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2015 McLaren 650S review: McLaren 650S brings race engineering to the road

With its carbon fiber tub and high-revving small-displacement V-8, the McLaren 650S tears up the track but behaves like a pussycat on city streets.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Antuan Goodwin Reviews Editor / Cars
Antuan Goodwin gained his automotive knowledge the old fashioned way, by turning wrenches in a driveway and picking up speeding tickets. From drivetrain tech and electrification to car audio installs and cabin tech, if it's on wheels, Antuan is knowledgeable.
Wayne Cunningham
Antuan Goodwin
7 min read

Where Ferrari long ago solidified its road-going lineup, McLaren now chases the prancing pony. British-based McLaren, which similarly competes in F1, came up with the 2015 650S model to go up against the 458 Italia (video). Both models are high-performance midengine two-seaters, but where Ferrari offers refined old-world coachwork, McLaren strides forward with cabin tech.


2015 McLaren 650S

The Good

A rigid carbon fiber body and adaptive dampers give the 2015 McLaren 650S extraordinary grip in the turns, yet also make it reasonable to drive on city streets. The 3.8-liter V-8 engine produces enormous but manageable power thanks to two big turbochargers and a smooth-shifting transmission.

The Bad

Getting in and out of the cabin requires some stretching and the upward-swinging doors present a noggin-bumping hazard. The navigation system has a tough time keeping the car's bearings..

The Bottom Line

Adrenaline junkies with deep pockets will enjoy taking the 2015 McLaren 650S to the track and challenging Corvettes and M3s, or just driving it to the office parking lot to gain envious or admiring stares from co-workers.

The example I drove was the 650S Spider, suitably attired in McLaren Orange, a color that screams "Look at me" only slightly louder than the car's own ultimate racer styling. The 650S Spider's power retractable top would mean a sacrifice of about 3 mph off the top speed, but it still hits over 200 mph (322 kph), not a speed I would even approach on public roads.

And to affirm the aspirational nature of McLaren's latest, the base price for the 650S Spider comes in at $280,225. However, that means a very well-equipped model, including not only McLaren's own Iris navigation infotainment system but also an adaptive suspension and ceramic brake rotors. The only necessary item I could find on the option list was the backup camera. UK buyers are looking at £215,250 for the Spider, and in Australia the sticker will read AU$486,250.

Eye-catching McLaren 650S Spider uses race-bred tech (pictures)

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Like the MP4-12C (video) before it, the 650S Spider has had racing engineering applied throughout. A carbon fiber tub with bolt-on suspension pieces comprises the chassis, leading to a light and rigid car. McLaren's ProActive Chassis Control (PCC) system, a set of hydraulically interconnected dampers, uses fluid pressure to reduce roll, squat and dive -- keeping the chassis flat when cornering, accelerating and braking -- while providing increased compliance over bumps.

2015 McLaren 650S Spider
The McLaren 650S Spider features a stiff but manageable ride. Josh Miller/CNET

McLaren fits the 650S Spider with an open differential, relying on a corner braking system to assist in the turns. Power steering uses hydraulic fluid pressurized by an electric pump, allowing multiple steering programs.

And instead of big displacement, McLaren makes the 650S Spider's power with high compression and forced induction. Sitting behind the cabin is a 3.8-liter V-8, its variable valve timing and twin turbos bringing output up to 641 horsepower at 7,250rpm and 500 pound-feet of torque at 6,000rpm. The heat waves I saw when looking in the rearview mirror emanating from this engine were thick enough that I considered using it to make blackened catfish.

McLaren's big push with the 650S Spider is to make an everyday supercar, and in that I found it only partially successful. The slash-opening doors require a couple of yoga poses to get in and out of the seats, and the upraised doors inevitably bash novice getter-inners' heads. The firm ride will have you longing for the Mercedes-Benz back in your driveway when out on a grocery run, as will the very limited cargo space under the bonnet.

See inside McLaren's incredible 650S supercar factory (pictures)

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On the flip side, McLaren equips the 650S Spider with useful tech amenities. A touchscreen sits portrait-style, just like your smartphone, in the narrow center console, while the inner door handles hold each side's climate controls. The touchscreen shows the Iris infotainment system, which includes typical features such as navigation, hands-free phone and stereo controls, but also adds native apps and connectivity.

The navigation system comes with multiple map views and offers traffic avoidance routing. I had a wide range of voices, in multiple languages, to choose from for turn guidance, reflecting McLaren's global presence. However, the 650S Spider's GPS antenna must not be very robust, or the navigation system lacks dead reckoning, as it frequently had my location off by a block or more.

The 650S Spider lacked its own data connection, but invited me to tether it to my iPhone through Bluetooth or plug in a USB data dongle. The current roster of apps includes TuneIn Internet radio, a Web browser, online maps and weather. However, as Iris is built on Android, McLaren should easily be able to add new apps to existing cars. Music plays through a Meridian audio system, with four speakers standard but upgradable to seven. Although I can't say I listened to this system much, as the engine note became the star of this show.

2015 McLaren 650S Spider
The 650S Spider cuts a dashing figure, but getting in and out requires a good stretch. Josh Miller/CNET

Tame power

At a push of the start button on the console, the 650S Spider's engine came to life with a high-revving bark before settling down to an insistent idle. But the default drive mode is set for a calm pace through the neighborhood. A pair of identical dials on the console take engine and chassis through three different modes, Normal, Sport and Track, but I had to press a button labeled Active to enable them. Likewise, the seven-speed automated manual transmission defaults to automatic mode on startup, short-shifting for fuel efficiency. Tapping the steering-wheel-mounted paddles puts it in temporary manual mode, while pushing yet another button on the console maintains manual gear shifting.

