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McLaren 720S review: seven days with a supercar

Motoring Research logo Motoring Research 11/06/2018 Tim Pitt

McLaren 720S

McLaren 720S
© McLaren

The email arrived late on a Friday afternoon. Would we like to borrow a McLaren 720S for a week? I pondered the question for all of about 0.01 seconds. Sure, go on then…

For the uninitiated, the McLaren range is split into three tiers: Sports Series (540C, 570S, 570GT), Super Series (720S) and Ultimate Series (Senna and forthcoming ‘BP23’ F1 successor). The 720S, then, is the middle-ground, but assuredly not middle-of-the-road. Figures of 2.9 and 212 – I’ll let you figure out the appropriate suffixes – are testament to that.

We first drove the 720S on road and track at last year’s launch, declaring it ‘the new supercar benchmark’. How would it fare as a daily-driver in the UK? Here’s what we learned.

It’s brutally, brilliantly fast

McLaren 720S © McLaren McLaren 720S

In 2013, McLaren launched the P1: a limited-run hybrid hypercar with an £866,000 price tag. It blasted to 124mph (200kph) in 6.8 seconds and annihilated a standing quarter-mile in 9.8 seconds.

Amazingly, this series-production 720S is scarcely slower – 7.8 seconds and 10.3 seconds – yet costs £208,600. Relatively speaking, it’s a bit of a bargain.

The 720S is too fast for the road, no doubt. Opportunities to fully flex your right ankle are few and frustratingly far-between, especially in the south east of England. But then, very occasionally, the traffic clears, the planets align and oh my sweet Lord. The 720hp 4.0-litre V8 is a furious force of nature, seizing your senses and recalibrating reality.

Car journalists often wax lyrical about naturally aspirated engines in sports cars. And yes, there is joy to be had in wringing every last rev from an NA motor. However, the tremendous mid-range wallop of the turbocharged McLaren is equally addictive – and easier to exploit in the real world.

It stops as quickly as it goes

McLaren 720S © McLaren McLaren 720S

A Porsche engineer once explained to me that its cars are engineered to decelerate as quickly as they accelerate. In other words, if a 911 hits 62mph in 3.5 seconds, it must stop to a standstill in the same period of time.

The 720S exceeds this target, braking from 62mph to zero in 29.7m and 2.8 seconds – 0.1 seconds less than it takes to get there. Huge carbon-ceramic discs also stop the 720S from 124mph (200kph) in 117m and 4.6 seconds, and from 186mph (300kph) in just 260m and 6.9 seconds, aided by an active rear spoiler that deploys as a near-vertical airbrake.

Such stopping power is hugely reassuring in a car so swift. And here too, the 720S is within a hair’s breadth of the epochal P1.

The steering is sublime

McLaren 720S © McLaren McLaren 720S

With a few very minor exceptions, McLaren is the only carmaker that persists with hydraulic power steering. Even Ferrari has shifted to fuel-saving electric steering for its new 812 Superfast and Portofino.

The advantage of a hydraulic rack is a proper, physical connection between the palms of your hands and the rubber on the road. High-pressure fluid is used to turn the wheels rather than an electric motor, and the result is usually more faithful feedback and enhanced steering feel.

The 720S has superb steering, its flat-bottomed wheel communicating every nuance of the road surface and residual grip. Frankly, in a car that manages 26.4mpg on the NEDC cycle (and high teens in the real world), I’m glad McLaren decided to forgo electric assistance. Sipping fuel is hardly this car’s raison d’être.

The soundtrack is quite sensible

McLaren 720S © McLaren McLaren 720S

Actually, that’s not strictly true. The McLaren will serve up throttle-blipping theatrics on start-up, but only if you jump through several hoops first. Turn on the ignition and switch chassis and powertrain settings to Track mode. Then put your foot on the brake and press the starter button. A squirt of fuel is injected – then ignited – in the exhaust and BRAAAAP! the 720S starts with all the subtlety of a shotgun. A little immature perhaps, but fun.

