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My, oh my, what spoiled little brats we have become. Seems it was only yesterday when I was shaking my head in reverence and amazement at the 1984 Porsche 930 Turbo, a whale-tailed thoroughbred cranking out a mind-bending 330 horsepower and capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in—brace for hyperspace!—under 5 seconds! I remember the collective awe. “Well, pardner,” we’d say, “a man cain’t go no faster’n that.”
Today, even the most blasé auto shopper can find a freaking Hyundai that delivers 348 hp and do so for a price in adjusted dollars that makes the 930 Turbo look like it was crafted entirely out of Beluga caviar. Spoiled? To gain a car guy’s undivided attention these days, you better show up with at least 500 horses under the hood. No, no, scratch that; I’m certain I just heard a yawn from the back row. OK, let’s make it 600 hp. No, 600 hp plus.
Behold the Chevrolet Corvette Z06 and the McLaren 650S Spider. These two rear-drive, V-8-powered ultra buggies make power like a Third World dictator with a finger in the toaster, some 650 horses for the ’Vette and 641 hp for the McLaren. Both can mutate your genes under full throttle. With the standard manual transmission, the ’Vette does 0 to 60 mph in a mere 3.2 seconds. The McLaren 650S Spider needs just 2.9 seconds flat. Yet in execution and character, the two machines are as different as John Boehner and Lady Gaga. The Chevrolet Corvette Z06’s pushrod V-8 is big (6.2 liters), supercharged, and mounted up front. The McLaren’s DOHC 32-valve unit is small (3.8 liters), turbocharged, and sits right behind the people part of the car. The Z06’s V-8 mates with a seven-speed manual transmission (an eight-speed automatic is also available); the 650S uses a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. The Chevy has a pop-out carbon-fiber targa top; the McLaren has a power-folding aluminum convertible top. One car is red; the other is orange. See? This is complicated stuff here.
Two ways to get your V-8: twin-turbocharged 3.8-liter amidships in the 650S or supercharged 6.2-liter up front in the Z06.
Eager to revel in these two vastly disparate approaches to warp speed, we fell back on two of our favorite words: road trip. West Coast editor Michael Jordan and I fired up and turned east from L.A. toward the desert surrounding Palm Springs and Chuckwalla Valley Raceway beyond. Naturally, we endured a deep and abiding sadness thinking of our less fortunate colleagues left behind at their drab computer screens.
On the road, the new C7 Z06 feels immediately comfortable and secure—like a Corvette, in other words. At your fingertips is every modern convenience, including refrigerated leather-upholstered seats, a large video screen for navigation among other things, and an excellent head-up display that can clearly and logically showcase the car’s speed, engine rpm, and more on the windshield in front of you. In Tour mode, the standard Magnetic Ride dampers help the car flow graciously over broken pavement. The action of the stubby shift lever is neat and crisply precise, working in concert with a clutch pedal that’s unbelievably sweet and undemanding given the 650 lb-ft of torque it has to manage. Sure, I knew I was driving a sports car with a rear end as wide as a movie screen, but the Chevrolet Corvette Z06 doesn’t feel bigger than a standard C7. It’s easy to drive, relaxed—a real charmer.
Then I flattened the gas pedal. And my world … changed. A certain lower abdominal aperture instantly hung out a sign that said, “We’re closed.” My ears fainted. Passing trees melted. Distant farmhouses flew at me as if hurled by Dodger pitcher Clayton Kershaw. The Z06’s epic LT4 engine evokes all sorts of acceleration comparisons: aircraft-carrier catapult shots, missile launches, paparazzi catching sight of Charlie Sheen. None of them does it justice. This is a burst of speed that’s sudden and fierce. Unless you regularly fall out of the top bunk bed, you almost can’t believe it’s possible.
The character change in the Chevrolet LT4 V-8 from mild to wild is nothing less than shocking. Plant your right foot, and the normally subdued exhaust note goes full Krakatoa, hammering to the 6,600-rpm redline with delicious ease and threatening to shatter not only nearby windows but also the ego of any Porsche drivers within earshot. On a long stretch of empty desert road, you’re pulling away from most light aircraft overhead even when you have three more gears to go. Speed this monumental tends to make one slightly antisocial; you’re freakish, an untouchable wild man.
