McLaren Seeks Do-Over With $265,000 650S After 12C’s Fade-Out

Everybody wants a second chance at a first impression. Carmakers are no different, especially when a vehicle doesn’t meet expectations.

The supercar manufacturer McLaren Automotive Ltd. recently released the 650S as a brand-new vehicle. While the name and the looks have changed, 75 percent of the parts are the same as the model it replaces, the 12C.

The 12C started life as a 2012 model, the clumsily named MP4-12C. It was the first road-going car fully designed by McLaren in more than a decade, and its lukewarm reception must have stung. (McLaren’s 1990s-era supercar, the F1, is still considered one of the best exotics ever made.)

And so the name and much of the exterior design have been unceremoniously shunted aside for the altered iteration, the 650S, which gets sexier looks and a slightly more powerful engine. It comes as both a coupe and convertible and is more expensive than the 12C versions, starting at $265,000 for the hardtop.

The 12C convertible I tested in July 2013 had a base of $268,000, coming to $292,800 with options. The 2015 650S I drove last month started at $280,225, topping out at $351,605. Progress of a sort, I suppose.

That certainly leads to the question: Is it a better car?

McLaren, based in Woking, England, is largely known for its involvement in racing, especially Formula One. It sold about 3,500 12Cs worldwide, which isn’t that bad in the supercar strata. Yet McLaren’s East Coast sales manager, Robert Rizzo, said the residual values left some buyers unhappy, particularly those who turned the cars back after only a year (standard operating procedure among some Ferrari owners, for instance).

Serious Fun

Was the 12C a lousy car? Anything but; in fact, I called it one of the best sports car I’d driven -- ever. It was a monster on the racetrack, as fast and capable as a race car, and serious fun when pushed hard on back roads. And it was still compliant and comfortable in everyday driving.

But it didn’t have the drop-dead looks of some Ferraris or the outre character of many Lamborghinis. Put it into a valet parking lot with other exotics, and the 12C faded into the background.

Some drivers also complained that the 12C lacked a certain anima, a touch of emotion. There was too little sound from the twin-turbo, 3.8-liter V-8 engine.

Nose Job

So these were the points McLaren attacked in the 2.0 version. Most noticeably, the 650s was taken to the rhinoplasty surgeon, who re-sculpted its bland schnoz to ape the styling of McLaren’s $1.15 million hypercar, the P1. (Only 375 P1 cars were made, and they’ve long since sold out.)

And in this regard, the 650S is a success. The front is more dynamic, the revised side styling more captivating. In total, more exotic looking.

Fortunately, it isn’t any bigger. The 650S is relatively short and narrow, and the driver and passenger may occasionally rub elbows. The modest footprint helps to keep weight down and also makes the car easier to navigate around town.

The biggest internal change is power. It retains the twin-turbo V-8 and seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, and gets a modest bump of 25 horsepower and a sizable kick of 57 more pound-feet of torque.

The result is 641 horsepower and 500 pound-feet of torque that zings the 650S to 60 miles (97 kilometers) per hour in 2.9 seconds. Speedy indeed.

Greater Grunt

While I couldn’t actually detect the change in horsepower, the bigger dose of torque changes the character of the car in a fundamental way. There’s greater grunt from a dead stop, and a tendency for the car to want to tear its rear wheels away from the asphalt and go sideways if you’re silly enough to stomp on the gas when the steering wheel is turned.

Modern carmakers think that more power always equals a better car. Not so. The 12C was beautifully balanced in every way. It was super fast, but not frightening. The electronic stability and traction controls hovered in the background and rarely seemed to jump in unless the driver really got things wrong.

On a place like the racetrack, you could go through corners incredibly fast, getting off the brake sooner than most cars and going back to the gas even as you hit the apex of a turn. The 12C felt like a tiny dancer.

The new car has jumbled that formula. The extra torque has necessitated higher levels of intervention from the electronic controls. And you have to maintain more patience coming out of corners before getting on the gas. The result is that you rely more on the brakes to slow down and then the torque to return to speed.

Test Limits

I tested the McLaren at New York’s Monticello Motor Club during an event that included other auto writers. We were told that we weren’t allowed to put the car on track settings “because of insurance issues.” Instead, we had to make do with the sport setting. This meant that the full potential of the car couldn’t be unleashed on the track.

The 12C came alive on the racetrack. It was only pushing it as hard as it could go, with a professional race-car driver in the right seat giving instructions, that I first learned how brilliant the car was. All of McLaren’s race-car technology became apparent on the edge.

Not being able to put the 650S in track settings was like testing a high-tech running shoe while able to only speed walk. It seems odd that a company devoted to racing would be so concerned about having its new car tested as it was designed.

The 650S is better looking than the 12C, and the engine sounds livelier. But do I want it far more than the 12C? No. In fact, the existence of the 650S means that the 12C has become an orphan, likely dropping residual values even further.

So, rather than rushing out for the 650S, I’d be making a beeline for a used 12C.

The 2015 McLaren 650S Spider at a Glance

Engine: 3.8-liter, twin-turbo V-8 with 641 horsepower and 500 pound-feet of torque.

Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual.

Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 2.9 seconds.

Gas mileage per gallon: 16 city, 22 highway.

Price as tested: $351,605.

Best feature: New sexy looks.

Worst feature: Retuned for the marketplace, not the skilled driver.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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