Car Reviews First Drives

2018 McLaren 720S First Drive: Teacher’s Pet

Getting schooled by a 710-hp supercar

Getting schooled by a 710-hp supercar

Driving, insist the folks at McLaren, is a pastime that should be invested in and improved. And they’re true to their word: Invest $285,794 USD in the 2018 McLaren 720S, and you’ll probably find yourself driving smoother and faster than you ever have before, both on the track and on your favorite quiet back road. This new McLaren is as scintillatingly quick as you’d expect a 710-hp supercar to be. But with all that power comes a chassis that both flatters and encourages drivers, regardless of their ability behind the wheel. Push yourself, and the 720S responds. More importantly, though, it supports, as well. It’s like the gifted teacher who can bring out the best in every student in the class.

As detailed in our preview story, the 720S is McLaren’s first second-generation supercar, replacing the 650S, and the first of 15 new sports cars due from the company by 2022. McLaren says 91 percent of the 720S’ parts are new, though the 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 mounted midships is an evolution of the 3.8-liter engine that powered 2011’s MP4-12C, progenitor of the company’s current sports car lineup.

The basic vehicle concept is similar, too. Like the 12C, which morphed into the 650S and the 675LT, the 720S features a trick computer-controlled active suspension system. Its design is philosophically similar to that of the 650S, but the hardware is new, with different geometry front and rear, and the whole setup weighs 35 pounds (16 kg) less. The system now also features an accelerometer on each upright and pressure sensors at the top and bottom of each damper to precisely communicate to the 720S’ electronic brain what is happening at each corner of the car in real time.
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At the core of the 720S is a new one-piece carbon-fiber tub with an integrated roof that’s similar in concept to the Monocage structure used in the P1 hypercar. Dubbed Monocage II, it saves 40 pounds (18 kg) compared with the 650S tub/roof structure and allows the use of dihedral doors with large cutouts for improved cabin entry and exit. It also endows the 720S with impressively slim pillars, especially at the rear of the car.

The aggressively cab-forward styling is driven by aerodynamics: Air is directed over the top of the front fenders and into two deep channels on either side of cockpit. Those channels lead to two radiators mounted ahead of the rear wheels. The channels then sweep around the C-pillars, where they are used to extract the air heated by the radiators. This delivers a 15 percent increase in cooling efficiency compared the 650S, allowing smaller, lighter radiators.

Up front, where most supercars feature faired-in headlights, are two large vents with the headlights mounted vertically within them. These vents funnel air through two smaller radiators mounted just ahead of the front wheels, and the resultant hot air exits ahead of the wheels and is directed along the sides of the car.
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At the rear is a full-width wing that deploys at a 30-degree angle to deliver extra downforce at speed; it flips to 80 degrees to act as an airbrake and help stabilize the rear of the car under heavy braking. Just ahead of the wing, right at the corners of the rear fenders, are the engine air intakes, which feed into air boxes that are also structural elements supporting the fenders.

Apart from a longer stroke, the 720S’ engine features new twin-scroll turbochargers with low-inertia titanium/aluminum alloy turbines, shortened intake runners, and an engine calibration strategy that keeps the turbochargers spinning as much as possible with the help of actively controlled wastegates. The aim was more power, more torque, and, crucially, more precise throttle response than in the 650S or 675LT.

And man, does the revamped V-8, now dubbed M840T, deliver. All 710 ponies are present and correct at 7,000 rpm, and peak torque of 568 lb-ft arrives between 5,500 rpm and 6,500 rpm. With all the action, especially that torque peak, happening much farther up the rev range than is typical for other high-performance 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8s—the Mercedes-AMG GT R’s similar powerplant, for example, makes its maximum torque of 516 lb-ft from just 1,900 rpm—the 720S’ engine feels almost like it’s naturally aspirated, the surge of acceleration scarcely slowing even as the tach dives deep into the red zone to 8,200 rpm. Yes, it can feel a little subdued below 3,000 rpm, but then so would a naturally aspirated engine with these characteristics.

