There’s something special about a car that unites an Upper East Side doyenne and a Puerto Rican skater on the same emotional plane.

“That car should be in the movies!" Madame declared in a Greta Garbo voice, her face framed by Hermes silk and pearls. She had walked up to admire its curves one recent afternoon while the car sat parked near 70th Street.

“Man, that car is dope," the skater drawled as he rolled by, leaning forward on his wooden board to get a better view. Both snapped pictures on their iPhones.

They’re both right. And they don’t know the half of it.

McLaren introduced its $280,000 650S line as a second act to 2011’s successful 12C. Its unmistakable swooping sidelines and gaping air intakes mark it as a direct descendant of the line’s Formula One icons—but this Spider is much more than just an update or afterthought. Or a watered-down race car.

I drove the 650S Spider for five days throughout New York: in the crowded streets of Manhattan, through Brooklyn, and out east over the weekend to buzz the surfers of Montauk. The 650S Spider boasts more horsepower than the 12C, plus new super- efficient LED lighting, tighter tuning, and a lightened, brightened face. Its enlarged cooling vents inhale air like the nostrils of a winded thoroughbred. Its carbon-fibre backbone, proactive chassis control, and carbon-fibre monocell body—each adjusted to increase downforce at high speed—lend such stability that the road becomes a slab of magnetized iron and the car a metal bearing gliding atop its surface.

British Racing Power

McLaren has forced every component of this machine to justify its existence in a quest to make it even lighter than the 3,033-pound 12C (at 3,020 pounds they’ve succeeded, if only just). Everything inside and out maximizes efficient power. They even developed lightweight pearlescent exterior paint (volcano orange, aurora blue, mantis green) to shave more kilograms.

What’s that Muhammad Ali mantra? Fly like a butterfly, sting like a bee? It applies here. You can manoeuvre the 650S Spider with two fingers pressed at 10 and 2 while you weave through traffic as lightly as a prizefighter dodges punches. Shifting is seamless. Braking is quick and tight. The Champ would be proud.

Credit the twin-turbo V-8 mid-placed engine (641 BHP, 677 Nm of torque), new double-wishbone suspension, and Formula One-derived seven-speed double-clutch transmission for that elegant performance. Its 3-second 0-to-62mph sprint time beats the 12C, Ferrari F12, and Porsche 911 Turbo. Top speed is 207 mph (333km/h).

But in true British fashion, the 650S Spider’s raw aggression is suggested but never imposed. Philosophy in action: A specialized “brake steer" system engages the car’s rear brakes during high-speed turns to manage traction, minimize understeering, and control oversteering. There’s no straining here, no screaming engine nor transmission growling. There’s nothing so outré as that to signal struggle.

The Future Inside

Once behind the wheel—watch your head with those slanting doors—the hand of McLaren’s F1-trained engineers is most apparent in the layout. An iPad-sized computer screen controls navigation, engine diagnostics, temperature, tunes, and Bluetooth connectivity. Dashboard controls are all angled almost imperceptibly toward the driver (a notion less common than you might expect).

It’s all as seamless as the flawless transmission—except when the system struggles to manage multiple tasks. On the drive from NYC to Montauk, adjusting the radio while the A/C was on, for instance, caused the screen to freeze repeatedly, an experience I anecdotally confirmed with others in the industry. Glitches like this amplify the debate surrounding touchscreen safety as opposed to the eyes-on-the-road tactile feedback that knobs and buttons allow. If you need the latter, this is not the car for you.

Parts New, Re-purposed

A full quarter of the parts in 650S Spider are brand new, but the rest is the best of the 12C: suicide “dihedral" doors and a hardtop that retracts in 17 seconds even while the car creeps forward (keep it under 20mph). Racing-style seats cradle shoulders like a Saville Row suit while contrast stitching gives it that just-off-the-racetrack edge. And three distinct drive modes—normal, sport, track—plus a small, squared-off, button-free steering wheel place the lucky driver firmly in video game territory (at least in his imagination).

Best of the Rest

Headroom inside the 650S Spider allows much—a 6-foot man will have plenty of room for a Bedford bowler—but do remember that the non-existent rear seat allows for no socializing past your (by-now eternally grateful, I hope) plus-one.

The front- positioned trunk will fit one small overnight bag; a back ledge inside will fit a business valise or a floral bouquet. Splurge for creature comforts like an electrically adjustable steering column ($1,870), Meridian surround sound ($4,170), and a backup camera ($1,400).

Additional to the parts it carried over from 12C, McLaren has upgraded others to standard rather than optional status. Pirelli P Zero Corsa tires on skeleton-bare forged aluminum wheels (19-inchers up front, 20-inchers in the rear), ultra-light ceramic brakes, and carbon-fibre siding and trim make it look aggressive in a lean, slightly hungry type of way.

Mind The Curb

Caveats do apply here for some prospective buyers. The car elicits an unfortunate sense of deprivation for those disciplined enough to maintain posted speed limits. In fact, you might as well add a new line item in your monthly budget for speeding tickets. It feels masochistic to hobble such an athlete.

What’s more, the 650S Spider has ground clearance of roughly 6 inches. A city’s curbs and potholes suddenly become excruciatingly apparent when you drive a six-figure car that sits lower than a tricycle. And the barrel-roll somersault (practically!) required to get inside will repel those with tender backs or short skirts. A saving grace: the doors are extremely light and require no more clearance than a conventionally appointed automotive.

Parting Thoughts

Fuel economy runs a greedy 16 mpg in the city and 22 mpg highway. This beats larger sedans from Bentley and Rolls-Royce but roughly equals Audi’s R8 and most other supercars on the market today. Which isn’t saying much. If you want an economic luxury car, try the Tesla.

You could, though, consider the similarly priced 458 Ferrari, Lamborghini Aventador, Aston Martin Vanquish, and Porsche 911 Turbo alongside the 650S Spider. But you’ll get more attention in McLaren than in any of those, even if it’s painted, say, a demure gray. But you already knew that. It’s part of the appeal—just ask your friendly neighbourhood dowager.

The McLaren 650S Spider starts at $280,225. The model we tested cost $325,000 because of optional sport packaging and interior upgrades. Bloomberg

McLaren 650S Spider | SPECIFICATIONS

Engine: Twin-turbo V-8 mid-placed engine (641 BHP, 677 Nm of torque)

Suspension: New double-wishbone suspension

Drive: Seven-speed double-clutch transmission.

Top speed: 207 mph (333km/h)