If you haven’t already done so, take a minute and really look at the McLaren 720S — in person, if you can find one, but photos will do for now. It’s long, low, wide: everything a supercar should be. But even on the surface there’s a lot going on, and much of it is subtle. You’ve really got to stare at it for a bit to appreciate it.
The busy scoops, ducts, winglets and gills that defined previous McLarens (heck, that define most supercars and near-supercars and even hot hatches today) have largely vanished. Or rather, they’re hidden away within the car’s bodywork. Air — to cool radiators, to pin the car to the ground at speed, to help it stop with confidence — flows in through the curious hollow headlight sockets; it slices through complex channels carved into the flip-up dihedral doors; it wraps around the bodywork and over the rear wing, which also serves as an airbrake.
Accusing a car of being designed in a wind tunnel usually means it looks anonymous, like a wheeled jellybean. Not here. McLaren’s latest effort is sinuous, almost organic, like somebody took a block of carbon-fiber composite and removed everything that wasn’t a 720S with a sandblaster. Or whatever sort of alien dematerialization beam McLaren keeps tucked away in its spaceship in Woking, England.
It’s part sculpture.
It looks and feels like a complete, cohesive thing, which might be more fitting for this car than any McLaren road car to date.
The replacement for the McLaren 650S, and the second car in McLaren’s Super Series, the 720S aims to do more than its predecessor, from stashing more luggage to generating more downforce — everything except for, it seems, consuming more fuel. At the core of the car is a sophisticated carbon-fiber body structure McLaren calls the Monocage II; aft of it sits a 4.0-liter twin-turbocharged V8 (710 hp, 588 lb-ft) powering the rear wheels through a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.
The 720S is more powerful than the 650S, is faster to 60 mph at just 2.8 seconds and has a higher top speed of 212 mph. But, importantly, it’s also lighter, with a curb weight of 3,128 pounds. It’s more versatile, too. The 720S sets out to be nearly as capable on-track as the hardcore 675LT while also serving as a more comfortable, tractable road car than the 650S.
Gallery: The sculptural, aerodynamic details of the 2018 McLaren 720S
Nothing inspires confidence like a good set of brakes; knowing you can stop reliably is a big part of convincing yourself you can go faster. At the Vallelunga Circuit near Rome, where we got our first taste of the 720S on-track, there are a couple of opportunities to build substantial speed before you’re presented with tight corners. But standing on the firm brake pedal is part of the thrill ride. It’s not just the carbon-ceramic discs at all four corners; you don’t pitch forward jarringly under heavy braking, in part because the airbrake deploys in less than half a second, generating enough downforce to keep the tail end firmly planted. Even if you dive into the antilock zone, scrubbing speed remains a very predictable operation.
And then, once you’re in the corner, you can feed the car ever-more power (steadily now — the shocking immediacy of the 4.0-liter means you can’t get too greedy mid-turn) until you’re lined up more or less straight and then pow! You punch the accelerator and proceed to build substantial speed once again until the next corner approaches. It’s OK, though, you’ve got this — the brakes are great, remember?
Gallery: Check out the 2018 McLaren 720S interior
Actually, the brakes aren’t the only confidence-inspiring part of the 720S. It’s wise to be at least a little wary of anything packing this much muscle, but the McLaren doesn’t stare you down from the get-go. We bristle at the notion of an everyday exotic — there should be nothing everyday about a car like this, damn it — but this car is eminently, weirdly streetable, even in Rome’s anarchic traffic. Attention has been paid to things as mundane as rear visibility. Thanks to slim A-pillars, plus C-pillars broken up by windows, you have a fighting chance of spotting that suicidal scooter jockey before he takes off a carbon-fiber mirror arm ($2,120).
Sure, it won’t let you forget that it’s been spun out of rigid carbon fiber, but the car’s suspension, with its so-called Proactive Chassis Control II control system, is more than merely bearable; after a day in the car, mostly switching drivetrain and suspension settings between comfort and sport modes on sometimes-dodgy roads, we had no aches, pains or loose teeth to report. It manages to weigh 35 pounds less than the 650S suspension to boot, which is great.
Calling up suspension track mode lets you feel noticeably more of the crappy road or track beneath you through the seat and through the steering wheel — another testament to how good and versatile the adjustable suspension is. The electro-hydraulic steering system, by the way, is one of the few things carried over from the outgoing 650S. We trust McLaren when it says it couldn’t find a better setup to replace it.
Meanwhile, the track powertrain mode sharpens throttle response and dials back traction control. The car shifts faster and harder, which is great when you know what you’re doing but can upset the car in corners if you’re a less skilled driver; we tended toward sport mode on the track until we got to know the car. The most extreme powertrain setting also lets the car vocalize more freely. From both inside and outside the cockpit, we liked the fierce roar and strange shriek of sport exhaust ($5,770) going full bore; it gives the V8 a suitably brutal note to match its output. The standard exhaust seems a little weak by comparison, but if you plan to spend more time enjoying the car’s touring capabilities, it might be the more prudent route.
Then again, if you’re buying a McLaren, why start exercising prudence here?
And track mode transforms the dashboard: The instrument cluster flips down to reveal a thin screen displaying gear, a horizontal tach and speed.
It’s borderline gimmicky, sure. But it works because, like just about everything else on the 720S, it serves a purpose, displaying only the bare essentials needed for aggressive, closed-course driving. Likewise, the so-called Variable Drift Control system — which is emphatically not a button that turns you into the perpetually sideways Ken Block — lets you dial back vehicle traction and stability control to match your level of confidence in yourself and the car. And the optional onboard track telemetry system ($2,620, or $4,220 with cameras) does more than capture videos to make you look good on the internet — it’s designed to help you improve as a driver, pushing the car further and using it more effectively as you learn its potential and its limits.
Or, in our case, it provides enough hard data to prove what we already knew beyond a doubt: We’re utterly incompetent compared to McLaren’s development drivers, who recorded hot laps around Vallelunga before we arrived.
Even the showy doors serve a purpose beyond added design drama: Cutting deeply into the roof, they make ingress and egress a far less acrobatic exercise than you’d expect. They’ll make a day at the track a little easier, too: This is one of the easiest closed-roof cars to enter and exit while wearing a helmet we’ve experienced to date.
The 720S’ dihedral doors cut into the roof, as on the McLaren F1.
From its competition cars to the phenomenal freak that was the F1 to the relatively recent crop of road cars, seemingly everything that has ever worn a McLaren badge has been special. But that doesn’t mean those machines have always been perfect, or even cohesive.
Maybe it was to be expected from a company that (F1 aside) has been building its own road cars for less than a decade, but phrases like “science project” tended to pop up a lot in reviews of McLaren’s earlier offerings. They were cool, and they were different, but they didn’t always have the raw emotional appeal of the Italian competition. Maybe they could have used a little more polish, a little more development time. What car, for road or track, couldn’t?
This, though, is different. McLaren’s cars have been steadily evolving since the MP4-12C emerged in 2011, but the 720S is more than an iterative step. It hasn’t lost the peculiar, race car-like combination of delicateness and brawn that makes McLarens special. It’s maintained that edge while broadening its range and gaining all-around refinement you can touch and feel. While crazier variants are sure to follow — we hope — nothing about this car as it stands is tenuous or experimental. It feels confident and complete.
Learning to take full advantage of what the 720S offers represents its own sort of project, but it’s one that’s up to you to undertake. This time around, the masterminds in Woking have done their part.