As offers go, it wasn’t the worst I can remember. The man from McLaren telephoned and asked if I would like to spend some time in a 650S. Assuming he meant a few days I said I’d think of something we could do video-wise and would call the next day. He said they were thinking more along the lines of a few months with the car. This awakened in me the car-blagging youth I had suppressed, so I simply said ‘Yes’ and then ended the call.
This was reckless in the extreme. There was already a 911 on the driveway, supplied by Porsche and being used daily. Having a McLaren at the same time was not justifiable, so with some contrition I telephoned the man from McLaren a few minutes later and confessed to the existence of the Porsche.
‘Ah, don’t worry, you’ll only have 3000 miles in it, so it won’t be a problem, just talk about both!’
Not the response I expected. Nor was the one from Porsche who, thinking about it now, were probably just glad that the presence of another car might spare the 911 from the stern mileage accumulation exercise it is currently engaged in.
Even though my inner car-obsession remains critical enough to find it virtually impossible to say no to such an offer, there was some method in accepting it. I cannot think of a type of car that requires levels of exposure beyond the half-hour test drive more than the McLaren. In the case of the P1, this is because most humans will need to re-set their brains to cope with the speed. In the case of the 12C, and its replacement the 650S the need is more subtle.
These are not cars designed to shout to the world about their personality, and they do not drive in a way that perhaps brings the levels of instant gratification you find in a 458 or a GT3. They are heavily turbocharged, they use a clever reactive suspension system that does without roll-bars and whose upside is a beautifully supple ride, but which carries with it the classic downside of such suspension – the potential for the driver to feel a little detached from the action.
When I first drove the 12C briefly, I admired the engineering but was unconvinced by its powers of emotional ensnarement – undoubtedly the most important aspect of a car like this. The second time was a few days of seat time, and the car revealed far more and left me in awe of its capabilities, but still not convinced that it could match a 458 for sheer appeal.
Then came the 650S – and suddenly the bland 12C’s face looked to have cloaked a simple beauty lost in the process of giving it a P1-inspired face transplant. It drove beautifully, but I wasn’t convinced by the styling.
So why on earth, as a Spider, painted white, do I now think it looks like a proper supercar – and everywhere I go it strains necks in a way no 458 I’ve driven could hope to match.
It is also seismically fast. I spend most of my life driving very fast cars, and after a couple of weeks I still can’t quite believe that, as things stand, this is the ‘entry level’ McLaren. Its 650hp and 500lb ft always leave me with a befuddled feeling after a decent slug of acceleration. I’m spending some time on fast bikes at the moment and the way this car can just render a 500-yard straight invisible feels bike-fast.
But could you really have one over something Italian? I suppose much of that depends on whether you buy into the Woking image (that doesn’t sound especially exotic, I’ll concede) and I have to say I have always been a convert.
The 650S is actually not the bland instrument many people accuse it of being. Its personality is in many ways more marked than in rival cars, but it takes time to reveal itself. From the moment you open the dihedral doors, slide into the seat and look down at the trailing edge of the front wheelarch – perhaps the most suggestive view from any driving position – you are in no doubt that this is a special car.
You sit legs-straight with a superb view forwards thanks to the low scuttle. The instruments are clear and dominated by the central rev counter. The materials are superb, the build quality easily a match for the Italians.
Like many people I’ve watched the 12C and 650S develop in the public eye, and as owners have wrestled with niggles and glitches, but after three weeks I can honestly say that everything works. The doors open when you want them to, the dash doesn’t chime false warnings and the troublesome IRIS system actually works the way my brain works.
And the way it drives on UK roads is, at times, hard to comprehend. Quite how something so fast, as in 0-124mph in 8.6sec and 204mph flat out – can be so comfortable and so cosseting requires you to unlearn everything you thought you knew about fast cars. The thing is a freak. The crux of its character is that brief exposure can lead people to think the 650S is a bit soulless – cover many miles in it and you realise it’s actually just crazy talented.
Much of the credit must go the carbon tub, which gives this Spider version a huge torsional advantage over its rivals. There’s a slight weight penalty from the electric hard-top roof, but it’s still under 1,400kg and rigid as a Victorian politician.
And what about the power delivery and the lack of a locking differential and the numerous other things I thought I might find a real problem? I’ll come back to you in a few weeks.
With all the noise around the P1 and the pretty little 570S I’d mostly forgotten about this car. Like so many vehicles nearing the end of their lives, the 650S has reached a point of complete maturity. If you’re in the market, go and try one, it’ll blow your mind.