People will tell you that the hypercar is a lie: a concoction of the sports car industry intended to make today’s million-pound crop of exotics seem instantly superior to their predecessors.
Which seems to reveal a simple truth hidden away behind the PR-spun apparent complexity of the modern car-making world – and a likeable one at that.
Unfortunately it’s a load of balls. Not necessarily because a McLaren P1 or a Bugatti Veyron necessarily belongs in a different frame of reference than an F1 or an EB110; more so because the 'new supercars’ – the class of super-sports cars that exists another rung down from the very top of the tree – have come to do so much for their owners, and mean so much for their makers, that they demand the recognition that label implies.
Spend 48 hours in the company of a Ferrari 458 Speciale or a McLaren 650S and you’ll find there’s absolutely no room for doubt. The speed, stature, sophistication and stunning desirability of these cars distinguish them from everything underneath them.
Nobody, for instance, looks at the McLaren, curls their lip and mumbles “oh, it’s the little one; how disappointing.” People queue to take selfies, or stare out of top-deck coach windows.
These extraordinary machines show how much variety is now available for people with £200k to spend on a notionally perfect, 600bhp, mid-engined plaything. Question is, what’s your idea of perfection?
At one level, 600bhp mid-engined V8s can only be so different. Ferrari and McLaren may have been playing out a thinly veiled car industry grudge match since Woking’s supercar-making ambitions hit top gear in 2011, but even in these latest highly developed forms, the 458 and the artist formerly known as ‘12C’ remain fundamentally alike. Both employ 90-deg big-bore V8 engines driving through dual-clutch gearboxes. Both are precisely 1203mm high.
There’s less than an inch between them on wheelbase, and little more than two on overall length. The McLaren uses interlinked hydraulics for body control, the Ferrari more simple adaptive dampers and roll bars, but both stick with electro-hydraulic power steering. The 650S uses a downsized engine with turbochargers and hybrid carbonfibre construction; the Ferrari has normal aspiration and aluminium in various clever alloys. And yet it’s the McLaren that weighs more in this test – albeit only 73kg more.
However similar a Ferrari 458 Speciale and a McLaren 650S might seem on paper, though, there’s a gulf between the roles that they play. At its heart, the 650S is everything you’ve ever wanted a road-going supercar to be but never believed it possible to find.
The Speciale is the blindingly exotic, diamond-hard track-day hero car you daydreamed about before you knew what real-world driving was like. Those two gratuitous simplifications do an injustice to the McLaren’s sporting focus and track suitability, and to the Ferrari’s docility and general good temper on the road – but they’ll do us just to get the ball rolling.
McLaren could only supply the 650S as a Spider for this comparison test. Thankfully, we know how insignificant a dynamic compromise comes from taking the roof off Woking’s carbonfibre-tubbed machine.
Test experience with the 12C has shown that this car loses nothing detectable from trading its fixed roof for a folding metal version; nothing on handling precision or ride refinement or cabin isolation or even on carrying capacity. The Spider’s simply better than the coupé because it’s got yet another string to an already packed bow.
It’s remarkable how much extra presence and visual impact McLaren has given this car with the P1-inspired styling tweaks that mark a 650S out from a 12C. The new front-end treatment in particular socks you straight between the eyes when you first see it, in a way the 12C never threatened to do. That new carbonfibre front splitter bristles with aggression but also looks functional. And that’s because it generates more high-speed downforce for the 650S than the 12C ever had.
Parked side by side, a 458 Italia out-shines a 12C, but the 650S isn’t so easily upstaged. In fact, it isn’t upstaged full stop. Despite enlarging the various air scoops all over the 458, fitting new ones in the bonnet and rear deck, littering the front bumper with sections of razor-like black wire mesh and fitting a rear diffuser that looks like it belongs on a Le Mans prototype, Ferrari has had the tables turned on it by Woking here. The 650S now makes the 458 – even the Speciale – look reserved, unadventurous, ordinary. Relatively, but unmistakably so.
The Ferrari’s cabin is a delicious monument to a singular purpose. Bedecked in carbonfibre, it’s missing all sorts: stereo, armrests, a normal centre console, even a glovebox, all notable by their absence You can’t help letting out an excited giggle in the face of that sort of commitment.
And yet when you’re setting out from, say, the Brecon Beacons to Castle Combe circuit at the end of a long day, it doesn’t take long to get slightly jealous of the guy in the McLaren – the guy who’s got metres of downy Alcantara to stroke, a voice-operated navigation system to follow, a cruise control to set and a DAB radio with which to tune into the traffic reports. In the real world, niceties like that matter.
As does material quality. Ferrari has never been brilliant at this; McLaren’s been good at it from day one, and is getting better. Which is why the worst, flimsiest fittings and switches on the 650S look and feel better than the best ones on the Speciale.
Despite its deficits to the McLaren on visual impact and static refinement, the Speciale undoubtedly makes you more excited to drive it. McLaren will work for decades to develop a brand that means half as much to people as Ferrari’s, and reputations built on cars as epic as 430 Scuderia, 599 GTO and 360 Challenge Stradale in recent years alone merit that initial priority.
