What would you do if you were offered a McLaren 650S Spider — a convertible, mid-engine sports car with stunning looks, 641 horsepower, a curb weight of about 3,000 pounds, and the ability to hit 60 mph from a standstill in three seconds — but you could only drive it 250 miles?
Would you take it on a road trip? It would have to be a short one. Donuts and burnouts? No, it's too smart for that. Track day? That didn't work out. Drive around showing off, making yourself look like a fancy out-of-town tech millionaire in Austin for SXSW as you scream "FUCK YOU, POORS" at pedestrians with the top down? You... could, but it seems like that would end badly.
This was the dilemma I faced recently when I got the chance to drive a 650S Spider. The question — what do with it, where, and how much — was the most challenging part of driving a supercar that was both obscenely fast and surprisingly civilized.
In those 250 miles with the 650S, I drove the hell out of it. I drove it as hard as I could manage. I indulged in its raucous sound, its delicious turbo power, its out-of-this-world handling. And most of the time I was behind the wheel, I was sharing the joy with other people.
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(Full disclosure: McLaren had a 650S in Austin for SXSW, a popular event that was about music 20 years ago and is now mostly about #brands, and they asked me if I wanted it for a couple days after. Exotics never make it into the Texas press fleet. I said yes. This kind of car is a rare treat, even for a Jalopnik writer.)
It's not at all uncommon for high-end press cars to come with mileage limits. They're rare and expensive cars with high maintenance costs, and besides, manufacturers don't want a year-old supercar with 120,000 miles on it screwing up the purchasing market even if it's been beaten half to death by journalists.
It's a fair arrangement. Two hundred and fifty miles in a McLaren is way better than no miles in a McLaren. I was fine with the limit, I just had to figure out how to use it.
My first idea was to do some hot laps at Circuit of the Americas. That's where the 650S truly belongs, perhaps the only place in Austin where its potential can be exploited. That didn't work out because the track's schedule was booked solid, unfortunately. Maybe next time.
My next idea was kind of a terrible one, in retrospect. It involved seeing how many Central Texas barbecue joints I could visit in the McLaren in 250 miles, ranking them all in this great car-food-travel story.
Then I started driving it. And I gave people rides in it. I took my father and then some friends for spins in it. And I didn't want to stop driving it. And the miles started adding up. Suddenly, the barbecue idea wasn't looking like the best use of my limited time.
(I also began to have doubts about how much brisket I was really willing to consume in one day. No, listen — we have a LOT of barbecue in the Austin area.)
So I settled on a trip up some very good backroads to Spicewood to eat at the famous Opie's Barbecue, a drive that would satisfy both the desire to test this $311,325 supercar and to imbibe some brisket. This truncated idea was pitched by motorsports photographer, frequent Jalopnik partner-in-crime and noted meat enthusiast Kurt Bradley, and it worked out quite well because it was only about a 70 mile round trip.
But once you start driving an exotic, you involve other people, whether you want to or not. Driving a McLaren becomes a social experience, one where you interact with the world outside the cockpit far more than you're used to doing. It's one thing to read about this in one of Doug's Ferrari stories; it's another thing entirely to experience it.
This wasn't my car. It was a toy I was borrowing. I'd be a dick not to share that toy with others.
There was the older gentleman in the pickup truck who started telling me a long story about his old bored-out '56 Chevy until the light went green and he drove away; the waves I'd return to folks in everything from BRZs to Hayabusas; the guy in the black 458 Italia who grinned ear to ear and gave me a thumbs up as he drove away; the two young guys at the grocery store who asked "Man, what do you DO for a living?"
There was the the nod of approval from the guy in the 911 GT3; the envious daggers from the guy in the base Carrera; my wife, who said she'd rather buy it than a house. The list went on and on. Doug was right, by the way: it's mostly men who care about supercars, so if any of you single hetero dudes were pinning your romantic hopes on one, you should look elsewhere.
I picked up the car on Saturday afternoon and drove downtown to pick up Kurt for our big barbecue adventure early Sunday morning. The crowds, and their cell phone cameras, came out almost immediately. Some knew what it was. Some asked if it was a P1. Most had never heard of the name before.
