: While the scissor doors look bad ass and attract a lot of envious stares, they make it impossible to park the vehicle in a standard-sized parking space without denting the car next to you. Sorry folks at Citarella’s in East Hampton. I HAD to park the beast at an angle.

Under the hood lies the heart of the vehicle: A beefier version of the twin-turbocharged 3.8-liter V-8 found in the 12C. McLaren increased the horsepower from 616 hp to 641 and torque from 443 lb-ft to 500, thanks to new pistons and heads, revised cam timing, new exhaust valves, and a new exhaust system.

 Also on tap is the same seven-speed dual clutch automatic gearbox found in the 12C. It too has been tweaked to make snappier, crisper shifts. The duo can propel the 3,000-lb 650S to 60 mph 2.9 seconds (three-tenths of a second faster than the 12C), 100 mph in 5.7 seconds (five-tenths of a second faster than the 12C), and has a reported top speed of 207 mph.

Despite all those performance upgrades, fuel economy isn't terribly bad for a car of this nature. The 650S is rated at 14 mpg city/22 mpg highway — the same numbers as the 12C, and the 650S is not subject to a gas-guzzler tax.

And don’t think McLaren left out the suspension. Tweaks include softer shocks that smooth out the ride; and stiffer springs — 22 percent stiffer up front and 37 percent in the rear – that make the car more agile during performance maneuvers.

On the road, the 650S is incredibly athletic, easy to drive and surprisingly comfortable. Steering is quick, precise and very communicative, and the vehicle has exceptional grip. Plus, it’s incredibly fast. Push the go-pedal further, and the car achieves hyper speed in the blink of an eye. There is a sort of easy, almost casual, nature to its brutality. But it is brutal.

Surprisingly, ride quality is better than you would imagine, especially in Normal and Sport modes. In Normal mode, the ride is firm, but not rock-hard. It’ll let you drive all day long and not feel fatigue in any way.

Sport mode tightens things up a bit; you can feel the bumps and bruises on the road a bit more and shift get a little fast. But again, it is tolerable. Track mode is the stiffest ride possible and should only be engaged on a track or when you want to shake a kidney stone loose.

And don’t worry about stopping. The optional carbon-ceramic brakes are powerful enough to suck the eyeballs out of the back of your head.

Third Gripe: The 650S is low by any standard: Ground clearance is less than 6 inches. This can pose a problem when entering an off-camber thoroughfare from a side road.

 Often, I found the berms in the Hamptons to be too steep for the car’s shallow approach angle. To avoid damaging its front fascia, I had to stop dead, even in busy traffic, and gently ease the vehicle on to the roadway. Or worse, hold up traffic while I carefully looked for a relatively flat spot to enter an arched roadway. Not how one prefers to draw attention in such a machine.

In the end, the 650S is what the 12C wanted to be all along, but it’s definitely its own animal. It ticked off every requirement for a supercar: It was incredibly fast, handled like a dream, and the East End elite couldn’t keep their eyes off it.

 And because it is so rare on this side of the pond, the car carries more cachet than its competition. Would I buy one if money were no object? Without question — although no one ever said owning a cheetah as a pet would be easy.