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McLaren 650S a step below P1, but who will know?

Susan Carpenter test-drives the new McLaren 650S on Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach, Calif., on April 7, 2014. (Eugene Garcia/Orange County Register/MCT)
Susan Carpenter test-drives the new McLaren 650S on Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach, Calif., on April 7, 2014. (Eugene Garcia/Orange County Register/MCT)
Susan Carpenter test-drives the new McLaren 650S on Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach, Calif., on April 7, 2014. (Eugene Garcia/Orange County Register/MCT) Gallery: McLaren 650S a step below P1, but who will know?

The envy one feels toward an exclusive $1.15 million super car is usually from the buyer's perspective. But with the 2015 McLaren 650S, it's the British sports car maker that seems to be lusting after its own, more premium creation, the P1.

Designed as a track car that's civilized enough for the street and, with its Spider version, versatile enough to allow tanning at Mach speed, the 204-mph 650S Spider is what you get when you take an MP4-12C and give it a face-lift with 25 percent new parts to make it look like the limited-production, plug-in hybrid sports car BMW i8 buyers can only covet.

A bargain, at least comparatively, the $280,225 650S Spider aspires to the P1's glamor through a front end that is literally a carbon (fiber) copy, with serpentine headlights that subliminally suggest its most appropriate terrain. While most of the body panels are the same as the 12C it's replacing, the back and sides have had their share of plastic surgery, and the results are even better than Joan Rivers.

Gone is the glass fastback of the 12C, replaced with more angular lines, a taillight assembly that flows into its shapely backside and cavernous side scoops to shove even more air into its mid-mounted engine. With the 650S, McLaren finally makes use of the tiny hole it left in the 12C's rear bumper. It now has a rear-view camera to see whatever hasn't voluntarily cleared itself upon hearing the menacing blurp and gurgle of its exhaust.

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  • Named for its European horsepower rating, the 650S makes a less numerically marketable 641 horses, by U.S. standards. That's 25 more than the 12C, but it costs roughly 1 grand for every 1 horsepower gain from its twin-turbocharged and intercooled 3.8-liter V-8. Like the 12C – and the Ferrari 458 it's gunning for – the engine is displayed in a peekaboo rear window to show it off like the high-performance art piece it is.

    From the cockpit, I was able to control the beast to the extent possible with the help of a pair of knobs that adjust the performance and suspension as independent entities. The performance knob is operated in normal, sport or track modes, each of which activates different shift points on the smooth seven-speed, dual-clutch transmission that I heard more than felt. The handling is separately adjustable in the same trio of choices.

    Unique to McLaren, the handling settings operate hydraulically interlinked dampers that increase or reduce pressure as needed to affect the stiffness of the suspension and negate the need for sway bars. A Z bar on the rear end acts like a spring, working with the air brake to keep the back end planted. The air brake automatically flies up from the car's hindquarters whenever the brake pedal is stomped at speeds above 62 mph and is such a cool feature, I was tempted to drive like an idiot just to watch it move.

    McLaren Newport Beach let me take the 650S Spider for a morning drive last week, My favorite combination of settings was track for the power train, to maximize grunt on takeoff, and sport for handling, so I wouldn't negate the traction and stability controls when driving the 650S the way it wants – with giddy abandon, regardless of consequence.

    Fortunately, the only consequences I experienced were stares, smiles, screams, even a salute from strangers who were responding to the spectacle of a middle-aged woman driving a flaming-orange super car with the top down on an especially moneyed stretch of Southern California real estate. I couldn't have felt more like a cougar if I had spots.

    The 650S is constructed form the same carbon fiber MonoCell its sister company, McLaren Racing, has used in Formula One since 1981. Isolated by an aluminum crush structure, the molded carbon cockpit is lightweight yet rigid for high-speed flogging – and muscular enough that it negates the need for the usual chassis reinforcements required when jettisoning a fixed roof for a drop-top variant.

    It takes 17 seconds for the electronically operated retractable hardtop to fully lift or lower into a tonneau cover that is color-matched to the body, which, on my test car, was a shade of orange so fiery it looked combustible. The roof can be operated at speeds up to 19 mph – a split second for the 650S Spider, which accelerates all the way to 60 in 2.9 seconds.

    Entering the two-seater through its dihedral doors is an exercise in contortion. Its steeply raked windshield creates a sharp angle that interferes with easy access to a car that was so low-slung I developed an appreciation for hub caps and bumpers.

    Early in my drive, I happened upon a dead possum that, in a taller car, I would have straddled with my wheels. Doing so with the 650S, however, that possum would have been along for the ride. Luckily, the 650S is an F1 racer in street clothing, so dodging the carcass was a breeze.

    Everything about the 650S is decisive as an Eton schoolmarm. Even the performance and handling knobs turn with a firm touch. The steering feels heavy, the carbon ceramic brakes heavy duty, though they aren't grabby so much as progressive.

    Hailing from the land of Benny Hill, there are aspects of the 650S that seem different solely for the sake of being different, such as the seat controls, which required some groping, since they're located at the seats' fronts, not their sides. Buttons for the climate controls are, oddly, on the driver-side door – most likely because they don't fit in a slim center stack housing the fun buttons 650S drivers will want to toy with.

    The 650S may be the poor man's P1, but the good news is that the financial ability to buy one means you're still quite rich – not only with money but the wealth of experience McLaren so ably provides.

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    2015 MCLAREN 650S SPIDER:

    –Powertrain: Rear/mid-mounted, twin-turbocharged, port fuel-injected, 3.8-liter, V-8, DOHC, four valves per cylinder, dual-clutch seven-speed transmission

    –Horsepower: 641 at 7,250 rpm

    –Torque: 443 pound-feet at 3,000-7,000 rpm

    –Curb weight: 3,250 pounds

    –Maximum speed: 204 mph

    –0 to 60 mph: 2.9 seconds

    –EPA-estimated fuel economy (mpg): 16 city, 22 highway, 18 combined

    –Base price: $280,225

    –Price as tested (Spider version with various options): $327,945

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    ABOUT THE WRITER

    Susan Carpenter writes for the Orange County Register. She may be reached at scarpenter@ocregister.com.

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    (c)2014 The Orange County Register

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    Distributed by MCT Information Services

    Susan Carpenter The Orange County Register (MCT)