Driven's editor tastes the passion of the latest Kiwi-heritage supercar

It's hard to say anything against the McLaren MP4-12C. In certain parts of New Zealand, if you did it would probably have you burned at the stake as a heretic.

It is a beautiful, fast and extremely capable machine but its successor - the stunning 650S - has taken the fundamentals, added 25 per cent new bits and made what is arguably the car the MP4-12C could have been given time and, of course, money.

The 650S, just launched in New Zealand in coupe and spider forms, uses the same lightweight, super-strong carbon fibre tub, a tweaked version of the same 3.8-litre, twin-turbo V8 and dual clutch seven-speed gearbox.

With more time on the engineer's desk, more money to play with the set-up, and more laps in testing, the better things get. This is exactly what has happened.


The most obvious change is the look, bringing it more into line with McLaren's hypercar wunderkind, the P1.

It's ridiculous to be writing about a car that smashes to 200km/h in 8.5 seconds, and then have to refer to it as the "baby". But that is, essentially, what the 650S is. It doesn't cost $1.5 million, either. It's a mere fraction of that with unoptioned machines at $449,500 for the coupe and $489,500 for this delightful spider.

It certainly takes the scrap to the Italians - something it's Kiwi namesake was quite adept at. As a supercar should be, it's an assault on the senses, pure and simple.

Power comes on almost gently through a tidy clutch set-up that allows enough slip to stop drivers looking like learners when they're, heaven forbid, stuck in traffic. Boost builds so rapidly that as soon as the turbo duo is ready to go, you're headed towards the sunset like a bullet.

The legal limit flicks up in just on 3 seconds. It doubles that quickly and, apparently, is capable of a maximum speed of 333km/h. To repeat, yes, it's the baby one.

While some prefer their supermachines to come in straightforward easy-to-drive packages, dripping with technology to make sure nothing comes unstuck, the McLaren machismo is alive and well. The 12C, it could be argued, wasn't quite as lively as it could have been. But that criticism has been put to bed with this car.

As the revs peak in first gear, and the right hand readies for the flick of the paddle to shift up into second, there's a cheeky wiggle from the back that says "go on then, give it a go". So we did.

The big puzzle with cars like this is whether they'll get used - most don't spend time in traffic because they don't like sitting still.

Although the McLaren is reasonably tractable in urban situations, it's like taking a Bren gun to an armwrestle. And without ticking the boxes for parking sensors and reversing cameras, it's risky.

The absolute must-have is the vehicle lifter, activated from a stalk next to the steering wheel, which pushes the body skyward by the couple of inches needed to avoid judder-bar damage or bruising that pretty face by scraping into driveways.

Get out on the motorway and it's hard not to feel a tingle of anticipation as the engine happily burbles along in top gear, carrying only a few revs, keen for some curly country roads away from rubberneckers and revenue-gatherers.

Supercars aren't built for our roads. Not that there's nowhere to exploit their potential -- although that would be naughty -- but the outright quality is patchy. Potholes, dicky cambers, crumbling edges and sharp dips all wait to claim a slice of someone's ever-so-pricey pride and joy. So when we saw the back of beyond appear in front it was with a degree of trepidation that the power was let loose. With a dry-sumped 32-valve DOHC V8 and its twin hairdryers, the award-winning M838T engine has no shortage of power -- it delivers 478kW at 7250rpm, screaming all the way. The 678Nm on tap between 3000 and 7000rpm isn't dumbed down by the traction and stability controls, although the ProActive chassis control keeps things in good order.

Weighing just 1330kg, the car maintains a firm grip on the road -- soaking up dents and divots with ease. It's rare to get a big bump back through the steering, which is surprising considering the 235/35/19s tyres at front (305/30/20 at the back). While the rack is extremely direct, and the suspension very solid, it never smashes into your hands. This is true in the normal, sport and track dynamics modes; although it doesn't have the magic-carpet feel of the 12C, with its hydraulically controlled suspension, it is arguably the perfect set-up, with plenty of feel and balance.

And the proof is in the play. The 650S is best treated in the fast-in/fast-out manner, especially considering the row of zeros on the insurance papers. Once the monster carbon ceramic brakes have warmed through, it's a case of jumping on the anchors to pull up in time -- on paper it will stop from 100km/h in 28.5m -- picking a decent line and giving it heaps. The back may try to pick a fight, but the direct steering makes beating it back into submission relatively easy.

The alcantara-wrapped cockpit is functional and clean, housing a touch-screen infotainment interface that looks like a smartphone.

As the right hand taps through super-slick changes, active aeros come on line to keep the car stable. When it's time to slap down a cog or two, the big airbrake pops up to stop it as stably as possible.

Interiors in supercars tend to leap from the bizarre to the ridiculous -- some beautiful, most complicated and the occasional one just plain comedy. McLaren has made an effort to keep the alcantara-wrapped cockpit functional and clean, avoiding insane touches. From centre dash to centre console is barely a hands-width, housing a touch-screen infotainment interface that looks like a smartphone. It runs Google's Android operating system. Phone, audio and nav functions are as simple and usable as you'd want them. Opening and closing the spider's folding roof is fast and painless. It's hard to know where to criticise this car, especially at this price. Sure, it's not as rapid as the P1 -- but there's only three of those allotted to New Zealand and they've been sold. The next generation of hypercar like the P1, La Ferrari, Porsche 918 will see fire-breathing lightweight supercars like this confined to the "good old days" file. The 275g of C02/km won't be acceptable in the EU in the coming decade, so the 650S' noise and emotion will fade to a whisper.

If you have a lazy half-million lying around, you'd probably be doing yourself a huge disservice by not grabbing the best seat and heading for WopWop.