I did attract a throng of British tourists in for SXSW who knew exactly what it was and had even toured the factory in Surrey. You can count on the Brits to appreciate a McLaren.
But even though the McLaren name doesn't have the widespread recognition that Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini do in America, how can you not stop and stare at one? It's far more impressive in person than it is in pictures. It's long and low and aggressive, and my tester's Volcano Red paint seemed to get prettier the more we all looked at it.
Inside, it's a master class in driver-centric minimalist design. Once you shove your ass in first and swing your legs around to get in, sitting mere inches from the pavement, you realize how airy and comfortable it really is. The seats are grippy and on the firm side, but plush enough to still feel good over long distance drives. And it's not even hard to park or back up, really.
Visibility is excellent everywhere, in stark contrast to a lot of supercars (and Camaros). Fit and finish inside is impeccable and the carbon fiber center brace — with its performance-setting switches and monochrome rectangular touch screen — never distracts from the masterpiece that is the flat-bottomed, perfectly grippy carbon fiber-spoked steering wheel.
The 650S is basically identical to the 12C it replaces on the inside, but not much needed to change. It feels like the cockpit of a fighter jet that operates in space, like one of the jets from Robotech. All it needs is a switch to turn it into a robot.
But enough about how it looks and how people stare at it: how does the 650S actually drive? It's all about the active dynamics, which is a fancy term for performance settings.
"This car will go between Honda Civic and race car depending on how you have it set," a McLaren rep told me over the phone before I drove it. I think he gave the Civic more credit than it deserves, but his mind was in the right place.
The 650S starts in a kind of adaptive mode, one with automatic gear shifts, the suspension tuned for comfort and a bit more lag at the outset than you'd expect. In this mode, you really have to put your foot down to feel what it can do, but it's amazingly well-mannered and easy to drive. It's as chill as a high end sports can be without bleeding into the realm of luxury cars.
You simply stand on it, wait a bit, and Oh hey, would you look at that, we're going 90.
One thing that ensures it never becomes a luxobarge is the noise. The 650S' V8 fires to life with a resounding roar and sounds ferocious even at idle. Under hard acceleration the sound of the turbos sucking in air was a delight to hear. It was never ear-splitting, this noise, but it was always there, and I was happy to listen to it.
With Kurt riding shotgun we set out for the highway, where the 650S proved to be an amicable cruiser: fast when I needed it, fairly laid back when I just wanted to drive. But as we approached Hamilton Pool Road to make our way up to Opie's it was time to see what it could really do. "Comfortable" is for Buicks. We were in a McLaren.
When I hit the "Active" button on the center panel, it let me adjust the car's aero and handling characteristics with the left knob and its powertrain with the right knob. Each has three modes — normal, sport and track. In the latter two modes, especially track, the 650S became the demon I dreamed it would be.
I preferred keeping the handling in sport, because that kept traction control on for the street, and the powertrain in track. Set this way the car rocketed forward from a stop, its turbos making a loud whoosh as they spooled up behind us to deliver explosive, violent acceleration. The V8 and its exhaust fired a piercing baritone howl into our ears. This is good. This is very good.
This is a car that will run a quarter mile in 10.5 seconds and has a top speed of 207 mph. Set it right, and it's only civilized in the sense that "civilization" is also a thing that developed the hydrogen bomb.
In track mode, manual gear shifts with the the wheel-mounted paddles are required. The McLaren's seven-speed gearbox is a treat. It feels like a true clutch-based manual transmission, minus the foot-operated clutch. It lets you feel the physical force of the gear changes in your hands and in your seat. And even in fully automatic mode, the gearbox blips the throttle as you brake and it changes down gears. Smart thing, this car.
The paddles themselves give a resounding and deeply satisfying click when used. Gear changes, not surprisingly, are immediate. As I rowed through the gears on the twisting back road, the car did its best to make me feel like a race car driver. Not like I was in a race car, but like I was a driver of race cars.
That's a feeling I seldom get in street cars, even the fastest ones.