More excited still as you begin to punt it around at low speed. Not that you ‘punt’ a Speciale. The steering is quite light but very direct and, relative to a standard Italia, benefits straight away from the incredible precision, response and contact patch feel that only a sticky set of Cup tyres can provide. Just guiding the car out of a motorway service station feels otherworldly. It's less like driving a family saloon than it is flying a helicopter.
With the Ferrari’s ‘manettino’ drive mode controller set to Race, the V8’s bark is at its loudest – which is loud, even bumbling along at 60mph in top. Two flicks of the left-hand paddle and a flex of your right foot brings a voice of righteous oblivion out of it. Response is instant, but the violence of the car’s performance needs revs and road space to build.
The Speciale is always quick, but only savagely so between 7000rpm and a deafening, sublimely excessively 9000rpm.
Meantime, life in the 650S is more effortless. It's less rousing but no less fast. McLaren’s new pistons and cylinder head for the Ricardo-built V8 haven’t made it any more of a virtuoso. The whistles and flutters of forced induction remain, audibly at least, like salt and pepper on supermarket sirloin. While the car growls and bellows at times, it never sings.
But it shifts. You need to contrive a problem for this engine to negotiate; you must go out of your way to put a hurdle in its path in order to find much turbo lag. Full throttle in manual mode in a very high gear and from very low revs will do it – but frankly, so what? In anything approaching normal use, the engine gives you excellent response, as well as the kind lower mid-range torque that has only very recently been invented in Emilia-Romagna.
The Macca’s urge isn’t served up quite as sharply as the Ferrari’s, but at pretty much any speed the 650S feels slightly more potent. Pulling hard from 3500rpm, its swell of thrust makes it feel much quicker.
So far, so even
If this test had been played out entirely on the road, it might have had a different winner. The Speciale’s grip and almost scary directness make it a thoroughly addictive treat for the thrill-seeker, with impressive civility at least in terms of rolling refinement. But the 650S feels like the bigger dynamic achievement – on the road.
The Ferrari is taut-riding and a little bit jostling on a bad surface at low speed. Otherwise, it’s remarkably supple. The damper tuning is clever enough to allow a bit of initial compliance but then gives totally unflinching support under load. In short, the Speciale’s seems like an honest, natural chassis – albeit one with superpowers in terms of grip and alertness.
The McLaren’s chassis, by contrast, is utter voodoo. It never seems to react to two similarly sized bumps in quite the same way, ever softening and stiffening underneath you by tiny degrees. And yet the result is uncanny and the primary ride is brilliant. It’s slightly softer than the Ferrari’s, permitting more vertical movement but only the merest, gentlest bobbing gait, and always immaculately managed.
The McLaren steers better than the Ferrari, with a bit more weight and a slightly slower and more intuitive pace allied to more overall feel. It’s by a country mile the more mechanically refined car, because the Speciale is willfully unrefined. It does so many things so well, in fact, that what you’re about to read feels fraudulent to write.
Because somehow the Speciale overcomes that breadth of ability with one knockout trick: by being absolutely stunning when driven fast. Really fast. You can’t drive it fast enough on the road to plumb the depths of its genius, so you go to a track. When you arrive, the car fails a noise test – so you appeal to the marshals and get on anyway. You’re a Ferrari owner; these things are expected.
Out on track, you can finally wrap your head around the rampant speed in that steering. The precision manifest in every part of the driving experience doesn’t disintegrate under pressure, but only becomes more compelling.
In Race mode, the car’s clever diff and stability controls look after you so consummately that, when you’re driving well, you simply don’t know they’re working. Turn everything off and the car follows your inputs as crisply as a conductor’s baton, to whatever angle you like. Otherwise, there’s enough stability in the mix – just – to forgive a momentary error of judgement, but absolutely no more. And not so much as a hint of slop or lost motion anywhere.
This is the Speciale’s level; it’s intimidating, then intoxicating. The McLaren, excellent as it is elsewhere, just isn’t quite on it. The 650S isn’t as sharp or delicately balanced on the circuit as the 458 once you push through the final tenth of its dynamic potential.
More importantly, the McLaren isn’t ever as immersive as the Speciale: nothing it’s good at is quite that good. Still your move then, Woking. The grudge match continues. And you can’t take your eyes off it for a second.
Ferrari 458 Speciale
Price £208,065 0-62mph 3.0sec Top speed 202mph Economy 23.9mpg (with HELE option) CO2 275g/km (with HELE option) Kerb weight 1395kg Engine V8, 4497cc, petrol Installation Mid, longitudinal, RWD Power 597bhp at 9000rpm Torque 398lb ft at 6000rpm Gearbox 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
McLaren 650S Spider
Price £215,250 0-62mph 3.0sec Top speed 207mph Economy 24.2mpg CO2 275g/km Kerb weight 1330kg (dry) Engine V8, 3799cc, twin-turbo, petrol Installation Mid, longitudinal, RWD Power 641bhp at 7500rpm Torque 500lb ft at 6000rpm Gearbox 7-spd dual-clutch automatic