It's a surreal moment of realization. I'm cruising down the highway as what feels like the 100th camera phone points in my direction and yet another kid's face presses against the glass with a look of shock and awe. When you buy this car, this $400,000 hunk of metal and carbon fiber, an MSO McLaren, it isn't really yours. This car is public property.
It might be a hard sell presenting one of the most selfish purchases money can buy as an act of charity, but there really is a solid core of truth in there. I get three days with one of the most exclusive McLarens on the road, which is a rare insight into the world of the 1%, and it isn't as great as you'd think.
Not only do I get chased down the road, I get 100 offers to swap cars-and I even think it's about to get ugly when four guys follow me into a car park late at night. As it turns out, the 6-foot-tall Russian mafia members are cool, they're car guys, but it's an eye opener. I'm at a loss where to park it when I go to the shops, and in the end I settle on a multi-story car park, basically entrusting the car to the security team that trains every camera in the joint on its golden haunches. I don't think I could park it up by the side of the road and just walk away.
I didn't even think about such trivial things as I sat there in Ron Dennis' sprawling empire, the McLaren Technology Centre, like a kid at Christmas, waiting for the key and the green light to go. But these are real issues, intrusions on the dream. They all disappeared as I flatten the throttle on a deserted stretch of road.
The MSO stands for McLaren Special Ops, which is the bespoke division of the British supercar manufacturer. In this case, it means more than $120,000 of options to take the final price of the car above and beyond $400,000.
Here, that buys bespoke Saigan Quartz paint, a carbon rear diffuser, side skirts, side sills, mirror casings, custom side air intakes, a cover for the windscreen wiper, lightweight diamond-cut wheels, and a sports exhaust system. There are other touches, too, but when you think about how much each of these small accents add to the final bill, it could send you insane. And this is just the start.
McLaren will do what you want, if you've got the money. Ask the guy who owns the X-1, a bizarre 1950s vision of tomorrow's sports car built around the chassis of the MP4-12C. That's too much for most palates, but it's still kind of cool that a company like McLaren will invest that much time and effort in one man's vision. How much they charged for that level of personal attention remains a closely guarded secret.
Most clients don't go that far, and the MSO touches can be as subtle as a few extra flashes of carbon fiber in the cockpit. But for the people who worry their McLaren might not stand out from the crowd, which really isn't an issue for normal people, it's comforting to know that their car can be infinitely tailored to suit.
Now, of course, the MSO is no faster than the standard 650S Spider, it doesn't stop any quicker, and it isn't any better through the bends. But does it seriously have to be?
The 650S Spider is so far beyond the public road that additional performance could only put you in jail. It would have been easy, a 3.8L twin turbo is easy to tweak, but it has 641 bhp. That's enough. The 650S Spider is stupid fast. With the aid of launch control, it will hit 62 mph in 3.0s, yes really, 3 seconds, and it will do 125 mph in 8.6s, which is fast enough to leave other car's license plates spinning cartoon-style on the road. It won't run out of steam in Seventh gear until you're through the 207-mph mark, too, which should be scary. The most disconcerting part is that it isn't. At all.
Even with a traditional British weather that makes the folding hardtop an amusing irrelevance, I goad the car with ever more violent bursts of acceleration. I bury the throttle, blow my own mind with the speed of it all, recalibrate my brain, and go again. Only once does the car step out, I scare myself witless for a fraction of a second, and then it's go time again.
A carbon-fiber tub that helps keep the curb weight down to 3,020 pounds joins forces with trick, interlinked hydraulic suspension; a wide footprint; and perfectly weighted steering to make a car that simply feels beyond a mere mortal's exploitation. My twisting test route down the Devon coastline, which also makes for a stunning photo location on brighter days than this, is as challenging a road as you'll find-and the 650S simply devours it. Before long, I'm traveling at speeds that are, frankly, disrespectful considering the tight lanes and the long drop to one side.
McLaren made its name producing championship-winning cars since 1963 and taking the likes of Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Mika Hakkinen, and Lewis Hamilton to title glory. It also produced perhaps the greatest supercar of all time, the legendary McLaren F1, seemingly for a fun pet project. We'll politely look past the McLaren-Mercedes SLR and say that McLaren has only recently turned its focus on the road car world.
The MP4-12C was its first attempt and this, the 650S, is its effective replacement. In truth, the MP4-12C was more of a development mule for the real car; this is the one it should have built from the outset. And it's good. Not just fast and agile, it's really good.
Of course, the stitching on the Alcantara dashboard is perfect. That's to be expected from the notoriously detail-oriented Ron Dennis. But the proprietary sat nav and in-car entertainment, one of the original car's weak points, was a radical move that has, eventually, paid off. It's the separate climate control for the driver and passenger and a level of refinement that mean I step out in Plymouth, five hours after leaving the factory thanks to traffic, as fresh as the moment I left, that make the 650S Spider truly remarkable. But then, it has to be.
The McLaren goes toe to toe with the company's on-track rival, and the 458 Italia is a hell of a car. Car magazines have attempted to separate them, and the 650S seems to edge it, but it is by fractions, and those fractions are irrelevant Top Trumps arguments that are had in the bar, not on the road. The truth is that the choice to buy a McLaren or Ferrari is an emotional one and it has almost nothing to do with the technical parts of the car. It's about what they represent.
Ferrari polarizes opinion like no other brand. There are those who love the history, the nostalgia, the pomp, and the ceremony. They even love the fact that every Tom, Dick, or Harry is opening a 10-year-old Fiat Uno in Rome with a key attached to a Ferrari-branded key ring. Others have come to hate the Italian marque for exactly the same reasons, and there is a bizarre inverse snobbishness that has grown up around Ferrari. For some it's the obvious choice, the brash idiot's supercar.
For these people, the McLaren is the perfect foil for the outrageous, flamboyant Italian. It's the Hugo Boss suit compared to the lurid Valentino. Cool, clinical, engineering led, it's the polar opposite of the Ferrari ethos, which is enough to clear McLaren's shelves of stock for years to come.
Of course, the reality is somewhat different. The reality is a world of camera phones, stalkers, offers to swap cars, and sweaty-palmed fear when you leave it parked. When you buy a car like this, it's for other people, as much as yourself. And even though I want to be with every fiber of my soul, I'm just not sure I can handle that level of attention.