2015 McLaren 650S Spider
The seven-speed automated manual transmission relies on paddle shifters for gear selection. Josh Miller/CNET

As I was behind the wheel of a 641-horsepower car worth almost $300,000, I took it gently out onto the street, careful not to open up the beast within lest I end up sideways in an intersection. I needn't have worried, as the 650S Spider is a pussycat in its default mode. I shuffled through city traffic, enjoying the firm but comfortable ride quality and the responsive steering action, while ignoring the varied looks from pedestrians and other drivers.

The transmission shifted surprisingly smoothly for these mundane maneuvers, using the engine's massive power to remain in high gear as much as possible. When I put my foot down for a passing maneuver, the result was far from the neck-snapping burst I expected. Instead, the transmission maintained high gear, and turbo lag meant a strong but slow power buildup. At about 35 mph the 650S Spider began to show its mettle, suddenly taking off so that the speedometer read 70 mph when I next had a chance to look at it while my ears were filled with the sounds of the turbos sucking in air, then dumping the excess when I let off the gas.

The 650S Spider's road-going manners were good enough that I didn't get too frustrated when stuck in a major traffic jam.

Out on twisty back roads, I found the 650S Spider much more than a gentleman's sports car. During the first set of turns I had the dials active and turned to Sport, and the transmission set to manual mode. Piloting the car through sharp, rising turns I found myself repeating the mantra, "so easy." The car was phenomenal, its stiff chassis and adaptive dampers handling the turns with zero drama, letting me point and shoot with the steering wheel, choosing the driving line I wanted.

2015 McLaren 650S Spider
Standard ceramic rotors behind the 20-inch wheels provide easily modulated stopping power. Josh Miller/CNET

Holding the car in high-revving second gear for a series of sharp turns or taking it easier in third, the throttle gave me responsive and ready power that was never uncontrollable. The brake pedal was hard, but allowed excellent modulation of stopping power, letting me shave off just enough speed. Blasting down a few country straights, the car maintained perfect stability. I'm sure there is a point where I could have gotten the rear end loose in a turn, but it would have required suicidal speed.

Instead of squealing wheels, I contented myself with the engine's revving blasts as I upshifted the 650S Spider under acceleration.

Trackside with the 2015 McLaren 650S (pictures)

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Track time

During my time with the 650S Spider, I concluded that it was too good for back-road pillaging. This is a car that is really built for the track. While I didn't get that sort of opportunity, CNET editor Antuan Goodwin got to take the 650S Spider and Coupe out for hot laps at Laguna Seca earlier in 2014. He related his own track experience:

Laguna Seca isn't a flat track. Many cars get squirrely over the sharp crest at the top of the front straight as their suspensions unload. In the 650S at triple-digit speeds, the experience is still gut-wrenching like a roller coaster, but not exactly terrifying. Surprisingly, the normally easy Turn 3 was a tricky one for me, partially due to overconfidence on my part, and partially because it was so easy to carry more speed than I was used to out of the hairpin of Turn 2.

After a quick blast past the midfield grandstands, Turn 5 and 6 really showcased the ability of the hydraulic PCC to keep the chassis flat under cornering Gs, of the Formula 1-inspired wishbone suspension to cope with rolling over the track's apex curbs and of the standard Pirelli P Zero Corsa tires to keep everything stuck to the road.

2015 mclaren 650s
You need a track to really experience the McLaren 650S' capabilities. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Then it's a five-story vertical drop down the Turn 8 Corkscrew -- easy-peasy -- and into the off-camber fast left-hander of the "Rainey Curve" Turn 9. I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm just a hair terrified of this corner, thanks to my tendency to understeer through it after carrying too much speed off of the Corkscrew and then snap oversteer trying to correct. But the 650S handled it like a dream, shaving off speed smoothly, predictably, and -- most importantly -- quickly on the approach and remaining almost telepathically balanced as I tickled the throttle on the way to Turns 10 and 11 for a quick rinse and repeat up the front straight.

I was able to try laps with various combinations of the power train and handling settings, from full Normal-Normal to the sharpest Track-Track. To McLaren's credit, the 650S feels noticeably different after each click of the knobs, though the difference between Sport and Track was only felt when I was really pushing it hard.

Wealthy enthusiasts need apply

With its race-bred engineering, the 2015 McLaren 650S Spider is a truly remarkable performer, effortlessly eating up the corners and asking for more. McLaren takes advantage of tech to make the car manageable in traffic, but it shines brightest on a track. Although probably not a first choice for the daily commute, the 650S Spider will be perfect for a drive to the track, a day full of hot laps, then a satiated slog home.

The Iris infotainment system is a noble effort on the part of McLaren, although I question how much use it would really see in this car. The system's portrait-format LCD is rare in cars and it proved very responsive to the touch. The connected features show modern thinking with this system, and put it ahead of head units from much larger companies.

Given the 650S Spider's price, it will only be affordable for a small segment of enthusiasts. Its performance and tech make a good case for it against the likes of both Ferrari and Lamborghini.

Tech specs

Model 2015 McLaren 650S
Trim Spider
Power train Turbocharged direct-injection 3.8-liter V-8, 7-speed automated manual transmission
EPA fuel economy 16 mpg city/22 mpg highway
Navigation Standard with live traffic
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Digital audio sources Internet-based streaming, Bluetooth streaming, iOS integration, USB drive, satellite radio
Audio system Meridian 7-speaker system
Driver aids Backup camera
Base price $280,225
Price as tested $283,845

2015 McLaren 650S

Score Breakdown

Performance 9Features 9Design 8Media 6


Body Type CoupesBody style Coupe