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.