And now for something completely different. Approaching the McLaren 650S Spider, I could almost swear I heard it speaking to me. “You see, Arthur my boy, here at McLaren, being Formula 1 specialists—not to mention being, well, British—we have our own rather unique ways of manufacturing motor cars.” And so they do. Though the 650S is every bit as fast and sensational as the Z06, and likewise relies upon four tires and a steering wheel, it goes about the business of speed with a flavor that’s as different from the Corvette as chalk and cheese, as they say over there.
The key dissimilarity, of course, is that the McLaren wears its V-8 amidships, right behind the “al-you-minium” folding roof. The difference hits home the moment you crank yourself under the upraised scissor door and down into the single-piece molded-carbon driver’s seat. (More conventional seats are optional.) Instantly, I felt way out and in front of the car. The view is panoramic; the short nose drops away so sharply you almost don’t see it. It’s like sitting in the cockpit of an F-16 fighter plane. The Z06 makes you feel as if you’re at the back of a locomotive, hanging your head out of the window of the cab and pouring on the coal. In the Corvette, you’re always aware of that hulking mill laid out in front of you, while the McLaren puts nothing ahead of you but glass and a little luggage bin in front of your feet.
The McLaren seems more austere inside. True enough, the dash includes a central video screen with touch controls for navigation and stereo sound just like the Corvette, but there are fewer displays and not as many buttons and gizmos to play with. The materials are sumptuous, however, with stitched suede-like Alcantara for the dash, the cabin pillars, and the rim of the steering wheel, plus glossy carbon-fiber trim inserts all around. While the Z06 seems like a car you could easily take on a weekend getaway, thanks to conventional doors and usable luggage space under the rear hatch, the 650S feels more mission-specific. It’s way more difficult to enter (if you’re “large,” forget it) and more intimate once you slide into your seat, as if it’s a machine crafted purely for entertaining the driver and passenger. As far as luggage goes, you can’t really go anywhere overnight unless you’re content to adopt that strung-out screenwriter look, as if you’d been wearing the same clothes for a week.
Drive the McLaren even a short distance, though, and you’ll probably never want to stop for sleep anyway. The 650S feels more linear in power delivery—a climbing rocket versus a dropping bomb—but it blows you away just the same. Unlike many turbo engines, which tend to have a muted exhaust note, the McLaren’s V-8 with its flat-plane crankshaft emits a fantastic, electrifying racket. (That the engine is situated right behind your brain doesn’t hurt.) Adding to the fever is the near-instantaneous bang-bang-bang of the car’s dual-clutch transmission. With your feet wedged into the narrow footwell, fingers squeezing off upshifts and downshifts, and 8,500 revs wailing behind your ears, you can almost convince yourself you’re driving a single-seat racing car. Drop the power-operated convertible top, and the furious whirl of air through the cockpit at high speed heightens the sensation. Pull over to park after a brisk drive, and you half expect to run into your team manager.
Enjoyable as both these cars are on public roads, the Corvette and McLaren are just too fast to exploit fully without making a guest appearance on “Cops.” Our fix: the outstanding 2.7-mile circuit at Chuckwalla Valley Raceway, which is far off in the Mojave Desert east of Palm Springs. No stop signs, no speed limits.
In corners, McLaren’s Brake Steer system applies precise braking force to the inside rear wheel for max traction and balance.
I hit the track in the McLaren and … damn. This car is just so brilliant. With the engine’s weight behind you, the front tires feel light in your hands, a sensation that’s reinforced by unusually responsive steering that tickles your fingerprints with tarmac info. It’s easy to place the rubber right where you want it. That said, I was initially surprised at the amount of understeer—even with the handling and powertrain controls both set to Track mode. By design, a mid-engine car is meant to more easily rotate about the mass that is centralized in the chassis, yet McLaren has biased the 650S toward forgiving front-end push rather than playful oversteer (which requires a more skilled pilot at the helm). Probably this is the right call for most McLaren buyers. Sure, if provoked with a stab of throttle or a sudden mid-corner lift, the rear of car will step out, but even then—and even in Track mode—a safety net of stability control activates to prevent unintended pirouettes.
