Three years ago, after a week spent in the driver seat of a McLaren MP4-12C, I wondered if it wasn't the best supercar I'd driven to date. Not only was it immensely fast, with 592 hp and 443 lb-ft of torque from the twin-turbo 3.8L V-8, but it was playful and responsive even without completely shutting off its stability and traction control systems. It was also a real dual-personality car: wild when required, serene and comfortable the rest of the time. Its only flaw was that it couldn't quite match the Ferrari on an emotional level—the outright experience just wasn't as gripping. Ferrari then launched the 458 Speciale, a stripped-down, track-focused take on the standard 458 that magnifies involvement at the slight expense of day-to-day comfort and usability. McLaren answered that call with its 650S, a car that purports to crank the 12C's dials all the way to 11 without losing any comfort or composure.
The now familiar carbon-fiber tub is retained, along with the usual aluminum subframes at either end. McLaren's revolutionary ProActive Chassis Control is lightly revised in the 650S, but remains the same in basic operation, using dampers linked across the car hydraulically—right front to left rear, left front to right rear—to mitigate body roll without traditional metal antiroll bars. Sensors read driver inputs, yaw angle, and more to adjust spring rates at each corner. The result is super-sharp handling with insanely supple ride comfort.
There are a few changes to the powertrain. The 3.8L, twin-turbo V-8 gains more boost pressure (from the same turbos as before), new valves and pistons, revised cylinder head, different cam timing, and a new freer-flowing exhaust. Horsepower is up to 617 and torque gets an even bigger bump to 500 lb-ft. Meanwhile, the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox has been reprogrammed for both smoother and quicker shifts.
Visually, the 650S borrows from the million-dollar, 217-mph McLaren P1 hybrid supercar and the 12C-based GT3 racer. The 650S has the former's headlights and the latter's rear diffuser, plus revised steering, new brake pedal assembly and booster, and a tweaked aero package that increases downforce by as much as 24 percent. All in all, the 650S is a better 12C.
Better doesn't necessarily mean quicker. The 650S here is a tenth of a second slower to 60 mph than the '12 model we tested, but two-tenths of a second quicker in the quarter-mile, with a few extra miles per hour in the trap speed. Around the figure-8, the 650S shows similarly incremental gains over its predecessor, knocking two-tenths of a second off its time at a slightly higher lateral-g average.
The main difference is in the overall feel of the 650S. No longer is the experience on the sterile side. The new exhaust system really lets the engine's flat-plane crankshaft song be heard, especially with the roof down. Diving into turn after off-camber turn on Southern California's Angeles Crest Highway, the 650S inspires way more confidence than any 617hp, mid-engined supercar has a right to, but it keeps the endorphins running high as well. The now-standard carbon ceramic brakes are sharp under hard use to a point where they wouldn't feel out of place in a purpose-built race machine. And it's always a treat to check the rearview mirror and watch the spoiler tilt upward for air brake action. Gear changes are also more positive than before, with a rifle-bolt action on full-throttle upshifts and ultra-fast downshifts before the next hairpin.
What's most shocking about the McLaren is just how well it plays Targa Florio on back roads, then settles seamlessly into the everyday commuter routine. A twist of two dials on the center stack labeled "H" (handling) and "P" (power) takes the 650S from racer to runabout in seconds. On long drives home among traffic-clogged freeways, the car is easy to drive, even docile. It's quiet inside, shockingly comfortable, and won't even make a ton of exhaust noise unless pushed. If ever there was a notion of a world-class, daily driveable supercar, this is it. Except for two things.
First, those "butterfly" doors might look cool but, combined with the low roof line and ultra-wide carbon sills, they make getting in and out a bit of a procedure. It takes a few days to acquire the necessary grace, but it will never look entirely natural, and passengers will always complain. Second, the optional race-style bucket seats are probably best suited to those who are only using the car as a toy. The relatively narrow sides and fixed back get tiring on long trips.
Otherwise, there are few things that would prevent someone from using a McLaren 650S every day.