Few roads challenge a car’s dynamic abilities more comprehensively than those around the Hartebeespoort Dam, where tight and narrow twists and turns, on a flawed road surface, demand absolute concentration from driver and car alike. Plenty of power (and the traction to get it to the tarmac), compliant suspension and accurate steering response helps you tame this challenging road. Drive it properly, and in the right car, and you end up surfing a wave of adrenaline while having some really good fun at (or around) the legal speed limit.
All of which should mean that this is absolutely not the right place to test drive a McLaren 650S. Let’s go through the negatives: you have the usual supercar disadvantages of firm suspension, a hugely powerful engine with a hair-trigger throttle response, very little ground clearance, and a driving position that puts your eyes in line with the tyre of the truck you’re trying to overtake. The 650S should be an absolute pain in the backside here, right?
Wrong. Flick some rotary switches on that slim centre console and the adaptive suspension relaxes to the point where the ride quality is about on par with that of a Golf R, while the gearbox slurs its gearchanges nicely and the engine tones down its response to throttle inputs. These changes do not turn the 650S into a luxury cruiser – it’s not supposed to be one – but it adds a surprising veneer of civility to the savagery lurking underneath.
That savagery is, in Normal mode, just a determined prod of the accelerator pedal away (Sport- or Track modes require but a twitch of your little toe). The bland performance figures hint at the madness that is the McLaren 650S: It sprints from standstill to 100 km/h in a mere 3 seconds (watch out, Aventador!) and 200 km/h comes up in 8.4 seconds – that’s a second quicker than the official figure for its forefather, the immortal McLaren F1. We’re talking about serious acceleration here – the kind that tries to squeeze your internal organs through your ribcage and makes it difficult to breathe.
The 650S eventually runs out of puff around 330 km/h, McLaren says – I definitely didn’t have the inclination to test that claim, though a quick run on a deserted highway certainly suggests enough power to get to that speed. A twin-turbo 3.8-litre engine with 478 kW and 680 Nm has a habit of doing such things, especially when it only needs to motivate a kerb weight of around 1350 kg. That engine also sounds wonderful, especially when you drop the rear windscreen into its hidey-hole, exposing your ears to the full symphony of a V8 reaching for its 8500 rpm rev-limiter while making seductive whooshing turbo noises.
Yet it’s so easy to attain this kind of staggering performance: point the front end of the car where you want to go and flatten the throttle. The control electronics sense that you’re in a hurry and give you their full support: the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox jumps into the lowest permissible ratio, allowing the engine to catapult you forward with all the hassle-free subtlety of a well-aimed kick to the kidneys. Acceleration is relentless, sustained and almost comically quick: the gearbox bangs off borderline-violent gear changes, and a long dual-lane carriageway becomes as short and narrow as a suburban driveway.
And then, just as suddenly as you’ve arrived at a speed that would send you straight to jail, with no option of medical parole, a silver Camry looms ahead. The elderly lady behind its wheel didn’t steer into your lane to spite you – she was there all along, happily minding her own business, unaware of the R6m missile-car storming up from behind. Time to slow down, then: the carbon ceramic brakes bite hard and shed speed in a most satisfactory manner, even from cold. But the real star of the braking show is the rear spoiler. Given a hard enough stab at the “whoa” pedal, the spoiler jumps bolt upright to act as an air brake, in the process adding extra downforce over the rear axle to keep the car planted on the tarmac.
The combined braking effect is profound: while other cars with carbon ceramic brakes stop amazingly well, the McLaren 650S stops completely. You literally hang in the safety belt while coming to a halt as if you’ve run into a bed of quicksand. And it will stand up to this kind of abuse all day long – only becoming better and better at high-speed stopping when the brakes finally warm up. There are no tail-wagging hysterics (that air brake keeps it stable), and not even a tug on the steering wheel. Just total, confidence-inspiring stopping power, rounded off by a brake pedal that’s easy to modulate and perfectly placed.
The McLaren’s star shines just as brightly when the road starts twisting and turning. Adaptive suspension controls the movement of each wheel individually, and body roll is contained by a hydraulic system instead of conventional anti-roll bars. This allowed McLaren’s chassis wizards to fine-tune the 650’s dynamic responses, giving a compliant ride on normal roads, but with rock-steady body control and an absence of body roll under hard cornering. As a result, its dynamic balance is outstanding: while I couldn’t explore the handling limits on a racetrack, the few opportunities where I could really fling it into corners showed leech-like grip and a stability control system that allowed me to have some slidey fun before stepping in and curbing my enthusiasm.
And there lies the rub with the McLaren 650S: At no point does the driver feel like the most important element in the car. So staggering are its abilities that the driver almost gets reduced to a spectator. The car’s computers know better than the driver does, and they don’t hide the fact that the leather satchel of bones and meat behind the steering wheel is the weak link in its dynamic repertoire. Once you’ve acclimatised to the mind-bending performance on offer, and to the brakes and handling that re-negotiate the laws of physics with every input, it becomes almost boring to drive. Extremely, brutally quick, but without challenging its driver in any way (except to try to keep up with proceedings).
You can respond to this reality in one of two ways: you could walk away and get into a more “car-like” machine, or you could accept that the car will always be a step ahead of the driver’s thoughts and just surrender to the impossibly easy, disdainful way with which it handles whatever you throw at it. Those choosing the former option will probably go straight to a Ferrari or a Lamborghini showroom – where the Italians will give them some of that passione lacking in the Mac. But for those who can appreciate the McLaren’s clinical efficiency, ruthless power and physics-defying handling, everything else will feel crude and under-developed. It really is a masterpiece of automotive engineering, the way all supercars would be built if it weren’t for tradition or emotion.