Did I mention the McLaren’s brakes? They’re awesome. Carbon-ceramic rotors as big as sombreros. Apparently, you know when they’re properly bedded-in (and properly used) when a thin film of white ash reveals itself on the leading edge of the pads. (Look, there it is.) Again and again I pounded on the left pedal while setting up for corners, and never—not once, not even after five straight hot laps—did the binders fade or otherwise shrink from delivering maximum stopping power. Did I mention this company builds Formula 1 racing cars?
You’ll never forget all that when lapping the 650S. The V-8, designed and built by the renowned wizards at Ricardo, a legendary name in British automotive engineering, is a Fabergé egg that makes stupendous horsepower. That’s how
elegant and sophisticated and wonderful it is. The car’s structure, built around an F1-like carbon-fiber tub, never quivers, even with the top retracted. (The 650S was designed from the get-go as a Spider.) The track experience? Well, compared to a multimillion-dollar Picasso, the McLaren’s $351,935 as-tested sticker almost seems cheap for a masterpiece.
Which is not to say that the Z06 doesn’t also qualify as modern art, even at $266,370 less. It’s for this car that “OMG” was created. Driving this machine on the racetrack is like strapping onto a great white shark that hasn’t eaten in a month. And it was on a back straight at Chuckwalla when I first went to full throttle that the feeding frenzy began.
Almost instantly, the supercharger was twirling at 20,000 rpm, the direct injection hosed fuel into cylinders that compressed at a 10:1 ratio, and sparks did fly. What awesome controlled chaos! What a sound! But you know what? For all its fearsomeness, the race-bred Chevy V-8 is flexible and smooth and winds out to its redline with an almost childlike joy. And while I hear the eight-speed automatic is the quicker way to go, the manual transmission is definitely the choice if you’re looking to exit the circuit wearing the goofiest grin. The seven-speed is darn near perfect. There’s a built-in rev-matching system for downshifts, but I never even triggered the special paddles behind the rim of the steering wheel because heel-and-toeing myself was just too much fun.
Unlike the McLaren, the Z06 will happily swing its rear out under hard throttle in Track mode. Oh, yes sirree— super-sticky 335/25R-20 Michelin Pilot Super Sport rear tires be damned. But there are still some electronics waiting at the end to save the day, and you have to be stupid with the gas to do it. Mostly what you notice is how easy the Z06 is to drive fast. Yes, it feels bigger and bulkier than the McLaren (it’s about 300 pounds heavier), but there’s no mistaking the Z06’s track-bred DNA. Chevy designed it right in conjunction with the Pratt & Miller racing team, which campaigns the Corvette C7.R in the Tudor United SportsCar Championship. Thus you find cutting-edge bits of hardware such as a carbon-fiber hood, titanium intake valves and con rods, 14.6-inch front and 14.4-inch rear Brembo brakes (larger ceramic binders are available with the Z07 performance package), a dry-sump oil system, and an adjustable rear spoiler. And with its aluminum structure, the Z06 is so stout that even in convertible guise it needs no additional bracing.
In corners the Z06 is simply devastating. I found myself simply rolling the huge front meats onto my desired line and hanging on for dear life. Chuckwalla has lots of long, long late-apex turns. After a particularly fast one, I looked down quickly at the lateral-acceleration meter on the head-up display: 1.25 g. Oh, no wonder my gallbladder seems to have exited my body and now is in the passenger seat. Forget Nautilus machines; here’s a conditioning routine for sculpting every fiber of your body and your soul.
Driving back to Los Angeles, the light fading in tempo with my slowly stabilizing adrenaline, I looked out from the cockpit of the McLaren 650S at the Corvette Z06 rumbling along in the next lane. Front-engine? Mid-engine? Supercharged? Turbocharged? Dual-clutch shifter or manual?
Without a moment’s hesitation came the answer: yes.
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