Because it's got a relatively small V8 and two turbos, there's the aforementioned bit of lag and not a tremendous amount of low-end grunt. The 650S works best when you keep its gears low and its revs in the mid and high range. Again, race car.
In sport handling mode the adjustable suspension is noticeably stiffer, but it stops short of being abusive, even on a rough road. The rear spoiler turned upward. During hard braking it fired upward to prove noticeably more stopping power from high speeds.
I worked my way through the corners, looking for the next chance to unleash the turbos, to hear that whoosh and that scream, to feel the thrust that pinned me in the back of my seat. I needed more, always more. I needed to mainline the speed. It wasn't a question of want anymore.
I hope you understand now why it was hard to put just 250 miles on this car.
The 650S' steering is an electro-hydraulic unit and it's fantastic, full of road feel. At speeds it comes close to feeling unassisted, reminding me somewhat of that Zanardi Edition Acura NSX I drove a while back. The most incremental changes result in dramatic direction changes. It's borderline twitchy, as a car on edge like this ought to be.
And yet it was a shame I never got to track this car, because the 650S just seemed to laugh at me on back roads, as if to say, "Is that the best you've got? Psssh." It wasn't designed for these kinds of roads, it was designed for track duty.
You can't even scratch the surface of its handling prowess on a public road, no matter how tight and twisty that road is. It's on a different level. It's like taking a San Antonio to Dallas flight in the Space Shuttle.
After powering up Hamilton Pool Road — and stopping for photos and to let a friendly ranch-owning couple pose with the McLaren for a bit — we were the kind of hungry that only barbecue can solve.
Opie's Barbecue in Spicewood has been around since 1999. It's not as old as some Texas joints, but it's more seasoned (pardon the food pun) than a lot of the newcomers like Franklin Barbecue or Micklethwait Craft Meats in Austin. It's consistently ranked one of the best barbecue restaurants in the state. Another plus is that unlike some of the spots in Austin, there was no obscenely long line at Opie's.
When you eat at a real Texas barbecue joint, you have to make sure your meal is balanced and healthy by hitting all the major food groups — brisket, sausage, ribs, maybe turkey, plus cole slaw, potato salad, beans, sweet tea, and cobbler for desert, obviously. We got most of that, save for the turkey, which we substituted for Opie's famous pork chops.
Let me tell you this: I'm not a huge pork chop guy, but eating the ones they serve at Opie's was at least as good an experience as driving the McLaren.
After gorging ourselves on the wonderful assorted meats, we wanted to die. Where Texas barbecue is concerned, that means you did it right.
After that it was a straight shot back to Austin on State Highway 71. And once again, the 650S went back to being the fast, relatively laid back sports car I came to know before. Besides the obvious drawbacks like minimal trunk space, and maybe fuel economy, you could easily make the McLaren your daily driver. I don't think a ton of supercars can do that as easily as this car does.
I don't remember how many miles I had used by the time the trip was over. Close to 200, if not over that. I tried to share it as much as possible. I let a few friends ride shotgun. I visited a wounded young Jalop with a broken leg. I took pictures of Puffalumps on it with Stef, because that's what we do around here.
The rest of the miles went by fast, fleeting like the last days of summer. The more I wanted to drive the McLaren, the more I became familiar with its intricacies, the closer I came to saying goodbye to it forever. Eventually, I had to, but I walked away more than impressed.
What are its downsides, if any? The option list is pricey. Some competitors offer fancier interiors. Many Americans may be turned off by the lack of brand cachet that McLaren has compared to its rivals — good as it is, it will always be second to a Ferrari in the minds of some, or it will elicit that "Pretty sure that's a Lambo, dude" response from the clueless. The infotainment system isn't much to write home about either. Then again, if you're playing with that instead of driving, you and I need to have words.
But I think the 650S is a car that will win you over on supercars. It will convince you that the turbo era of performance is something to look forward to. And it's a car you want to drive everywhere, all the time.
The only thing I truly didn't like about it is that I had to give it back.
Photos credit Kurt Bradley
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