Fire-up the 720S normally and it will still wake up your neighbours. But it isn’t deliberately, absurdly OTT like a Lamborghini or Jaguar F-Type SVR. Pops and bangs from the twin exhausts are fairly muted, the soundtrack dominated by the whoosh of the twin-scroll turbochargers. It sounds potent and purposeful, both mechanical and slightly synthetic.

Ultimately, the 720S doesn’t deliver the aural fireworks of a Ferrari V8 or Lamborghini V10. But after a week of living with one, I’m convinced that’s fine. You can have too much of a good thing, after all.

It’s the right size for UK roads

McLaren 720S © McLaren McLaren 720S

One of my personal bugbears is the sheer size of modern cars (and don’t get me started on SUVs). They grow larger with every passing generation, unlike our cramped and crowded streets. Many of today’s supersized supercars feel simply too wide for a British B-road.

The 720S is no Lotus Elan, but its fairly modest footprint means you can carry speed with confidence where others are forced to slow down. At 1,930mm, it’s actually 165mm narrower than its 570S sibling, and 254mm shorter and 100mm narrower than a Lamborghini Aventador. On the B488 in Bedfordshire, those millimetres matter.

Special mention also goes to the McLaren’s interlinked, ECU-controlled hydraulic suspension, which obviates the need for anti-roll bars. It’s far too complicated to explain here (indeed, it was the subject of a PhD thesis) – suffice to say it makes the 720S both pliant and utterly planted on challenging Tarmac.

Drift mode is a tad daunting

McLaren 720S © McLaren McLaren 720S

You know about the Ford Focus RS and its infamous Drift Mode. Well, the 720S has a more advanced version of the same thing.

Variable Drift Control offers seven-stage adjustment for the stability control, allowing you to decide how much the car will oversteer before the electronic nanny intervenes. There’s even a graphic on the touchscreen to select your angle of attack.

Now, I’ll level with you. Variable Drift Control or not, I’m not a good enough driver to start sliding 720hp supercars on the road. My faith in technology only goes so far. However, MR’s Peter Burgess previously tried VDC on-track at Vallelunga and found it a “very effective tool”. He also noted that “ tyre smoking images you see are all taken with those systems fully disengaged”. Good man.

You could spend a LOT on carbon fibre

McLaren 720S © McLaren McLaren 720S

Got several hours to spare? Why not dream big with the McLaren 720S online configurator? As you’ll quickly discover, you can add tens of thousands to the base price with upgrades and accessories.

Our car – not pictured here – had custom paint from McLaren Special Operations (MSO) at £7,750, plus lashings of gratuitous unpainted carbon on the front air intakes and roof (Exterior Carbon Fibre Pack 3 – £3,770), body structure (£3,990) and sill panels (£2,620). Other extras included beautiful forged alloy wheels (£4,390) and the all-but-essential sports exhaust (£4,750).

As standard, the 720S has a four-speaker JVC Kenwood stereo that offers “the perfect blend between weight and performance”. Still, I’d willingly sacrifice a few kilograms (and, um, £3,540) for the 12-speaker Bowers & Wilkins system fitted here. It’s a fitting accompaniment for the twin-turbo V8.

A week is not enough

McLaren 720S © McLaren McLaren 720S

Spending seven days with the 720S was rewarding and revealing. During its time in our care, the McLaren tackled lengthy commutes, school runs, M25 tailbacks, London gridlock and even, yes, the odd B-road blast – and never felt less than sensationally special.

The Lamborghini Huracan Performante has the edge in terms of outright excitement. Perhaps the Ferrari 488 GTB does, too: I haven’t driven one. But a Performante isn’t a well-rounded supercar like the 720S, and both the Italians have – to my mind – a rather divisive image. Being from somewhere as incongruous as Woking doubtless helps, but the McLaren seems the epitome of tech-led, wildcard cool.

With Spider and hotted-up LT versions in the pipeline, there’s more to come from the McLaren 720S. It may be our benchmark supercar for a while yet.

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