We drove the McLaren 720S in Rome, then in California, but the true test of a car’s mettle is only proven on the mean streets of Detroit. Can it handle roads decimated by ice-thawing salt? Does it get the thumbs up on Woodward Avenue? (Yes.) What can it do on short race course adjacent to said avenue? Finally, we aim to find out.
When you walk up to the insect-inspired, quartz (that’s a color) McLaren 720S and hit the logo button on the key fob twice, two things happen. First, the driver’s door pops open a smidge, which makes yanking the complex-looking piece of carbon fiber above your head an easier and smoother operation, especially in a crowd. The other thing it does is kick on the red engine compartment lights, which illuminate 710-hp, 568-lb-ft hard-working heart of this $331,000 Super Series car, the latest from McLaren in this lofty category.
While we’re on that topic, the rear-drive Ferrari 488 Pista, with its matching 710 hp and close top speed numbers, costs $349,050. The new Aston Martin DB11 AMR is relatively close too, while the AWD Lamborghini Huracan and Aventador sort of bookend the class on both ends. Personally if money was no object—I won the lottery for $50 million—this is the class of car I would buy in first. Something that I could conceivably, in the right climate, drive all year 'round.
I’d of course get the McLaren P1, a LaFerrari, a Porsche 918 later, a couple Koenigseggs, a Pagani Huayra too. But this segment is where I would start, 100 percent.
So, you have to be okay with being looked at — in Michigan especially, but you couldn’t sneak around in Los Angeles either. Digital boss Andrew Stoy was pulled over about 400 feet from the office before he even figured out how to change the radio station (and let go with a warning). If a police officer sees you, and eight other cars going 10 mph over the limit, guess which one he’s going to nab?
But okay, let’s pretend we’re famous, and rich, so we’re not worried about the price or getting stared at. What next?
The 2018 McLaren 720S looks as good pulling away from you as it does chasing you down.
The engine. It’s now grown into a 4.0-liter, twin turbocharged, mid-rear-placed glowing red monster that makes one sound and one sound only: angry. I said it with the 675LT, and one or two of the Sports Series cars, and I’m saying it again here. That flat-plane-crank engine (M840T), and the previous version (M838T) makes something close it a middle C sound throughout the rev range — it just gets louder or quieter depending on how long you put your foot down. And you’ll be doing a lot of putting your foot down for a long time. The turbo sound is amazing. The ONLY time it doesn’t sound super angry is when the four liter-is just puttering. It’s still loud though, even at idle.
But forget idling because launch control is easy. It can be done from any driving mode, and in manual (seven-speed DCT) or automatic. You hit the LC button, hold the brake, then the gas. The screen reads “building boost;” give it a second or two, and when it gives you the signal snap off the brake as fast as you can. The engine drops every ounce of torque it can muster on those rear wheels. They spin a bit and then off you go into warp speed, where you’ll very quickly be looking to shift, and possibly slow down depending on how long your runway is. Ours was about a 1/3 mile stretch at the M1 Concourse racetrack in Pontiac, Mich., one of our new favorite local venues for testing high-horsepower machinery — and photographing looking fast.
Some that have driven this car say, “launch control is insane,” “scary, even.” I didn’t really experience that. I feel like with two-wheel drive vehicles you just can’t get the same neck-snap, stomach-jerk feeling that you get in a Nissan GT-R or Porsche 911 Turbo with an LC system. I do know that we did it a small handful of times in a row without a problem. That’s another advantage of modern technology. The first Nissan GT-R used to blend its transmission parts into a fine paste on launch number 4. Nissan eventually toned it down. But we digress.
I love McLaren brakes, but they’re not for everyone. There’s almost no pedal travel, maybe an inch of movement, and then you’re ON the 15.3-inch carbon ceramic front discs. These are the opposite of touchy. You get them seated on the discs and then give a grunt as you leg-press your way to less velocity.
They also take some time to heat up. I drove the 720S to our thrice-summerly Cars ‘n Corktown event for the 24 Hours of Le Mans race; it was early morning, cool and raining. After about 20 minutes on the wet expressway, which was a tad dicier than I expected with the standing water and steam-roller tires, I pulled off on the Gratiot exit and went for the brakes. I believe I let out an audible “woah” as the clampers first scrubbed water, then added heat, and then slowed the car down. It took more effort than expected, that’s all. Once they are even the slightest bit dry and/or warm, they’re fantastic. Like I said: some of my favorites.
Oh! And the airbrake. When you’re really cooking and put some force on the left pedal, the huge spoiler pivots 90 degrees, grabbing air and blocking the rearview. It’s a super trick-looking piece that will impress your friends. I didn’t notice any nose lightness like I did when the 675LT’s deployed, but I was also at slightly lesser speeds.
