McLaren's supercar rules with outrageous power and handling prowess, yet somehow mixes it with a surprising amount of refinement.
McLaren isn't a car company that wants to play by the rules. Still a fledgling in a field of high-dollar competitors that often sacrifice performance and engineering in favor of design and prestige, McLaren has stuck by its Formula One roots. It has created some of the most advanced cars on the planet, but along the way earned a reputation as being sometimes too calculated compared with the Italian competition.
For better or worse, that focus on engineering-led design shines through in every part of the 720S, from the outrageous figure of 710 horsepower from a 4.0-liter engine to the mind-blowing attention to detail on the aerodynamics. But here, aerodynamic needs were massaged to create a shape that is nothing short of lust-worthy. The feel of the car, too, offers precise refinement tempered with just enough character-building rough edges. The 2018 McLaren 720S is, then, a study of contrasts, and it's those contrasts that make it so damned compelling.
Though the McLaren's staggering 710-horsepower figure has since been trumped by the Ferrari 488 Pista and its tauntingly close 711-horse rating, releasing that much power from a 4.0-liter V8 is a remarkable feat. That's thanks only to the car's turbocharging setup, a pair of twin-scroll units that also helps the engine deliver 568 pound-feet of torque.
But it's the power delivery that really sets this engine apart. Though turbocharging is now a supercar norm, many manufacturers try to hide that effect, compromising outright power in exchange for immediate throttle response, all while doing everything they can to mute the trademark noises of forced induction.
For McLaren, it's quite the opposite. Though the throttle lag here isn't as bad as in the turbo heydays of the '90s, it is quite noticeable. Put your foot down in the 720S and you'll have a brief moment to collect your thoughts before the sound of angry, compressed air fills your ears and a massive rush of power presses you into your seat. Once you lift off the throttle again (hopefully in time to save your license), you'll hear the wastegate's flutter as it vents that excess pressure.
Some would call that unrefined, even uncouth, but raw elements like that add much-needed character to the 720S, and though the motor will get the most plaudits, it's really the car's suspension and dynamics that deserve the praise.
The 720S rolls on an evolution of the same revolutionary suspension system previously slung beneath the 650S . This includes handling antiroll duties via hydraulics instead of traditional, heavy bars. In the 720S, that system is elevated to a new level. While adaptive suspension is no longer novel, and indeed many a supercar can go from palatable to punishing at the touch of a button, the 720S displays a master class in dynamics even on its softest setting.
Though never cosseting, the McLaren's damping provides real compliance on real roads, the sort of thing that won't see you skittering toward the ditch when crossing the slightest midcorner asphalt imperfection. It really encourages you to push the car in all conditions -- which could again see you quickly entering into the sorts of speeds that threaten one's license.
It's a little difficult to separate the various visual elements of the 720S, because its design was clearly meant to complement performance, not to fit within some corporate mold. Indeed, this is a distinctive car and its aerodynamic assets have not won universal praise. However, I can tell you from experience after spending many hours staring at this thing that this is the kind of design where the more you look at it the more you find to look at. For me, at least, the more I found the more I fell in love.
The car's most controversial element is its headlights. They're actually quite small and are set, jewel-like, within a pair of large openings designed to capture as much cool air as possible. This gives the car an admittedly unusual look, but spend a moment peering at the massive heat exchangers tucked within, plus the myriad other aerodynamic elements, and you get a real appreciation for why the car looks as it does, lacking the buck-toothed grin of many a supercar nose.
For me, the most compelling part of the car is its misleading profile. From the side, in silhouette, the car has the typical, wedgelike supercar stance, distinctive perhaps only in its surprisingly pronounced front overhang. It's only from the front or the rear that you start to notice the outer skin on the car's doors is actually a vertical aerodynamic appendage, a part of but removed from the doors themselves. They feed more air to the midmounted engine while still providing a clean look, free of the giant fender intakes that typify modern midengined supercars.
It's somewhat similar to the fuselage effect seen in the Ford GT , but so much more subtle here, creating a cockpit that's tight like a cocoon despite the car's generous proportions. The height of the car is not generous, however, at just 47 inches. To facilitate ease of entry, the upward-sweeping doors take a large portion of the roof with them, making it a cinch to slot right in. Once seated, there's a surprising amount of headroom.
You sit quite close to the shoulder of your passenger, so choose wisely, sharing an interior that is a clear evolution of what we've seen in the 650S and 570S . The hallmark is the pair of car-control knobs, one that dials up the suspension and a second that makes the engine progressively angrier as you twist from left to right. And then there's the "aero" button, which puts the rear wing into full effect.
Yes, the 720S has a wing, though you wouldn't know it much of the time. It tucks cleanly into the rear of the car, flowing into the fenders. In the default mode it only pops up when you get hard on the stoppers, an air-brake effect that will give any child of the '80s flashbacks to some of KITT's antics. However, toggle on the "aero" mode and the wing comes up into play earlier, ducking and weaving, lifting and lowering to give the maximum amount of aerodynamic performance -- or at least the maximum amount of theatrics.
Speaking of theatrics, the dashboard in the 720S flips and tucks itself away when you go into Race mode, presenting just a simplified tachometer, speed... and basically nothing else. It's a flashy effect that'll impress your passengers, if they weren't impressed already, but in practice it strikes me as being far too gimmicky. It's meant to reduce distraction, but on the track is exactly when I want to see tire pressures. Why hide them?
In the center of the car is McLaren's IRIS infotainment system. It lives in a vertically oriented touchscreen and offers all the major functions you need, including toggling of vehicle settings, passable navigation and support for SiriusXM. It works and reasonably well, but it can be awfully sluggish at times, and the continued lack of Android Auto and Apple CarPlay is unfortunate. Those looking to bring their own tunes will be left pairing over Bluetooth or reaching for the aux jack.
How do you compete with a car like this? Well, Ferrari's 488 Pista is probably the most direct comparison, both in terms of numbers and intent. But, while I haven't driven that flavor yet, my time in the 488 GTB makes me think it should be a manic rocketship of a thrill ride. On the track it'd be fascinating to see which would come out on top, but on the road the 720S would likely be the more manageable.
And then there's the new Aston Martin DBS , which won't offer nearly the same thrills or excitement that the 720S does, but exceeds its outright thrust and would make for a more comfortable touring car. It'll even seat four, so long as half of those individuals have very short legs.
But truly the 720S exists in rarefied company, and those buying a car like this tend to know exactly what they want. And, part of the beauty of a car like this is that you can get it exactly how you want it. My test car you see here had nearly $60,000 in accessories, ranging from $5,330 for the 10-spoke "super-lightweight" forged wheels to $4,290 for the very choice B&W sound system. It also had oodles of extra carbon fiber, the $5,770 sport exhaust and the (highly recommended) nose lift for $2,510. Total sticker, with delivery: $342,135.
It'd be mighty easy to see the McLaren 720S as just a face-lifted 650S with a 70-horsepower upgrade, and on paper that's very much what it is. This, though, is not a piece of paper, it's an object of beauty carved of carbon fiber. Though the changes seem small, they create an experience that is nothing short of outrageous. Its raw feel mixed with the precision response is unlike anything else with four wheels, a package that, frankly, is perhaps a bit too much for the road -- at least, for any road with traffic laws.
Stablemates like the 570S or 570GT are probably a better choice for spirited Sunday drives in the real world, offering much the same exotic look and feel but at a more approachable level of performance. However, the ballistic 720S is a remarkable achievement, a study in contrasts and one hell of an exhilarating drive.