by Michael Hines
I spend a lot of my time writing about supercars, searching for the perfect way to describe a sensation of speed and power I've never experienced firsthand. I have driven some fast cars, like the Tesla Model S 70D and Jaguar F-Type S, but I have never hopped behind the wheel of something designed solely to slip the surly bonds of the street and get a driver as close to the knife’s edge as possible. That all changed when I was given the key fob to a $323,000 McLaren 650S Spider.
The McLaren 650S was my first supercar experience and it was perfect in every way. That’s not to say the car was perfect in every way, of course. What I mean is that the 650S Spider checked off every single box on my list of expectations. It wasn’t exactly a laundry list, but I was expecting certain things from my first time behind the wheel of a supercar. The primary one was that aforementioned sensation of speed and power. The McLaren delivered in spades thanks to its mid-mounted twin-turbocharged 3.8-liter V8 engine. Other supercars offer bigger engines and more power than the 650S’ 641 hp and 500 lb-ft of torque, but McLaren has perfectly nailed how such speed and acceleration should feel. Perhaps its F1 roots are to thank?
I didn’t do 0-60 mph in 2.9 seconds or a top speed run to 204 mph. But after many rounds of launch control I'm convinced I did 0-60 in the low 3.0s. (I hope.) I made quite a few runs and each time the worst part was waiting for the boost to build at 3000 RPM. After you’ve slammed back into your seat and watched the world fly by once, you want to repeat the process as quickly as possible. I didn't race to 60 mph in manual mode but can confirm that the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission (equipped with paddle shifters of course) is sublime. While in manual mode I ignored "Normal" and switched the powertrain back and forth from "Sport" to "Track." The difference is palpable, with the McLaren providing immediate thrust the second you even toe the gas pedal.
Despite being RWD ,the 3,300-pound 650S isn’t begging to get its back out, at least not when the handling is in “Normal” or “Sport.” When in “Track” the electronic stability controls loosen up as the suspension stiffens. You won't fly off the road but the rear does get looser and you feel every bump in the road. No matter the mode the 650S Spider held corners for a lot longer and at a much higher speed than I thought it would, although the massive A-pillar made navigating certain bends difficult. Overconfidence is part of the experience, but whenever I came into a corner too hot the weighty brake pedal and carbon ceramic brakes were there to keep me in check, as was the active air brake which deploys at high speeds to help you slow down.
My goal behind the wheel of the 650S Spider was to finally feel a supercar's real speed and power. The McLaren didn't disappoint, but what I'm most impressed by was how connected even a first timer like myself could feel to the car and the road. The 650S doesn't intimidate drivers with a complex cabin filled with buttons to push or endless menus filled with settings to flip through. The steering, gas and brake aren't numbed by electronics. In a car as powerful and capable as this all your time behind the wheel (with the exception of traffic and parking) should be spent pushing the limits of your own courage and skill, especially if it's your first time piloting a supercar.
While I loved driving the 650S Spider my other great expectation was that I would look cool as hell behind the wheel. Part of the supercar allure is people losing their minds on the street whenever one drives by. Kids and adults alike scramble to take photos and videos. Random strangers give you thumbs-up and tell you how cool your car is. Other drivers treat you better because your car looks (and is) cooler. Needless to say I experienced all these things, and more, in the Volcano Orange McLaren 650S Spider. Driving down San Francisco’s embarcadero I spotted a kid filming me on his digital camera. I have seen many videos of kids filming supercars, but I never thought I would be the star of one of them. I ripped a quick rev and the kid’s face lit up.
While playing with launch control on a lonely street a construction worker stopped working to watch the show. On my favorite driving road a person almost ran off the road trying to find the shoulder so that I could pass. Funnily enough I actually reached peak narcissistic supercar owner status on day one. I was driving near AT&T Park in San Francisco, and the streets were swelled with fans heading to a Giants' day game. At a stop light I hesitated for a second before dropping the top, turning myself into the center of attention as supercar owners are wont to do. The 650S Spider turned heads because it’s gorgeous, even if it does look a little too much like the 12C it replaced and despite the fact that it shamefully stole the P1’s nose.
But what I liked most about people stopping to stare was the fact that many of them probably didn’t know what they were looking at. Yes, a Ferrari or Lamborghini would have turned heads but those people would have known what they were seeing. The identity of the McLaren was a mystery to most (someone asked if it was a Porsche) and I loved that. Maybe it's just the hipster in me, but I wanted my first supercar experience to be unique and not easily replicated. In addition to going fast and breaking necks I also expected driving the 650S Spider would require compromise. I had to constantly raise the ride height (a $5,050 option) when entering parking garages or pulling into gas stations.
Scissor doors are damn cool but wildly impractical. Storage space is limited, although the frunk was surprisingly roomy. The rear backup camera was so grainy it was basically useless. The racing seats safely held me in place but grew uncomfortable on longer drives. The McLaren also fell well short of its 16/22/18 mpg rating. I averaged a little under 8 mpg on my longest drive, but then again I was constantly hammering the throttle. Of course it wasn’t all compromise in the cabin. The Meridian sound system hit hard and I found both the touchscreen and gauge cluster info screen intuitive and easy to navigate. The carbon fiber and Alcantara made for a gorgeous interior combo, too.
It’s all too easy for me to say that the McLaren 650S Spider is the perfect first supercar experience because it’s the only supercar I’ve ever driven. I'll be the first to say that I lack experience and perspective in this realm. But life is full of full firsts that seem amazing initially but when remembered are underwhelming. (Remember how “awesome” your first car was?) But I don’t think that any amount of time or hindsight will change my opinion that the McLaren 650S Spider is a phenomenal supercar. I felt in total control every time I hit the ignition yet was left in awe of the supercar's power every time I parked it. I got attention from onlookers that hundreds of supercar videos had promised me. Really, what more could I have asked for?