The seven-speed dual-clutch is near perfect. At the 675LT launch McLaren explained how it varies between three different ways of shifting, depending on driving mode.
In normal mode, the seven-speed gearbox cuts fuel for a split second between shifts; McLaren calls it “cylinder cut.” In sport mode it uses “ignition cut,” adopted from Formula One, which sees a momentary cut of the spark on shifts — that’s when you get the big whip crack sound. Finally “inertia push” mode “harnesses the built up kinetic energy to deliver an impulse of torque as the next gear is engaged, ensuring no drop in performance as the driver moves up through the gears.”
“Inertia push” is for all out speed, not showing off, and it’s what can make this car laughably scary on the road. It just pulls and pulls and pulls until your mind says, “that’s too much, Bob!” It’s a takes a lot for me to chuckle nervously in a car these days. This one did it.
Powertrain and handling modes are on different switches, both with normal, sport and race. It’s stiff and sharp in all modes, but normal handling was acceptable on Michigan’s roads, with a keen eye always on the lookout for deep, craggy potholes. Going more aggressive than that on surface streets would be ill advised in the snow belt.
Steering is easy at most speeds and seems to tighten up at higher ones. It is an electro-hydraulic setup but there’s so much tire even that can’t stop road feel from getting to the driver’s hands. There barely a perceptible lean in fast corners, and none in slower ones. Changes of direction, and steering inputs in general are lightning fast.
I found the interior controls easy to understand and learn. There’s a big screen in the middle with different cascading screens for climate, nav, radio and settings. A home button is always available to bring you back to the main menu. McLaren made it easier to lower the nose in this 720S as well. It’s now one or two clicks of the stalks instead of three or four. The wheel does have to be straight for it to work though, so you’ll need to get it going before the beginning of your driveway.
The footwell is still too small for me. There’s no clutch pedal, so my left foot just stays sort of pointed and twisted down there. Some days it’s more annoying than others. A few other complaints include the huge vents in the side, which look fantastic, but collect leaves and other stuff. Still worth it, I say.
And then there are those “billionaire” doors…they look great, and like the vents I wouldn’t trade them for the world, especially since part of the roof opens with them, making ingress and egress much easier than the Sports Series 570 cars. But because of the way the air is meant to cut through them, the ducts in the door collect rocks from those super-sticky, 245-width front tires and when opened, pour them out on the ground. If they’re wet rocks, they get stuck in there. I needed an air gun/compressor to spray them out.
Otherwise, it’s not super easy to get in and out of, but none of the cars in this class are. There were a few squeaks from the back that I couldn’t nail down and I think one of the rear speakers was making a funny noise. Couldn’t hear it at full bore though.
As for driving prowess, I think the McLaren 720S does everything the Ferrari 488 GTB does, and I currently believe the Ferrari to be the best car in the world in this class. I haven’t driven the latest yet, the 488 Pista, but I’m intrigued.
That means it comes down to the intangibles. They both look amazing: tongue-out, jaw-dropping, tell-your-friends. The Ferrari is more classically GT styled while the 720S looks more cab-forward/prototype/futuristic. To my ears the Ferrari’s twin-turbo 3.9-liter V8 sounds way better — like it was written as sheet music where the McLaren got a scribbled graph labeled “Car sound.”
The takeway is this: If you’re shopping for a two-door in the $200K-$400K range, you’re going to be happy no matter what you pick. I can’t comment on how you’ll feel ten years down the road, or even five, but in this rarified air you’ll be the toast of the town, or yacht club, or wherever you call home.
Finally, there IS something to be said for the name “McLaren.” Everybody knows Ferrari, everybody knows Lamborghini, but you have to be a real zealot to have kept up with what McLaren’s been doing for the past 20 years. If hard-core racing enthusiast love is what you’re going for, the 720S will suit you quite nicely.
—Jake Lingeman, road test editor
Options: 720S luxury package ($11,430); carbon fiber body structure ($4,840); 12-speaker audio system ($4,290); lightweight wheels ($3,740); 360-degree park assist ($3,010); launch edition luggage ($2,960); exterior door upper — Gorilla Glass ($2,690); vehicle lift ($2,510); exterior special paint — quartz ($2,210); electric steering column ($1,680); red calipers ($1,340); luggage retention strap ($620); car cover ($570); Homelink ($360); fire extinguisher ($180); warning triangle ($80)
On Sale: Now
Base Price: $288,845
As Tested Price: $331,355
Powertrain: 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8, RWD, seven-speed dual clutch
Output: 710 hp @ 7,500 rpm; 568 lb-ft @ 5,500 rpm
Curb Weight: 2,828 lb
Pros: Lightning quick reflexes, oodles of power
Cons: Exhuast sound should be more musical