McLaren Special Operations 650s Spider: the supercar that belongs to everyone

As the 50th-or-so cameraphone tracks my progress down the motorway, I begin to understand something. When you buy a rare and eye-catching high-end supercar such as this MSO McLaren, it doesn't belong solely to you.

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Describing the splashing of more than $600,000 on one of the most ostentatious set of wheels in the world as an act of charity is pushing credibility, I admit. But there's a kernel of truth in there, too. Three days with this car shows me that to own one, you become public property every time you get behind the wheel.

The ordeal of ownership

I'm chased down the road continually; dozens of onlookers offer to swap cars with me (sure, mate, that's a fair exchange for your decade-old Astra); and I'm even followed into a car park late at night.

Parking is an ordeal, because where do you leave a machine that costs more than the average family home and resembled a gold ingot on wheels? (Answer: In a multi-storey car park, with every camera in the joint trained firmly on its expensive haunches and in-house security alerted to its presence. That's where.)

These are the things I didn't consider before I arrived at the McLaren Technology Centre in Surrey to take charge of this steed for three days. They became very real factors that only really disappeared for the length of a deserted stretch of coast road where I could stretch this car's legs.

MSO stands for McLaren Special Ops division, the infinitely cool bespoke division that sprang up as the answer to a question nobody in my circles ever asks: how do I make my McLaren 650S Spider stand out from the crowd even further? Apparently almost 40 per cent of customers go for some of the options. This car is a rolling shop window for the design team, but apparently they do go even further.

Limitless customisation

Got some spare cash burning a hole in the pocket of your tailored Armani suit? McLaren can build you a whole new car around the basis of the 650S. It has done so before, producing the X-1 that looked liked a 1950s vision of a future supercar, based on the original MP4-12C. Most clients don't go that far, and the MSO touches can be as subtle as a few extra flashes of carbon-fibre in the cockpit. For those that worry their McLaren might be a touch anonymous - which really isn't an issue for normal people - it's comforting to know there's a limitless range of customisation options.

Think 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, or a sports exhaust system. There are handy additions, too, such as the lifter kit that raises the height of the front spoiler (for negotiating driveways and road furniture) and  which I can never quite locate. The mind boggles as you start to tot up how much each of these small accents add to the final bill.


So much faster than the standard 650S Spider does the MSO-tweaked version go? Actually, zero. It doesn't stop any quicker and it isn't any better through the bends. But it really doesn't need to be any better, as I find out when I finally break free of the crowds and hit that deserted road.

Because with 641bhp (478kW) from the 3.8-litre twin-turbo engine, the standard McLaren 650S Spider that the MSO is based on is silly fast and breathtakingly capable. It hits 100km/h in three seconds flat and, if you're on a racetrack, on to 200km/h in 8.6s and eventually top out at 328km/h. That sort of urge should be intimidation itself behind the wheel. The scary thing is that it isn't.

A race car for the road

Even with a traditional British downpour that renders the elegant folding hard-top a hopeless irrelevance, I find myself pushing on down that winding country road. Only once does the car step out, and then it's so easily gathered up as the natural racing car balance of the lightweight carbon-fibre chassis shines through.

A carbon-fibre tub that helps keep the kerb weight down to 1370kg joins forces with trick, interlinked hydraulic suspension, a wide footprint and perfectly weighted steering to make a car that simply feels beyond the public road.

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, yet the 650S simply devours it.

Of course, racing technology is at the core of this car. McLaren made its formidable name in Formula One and has produced championship winners for the likes of  Niki Lauda, Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Mika Hakkinen and Lewis Hamilton. Then there was the McLaren F1, its first foray into the road car world and a machine still considered one of the finest of all time.

Full bore

Ignoring the McLaren-Mercedes SLR, a ham-fisted partnership with its then F1 engine supplier, this is the first full-bore McLaren to hit the road since. Well, the MP4-12C was the first, but it soon morphed into the 650S, and that's the car it should have been all along. Now the almighty P1 has joined the line-up, but this 650s is the volume seller that truly carries the hopes of the company on its broad haunches. For a first attempt at mass production, it's a mightily mature car.

The stitching on the Alcantara dashboard covering is perfect, which is to be expected from notoriously detail-oriented McLaren boss Ron Dennis. Attention to the proprietary sat-nav and in-car entertainment, among the original car's weak points, has paid off in spades. The separate climate control for the driver and passenger and a level of refinement that means I step out in Plymouth - more than five hours after leaving the factory thanks to heavy traffic - as fresh as the moment I left, are what make the 650S Spider truly remarkable. But then, it has to be.

The McLaren goes toe-to-toe with the Ferrari 458 Italia, its logical on-track rival and by all measures a hell of a car. Car magazines have attempted to separate them and the 650S seems to edge the Prancing Horse, but it is by fractions, and those fractions are really only irrelevant arguments had in a bar, not on the road. The truth is that the choice to buy a McLaren or a Ferrari is an emotional one and has almost nothing to do with the technical parts of the car. It's about what they represent.

The anti-Ferrari

Ferrari polarises opinion like no other brand. There are those that love the history, the nostalgia, the pomp and ceremony. Others have come to despise 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, for others a car you couldn't pay them to drive.

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. That's enough to clear McLaren's shelves of stock for years to come.

Of course, the reality of life with a car of this ilk is somewhat different to the idealism their brands sell. It's a world of cameraphones, stalkers, offers to swap cars and sweaty-palmed fear when you leave it parked anywhere but your own garage. When you buy a car like this it's for other people, as much as yourself, and even though I want one with every fibre of my being, I'm just not sure I could handle the attention.

MSO McLaren 650S Spider

Price: $600,000 approx

Power: 641bhp (478kW)

0-100km/h: 3.0 seconds

Top speed: 328km/h

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