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2015 McLaren 650S review:

McLaren 650S brings race engineering to the road

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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.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

CNET Editors' Rating

8.1 Overall
  • Performance 9.0
  • Features 9.0
  • Design 8.0
  • Media & Connectivity 6.0

Review Sections

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.

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.

Race-bred

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.

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.

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