Supercar stunner

McLaren's 650S is a track weapon and comfy road car rolled into one pretty package

My first encounter with the Ascari circuit was frosty, to say the least. Rain, fog and a 4 deg C temperature meant my time on the Spanish track last year was cut short after just a handful of laps.

Since then, I vowed to return. And what better way to do it than with McLaren's new supercar, the 650S.

The car was originally built to be sold as a pumped-up version of the 12C, McLaren's first supercar. But the Surrey- based company has now decided to cease production of the 12C because of overwhelming response to the 650S.

You can still order a 12C if you beg hard enough, but the 650S is such a vast improvement over the 12C that the only reason you would want one is because you preferred its looks.

If you are like the rest of the human race, you would agree that the 650S is finally bedroom wall-worthy.

With a front end inspired by the P1 (McLaren's 903bhp hybrid hypercar), the 650S induces dropped jaws in a manner the 12C could never hope to achieve. No longer will the Ferrari 458 Italia dominate conversation when sexiest car debates erupt at the pub.

With 75 per cent of parts unchanged from the 12C, the 650S retains the familiar carbon-fibre tub and dramatic dihedral doors. But other bits have been tweaked or reworked. Even the lovely and methodically functional cabin is now lined with lightweight Alcantara as standard (an option with the 12C).

The same 3.8-litre twin-turbo engine sees power increased to 641bhp (650ps - PferdeStarke, which is German for horsepower - hence the name) from 625bhp, thanks to, among other things, new pistons, cylinder heads and a more breathable exhaust.

But it is not the extra power you notice when you set off on the road. Gear changes are now smoother - unlike the jolting nature of the 12C's shifts - and crisper. Shift speeds are also brisker, not that the 12C's was leisurely to begin with.

If the hydraulically controlled 12C set the standard for ride quality in a supercar, the 650S has rewritten the rulebook. Even though spring rates are stiffer by 22 per cent in the front and 37 per cent in the rear, new dampers make the ride plusher than before.

Composed and fluid, it is refinement unheard of this side of a Continental GT. Even in its hardcore Track mode, the car tries valiantly not to succumb to the uncompromising, full-on supercar stereotype. For best ride comfort, however, Normal setting offers maximum compliance.

Straight-line speed, as you would expect, is blindingly quick. How do 0-100kmh in three seconds, 0-200kmh in 8.4 seconds (0.7 of a second faster than the Ferrari 458 Speciale) and a top speed of 333kmh sound?

But the astounding figures tell only half the story. There is less lag and a wider range of available torque compared with the 12C. And 90 per cent of its maximum 678Nm comes in at just 3,000rpm.

McLaren says it has tuned the exhaust note - often criticised for not being stirring enough - to provide better aural pleasure for the driver.

While the familiar growly baritone roar is distinctively louder, tonal quality is harder to differentiate. What is addictive, though, are the louder sighing, whooshing and whiffling noises - reminiscent of Darth Vader's breathing - that reverberate through the cabin when the turbos spool up and exhaust gases escape via the wastegate.

On the road, the small changes turn the 650S into a more capable car than the 12C. But it is on a circuit that the same changes become more pronounced. The car's engine, brakes (now with carbon-fibre ceramics discs as standard), gearbox, steering (also tweaked to offer more feel) and suspension all conspire to provide a near race car-like experience.

Forget finesse. The car begs to be taken by the scruff of the neck. Rewarding a point-and-squirt driving style, it allows you to brake, shift and turn in later. It also accommodates higher cornering speed, thanks to improved aerodynamic downforce. And you can squeeze the throttle harder and earlier in a corner than before.

Out on the track, the 650S is sharper, more responsive and, ultimately, a more rewarding machine than the 12C. It fact, it might even be what the 12C should have been from the onset.

Just as exquisite is the coupe's showier sibling, the 650S Spider. Because the carbon chassis is so stiff, the absence of a roof is never felt. McLaren says 80 per cent of its customers will opt for the convertible - and who can blame them? With just a 40kg weight penalty, it is a must-have for those with deeper pockets.

Niggles? Well, like the 12C, the 650S still squirms around more than I would like during hard braking on track and its air-conditioning seems inadequate for the Spanish sun. But I am really nitpicking here.

In the end, the 650S's selling point, besides aesthetics, is how its wider range of abilities allows it to seamlessly transform from being a stripped-out track- day weapon to a comfortable road car you can use day to day. Maranello has every reason to be worried.

stlife@sph.com.sg

The writer is an occasional contributor to Torque, a motoring monthly published by SPH Magazines.

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