Each week our team of experienced senior road testers pick out a new model from the world of innovative, premium and performance badges, and put it through its paces.
McLaren’s naming culture, with each car carrying a number relevant to its performance output, makes it hard to define the true heritage of each nameplate. So, the true heritage of the 720S lies in the 650S and MP4-12C – thanks for making it simple Ron.
The MP4-12C was McLaren’s first road car as a true automotive brand. Sure, there had been the F1 and the M6 back in the day and McLaren famously worked on the equally awkwardly-named Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren in the 2000s, but these were all one-offs or projects with an established manufacturer. The 12C launched McLaren as a modern automotive entity. That name was inspired by McLaren’s own nomenclature for its racing cars. MP4 stood for McLaren Project 4, with Project 4 having been Ron Dennis’s team, which bought McLaren in the 1980s and created the team we find today. The 12 bit is too complicated to begin to explain here. The 12C though will go down as an incredibly important moment in automotive history. The genesis of a true competitor for Ferrari, Lamborghini and co. and one from these shores. It suffered from a perception of being a little bit dull, especially to look at, but absolutely stormed McLaren into the headlines as a true supercar competitor.
The 650S followed in 2014, and was based largely on the chassis of the 12C. This time wrapped in a much more fetching body (especially in 675LT form) and with a more understandable name (it had 650PS). The 650S took everything the 12C had offered, made it more attractive, and took McLaren to a position where they would be taken as seriously as the established rivals – less than a decade after the modern McLaren Automotive had been founded. By the time the 650S left us it had spawned a number of special editions and was still lauded with each new model, but that 12C chassis was six years old. The 720S (720PS in case you hadn’t guessed) arrived in 2017 with an all-new monocoque and the skills to take on Ferrari head-to-head.
This is the 720S Spider, which means that it’s a convertible (see, this naming convention really makes sense now). McLaren don’t release a car without creating at least one new patent, and the 720S spider is filled with them. We won’t bore you with the list, but the coolest are the incredible glass buttresses behind the cockpit. Why glass? Well for visibility. Which brings us to the 720S’s most striking feature – visibility. It might seem weird, maybe downright bonkers, to say that a car that can do 200mph with the roof down’s most striking feature is simple visibility, so let me explain. If you’ve never driven another supercar, the experience is akin to trying to drive with 15th century knight’s helmet on. You can roughly see, but you really shouldn’t bother trying to manoeuvre in tight-ish spaces. The 720S on the other hand feels more like driving a glass bubble. Vision is astonishing, manoeuvring at slow speeds would be more difficult in a Fiesta. Inside McLaren aren’t particularly bold with their design, except for that incredible sliding instrument panel, which folds away in race mode to offer you a smaller screen with just rev counter and speedo – all you really need on track.
In our car, in Luxury spec (£246,990 with no extras) we have heated seats, adjustable steering column, 8-inch touchscreen, Bluetooth and USB connectivity, dual zone climate control and voice control. Our car also came with a host of extras including a power adjusted steering column, lashings of carbon-fibre, wonderful MSO-designed carbon-fibre gear-shift battles, 360-degree parking camera, nose lift (for speed bumps) and some rather snazzy Stealth wheels, which meant a total price of £327,000.
OK, enough about vision, how does it perform? Well it’s pretty darned fast. But you knew that already. The 720S’s 4.0-litre, twin-turbocharged V8 produces 720PS (710bhp) and 770Nm (568lb ft), both of which come pretty high up the rev range – max torque starts at 5,500rpm. But those high headline figures mean that there’s plenty of push further down. The 720S is rear-wheel-drive, with McLaren eschewing the modem trend to powering all four, at least for now, but its traction is so good that pickup from a standstill is instant. When you then get the V8 on song (albeit not the most aurally pleasing of notes) in the higher rev range it just keeps on pulling, and pulling and pulling. 200mph feels almost terrifyingly close.
The exterior of the McLaren 720S is important to the car’s performance. Almost more than any non-pure track supercar the 720S is sculpted to make use of the air it ploughs through. The headlights are slimmed down to mere slithers, but still sit in a large recess, one which is there to channel air through the car. The doors help to channel air back not only to the engine, but through those flying glass buttresses and onto the rear wing. This is a machine designed to work with the air, not against it. When you get to a corner than 720S is an engaging prospect, this is a supercar that will take corners at speeds that you would never dare without any kind of problem, but at all times it feels like it provides just enough ‘float’ to the senses that you know you’re being rewarded for giving it a little push.
Don’t mistake me for saying that it feels like a scary old-school supercar, one which will sooner smash you into a tree than get you to your destination. No, the 720S is engaging in a way that will leave you smiling. Even if you can’t quite extract those extra tenths that Bruno Senna could. That might not be what you want from a performance car, but for me it brings the drive back to you, rather than elevating everything to the point of ridiculousness.
McLaren in its early days struggled to showcase any real passion, Ron Dennis’s drilled-in mantras of ultra-cleanliness at the incredible McLaren Technology Centre sort of trickled down into their road cars. It created the MP4-12C as a badly-named and slightly anaemic supercar, albeit a very capable one, and a design that is ageing well. The 720S feels like it takes that extreme eye for detail, but distils it with a little more charm. You can use the 720S to pose if you really want, and the roof is a work of mastery, folding away into a recess you wouldn’t guess was there, but you can also find your nearest twisty bit and have a good old thrash without feeling too scared. Most of us will never extract even a tenth of the performance from such a car, but to feel engaged while driving it at modest speeds is a credit to the work that McLaren have put in. The Spider is perhaps not as capable as the hard-top version, and sacrifices some of the coupe’s cool features (no dihedral doors) for that roof, but those who want it won’t complain. The modern supercar must be able to live two lives, both flat-out speedster and day-to-day cruiser. The 720S manages both.
Price of our car: £327,000 (including £90,000 of optional extras)