Caffeine and the Art of Driving Fast Cars: A Day of Coffee Tasting in the 2015 McLaren 650S Spider

Jun 11, 2015 08:30 AM EDT | Jeff Jablansky

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By southern California standards, it was raining hard when I arrived to pick up the 2015 McLaren 650S Spider. Not enough to end the incurable drought, per se, but it was more than a drizzle standing between me and a 641-hp British supercar. Nothing rains on the proverbial parade more severely than precipitation itself.

I had flown out to Los Angeles with the promise of sunshine and warm weather for the occasion of a college graduation (fight on!). Rain was not part of the plan. Escaping New York for California's climate of perfection is a time-honored tradition, and I had anticipated a bounty of opportunities to spend time getting to know the 650S Spider, which was in our care. If we learned eight things about the 650S in an hour of driving it, how much more so would I appreciate three full days of living with Great Britain's halo car?

Old habits die hard, so a cup of coffee—or four—was in order. My friend and mutual coffee enthusiast, Alex, who manages a lifestyle publication, met me outside McLaren's outpost in West L.A., for the pleasure. There's something about drinking coffee and driving cars that bring people together, and nowhere in the world but Los Angeles do the two habits converge as closely.

Looking the part

The first thing you need to know about shepherding a yellow McLaren around Los Angeles is that you're probably not ready for the experience. No amount of professional driver training or track time can prepare you for the stares that accompany the 650S' every move. It's the sublime, under-the-radar British export that even supercar-saturated L.A. doesn't recognize. It's almost like when the Audi R8 debuted and there was nothing else like it on the road—except that the McLaren carries a pricetag of nearly three of the most expensive R8s combined. People wonder which celebrity is behind the wheel, wherever you go. The noise from the mid-mounted, 3.8-liter V-8 is enough to wake up entire sleeping neighborhoods. In short, you are probably not worthy of a car with doors that open like this, and not like this.

For these reasons, Alex and I decided that our first stop would be at Deus Ex Machina in nearby Venice, a haven for motorcycle enthusiasts and coffee connoisseurs alike. The westward schlep to Venice was a test of restraint, self-governed at 25 mph, after hearing from the McLaren team that the tires like to get squirrely on wet surfaces above 3000 rpm. Fine. We adhered, and had a chaos-free drive along Santa Monica Boulevard, save for one onlooker so moved by the 650S that he just had to take a selfie.

Deus, as the regulars call it, is unbearably cool. I know little about motorcycles, but there's nothing more satisfying than shopping for gear and apparel in the same room as a bunch of motorcycles and an espresso machine. We ordered a cappuccino and an iced coffee as photographer Kevin Arnold set up his shot in the rain. The photographers who were among the small crowd gathered around the 650S grumbled that the rain was miserable for camera equipment.

As we prepared to depart Deus, a fire truck pulled up to stop for a cup of coffee. One firefighter, bedecked in a suit the same color as our 650S, whispered to me and asked how much "my" car cost. About 350 thousand dollars, I told him. He winced, then gasped. "Man," he said, "I'm in the wrong line of work."

Fitting in

Entering and exiting the 650S Spider is an exercise in grace and talent. The window lowers upon the proper touch of the inside of the door handle grip, and a firm pull of the handle opens the door—which is much lighter than it appears to be. An elegant progression of movements follows: lower the head, tuck the body, and reach the interior leg toward the cabin for stability. After a few tries, it's not difficult to master, and it's far easier than entering the tighter BMW i8. Yoga instructors, eat your organic, local hearts out.

The rain refused to relent, so we pressed on from Deus back toward West Hollywood. If a supercar is going to succeed in Los Angeles, it has to find an audience in WeHo, where Bentleys, Rolls-Royces, Aston Martins, and top-of-the-range sports cars from every manufacturer roam freely. Our next stop was Alfred Coffee and Kitchen on Melrose Place, a local favorite that I discovered during a year spent living in the area. Over time, it became a tradition to park press cars in front of the coffee shop with the tony address, to see what kind of reaction it elicited. (Needless to say, the Honda S2000 CR and Acura NSX historically ranked in the top two.) Fortunately for us, the parking spot in front of the coffee shop was available.

Signs from nature are real, and just as we parked and paid the meter, the sun decided to emerge. Alex and I took our coffee outside, at a patio table overlooking the sidewalk, and the scores of onlookers who were snapping photos of the 650S. As sinuous as its curves are when the 650S' roof is in place, it looks even curvier with the roof lowered and a clear view of its shoulder line. We discussed this, and a number of fashion trends of which I am hopelessly unaware, as we reminisced over our meeting some time ago at this same table.

The coffee is delicious at Alfred, but one comes for the atmosphere. Actors, models and trendsetters mingle with the everyman who has $4 to spare on a strong cup. The response to the 650S Spider by the locals is exactly as we expected it to be: casual glances and head turns without pretending to be overly enthusiastic—as they prefer to be treated.

We left Alfred while the sun was still shining, but not before ordering one more for the road. Upon returning to the McLaren, with one hand on the suede steering wheel and the other wrapped around the sleeve of a drippy iced coffee, Alex noticed something was amiss.

"Where is the cupholder?" she asked. Needless to say, she finished the coffee sur place before we discovered that the cupholders are behind the center stack.

Designed for the world, made for L.A.

Everywhere we drove in the McLaren 650S, there was little hesitation about going there in a supercar. Sure, the 650S has laser-guided steering that directs road feel straight into the column so that the driver knows exactly where the wheels are, but it's perfectly livable in everyday driving. No curb was too tall to accommodate the 650S' lower front lip, assisted by an air suspension and lift kit programmable on demand. The hopelessly small screen of the navigation/infotainment system was of little help getting around traffic, but seldom does the 650S sit in traffic. Jams tended to part, at least for us. What the world needs now, we argued, is more carbon fiber in their rear-view mirror.

Throughout the afternoon, it was never immediately apparent to the Angelenos who we were, or why Alex and I were behind the wheel of a track-ready supercar. The rain may have dampened plans to go from on-ramp to on-ramp with the foot planted to the 8500-rpm redline, but the conditions forced us to actually learn what it's like to live with the McLaren. Like some supermodels, the 650S isn't classically beautiful, nor does it have an even temper. (Try giving its slick tires some throttle on a rainy L.A. backroad for proof.) It's a racecar that also happens to run on the road, and we'll still be in awe every time we see one.

Our final stop was at the Petersen Automotive Museum, where we met up with a close friend and curator for a private tour of the museum's collection while the building is under renovation. (Spoiler alert: It's Mecca for even the casual automotive enthusiast.) At the conclusion of the tour, our friend joined us for an up-close look at the 650S in the museum's parking garage. He's a former auto journalist, so I let him fire up the engine under my hawkish supervision. When the biturbo V-8 came to life, yapping and snarling with a loud, uninhibited series of brrrrraps and growls, an involuntary, impish, minute-long laugh followed. He got it. This. Thing. Is. Insane.

His reaction best sums up the afternoon's antics, and the remainder of my 72 hours with the 650S Spider. Even when everything doesn't always go according to plan, there's always fun to be had—and all the more so when there's a supercar involved.

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