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.
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