McLaren claims the 720S will accelerate to 60 mph in 2.8 seconds, and it’s half a second faster to 124 mph (200 km/h) (7.8 seconds versus 8.3 seconds) than a Ferrari 488. The quarter mile is done and dusted in 10.3 seconds, and claimed top speed is 212 mph (341 km/h). Yet with the suspension and engine/transmission in their default settings and the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission left to its own devices, the 720S is a pussycat, remarkably tractable and easy to drive around town. It was a welcome trait as we negotiated the helter-skelter of Rome traffic, dive-bombed by marauding Fiats and suicidal scooter riders as we made our way out of town en route to an appointment with McLaren’s track driving instructors at the Autodromo Vallelunga Piero Taruffi.

All-around visibility out of the light, glassy, completely redesigned cabin is excellent—incoming Vespa, four o’clock!—the best of any mid-engine supercar. The interior ambience is a mélange of modern luxury and race tech, depending on how you mix and match your choices of carbon fiber, Alcantara, and Bridge of Weir leather trim. Standard equipment includes a bespoke Bowers & Wilkins audio system that is the lightest yet to be fitted to a McLaren. The standard seats are cossetting and comfortable, although the adjustment switches are an ergonomic fail, hidden away on the corner of the front squab and right next to the center console. A fixed race seat is available as an option, but it’s a spartan experience, and really only for hardcore track rats.
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There’s much more emphasis on the driver in the 720S cockpit than in previous McLarens. Behind the light, elegant, thin-rimmed steering wheel is a new digital instrument panel. In Track mode, it flips flat and tucks away to leave just a thin screen on its top edge displaying what gear is selected, engine rpm, and speed. The vertical touchscreen at the center of the dash is now angled away from the passenger. Drive, neutral, or reverse are selected via toggles on a flying buttress that gracefully arches downward from the base of the screen. The most important controls—those that switch the suspension and the engine/transmission between Comfort, Sport, and Track modes—are to the immediate left of the screen, within easy reach of the driver’s right hand.

In default mode the 720S is set up with ride and handling more skewed toward the track-optimized 675LT than the 650S. Comfort mode does exactly what it says on the tin, allowing the suspension to soak up lumps and bumps and smoothly short shifting the transmission. With less tire noise than a Porsche 911, subdued engine noise at part throttle, and a useful 12.7 cubic feet of luggage space—5.3 cubic feet up front and 7.4 cubic feet under the rear glass—the 720S is a surprisingly accomplished grand tourer on the highway.

Sport and Track progressively stiffen up the effective damping and spring rates, cinching the body down on the suspension and sharpening the engine and transmission responses. The serene body control that has become a trademark of the actively suspended McLarens is evident in Sport mode even on the rough and tumble roads through the hills outside Rome. The Sport engine/transmission mode is less convincing, however, delivering thumping gearshifts and a snap-crackle-pop from the exhaust, which McLaren engineers admit has more to do with impressing customers than going faster.

The hot setup for rapid road progress is to leave the suspension in either Comfort or Sport—depending on how rough the road—switch the engine/transmission mode to Track, and shift manually. Thus configured, the 720S is blisteringly quick, effortlessly telescoping time and space no matter how twisty the tarmac gets. The engine’s thrust is simply epic, and the lightning-quick Track mode gearshifts are almost seamless. The front end grips like a leech, and the rear tracks faithfully no matter how much the pavement heaves.

But it’s on the smooth tarmac at Vallelunga, in cars fitted with the optional Pirelli P Zero Corsa tires, that the McLaren 720S delivers a master class in making you a better driver. In addition to increased downforce, the 720S has more mechanical grip than the 650S. It arrows through high-speed sweepers like it’s on rails, and stability under heavy braking is truly impressive. But for all that, the chassis is superbly responsive to steering and throttle inputs. Especially throttle inputs.

“Throttle response—both on and off throttle—is equally important,” says Chris Goodwin, McLaren’s chief test driver and the man who honed the 720S’ dynamics. The 720S’ engine calibration delivers such impressively equal tip-in and tip-out—basically adding and subtracting torque to the rear tires—you can adjust the balance the car, tighten the radius of the turn on entry, or drift it wide on the exit with remarkable precision. And with McLaren’s Variable Drift Control—basically adjustable traction control—you can, with the help of a chassis that makes its intentions crystal clear and follows through with confidence-inspiring consistency, learn to corner the 720S like a pro racer. “You can choose your degree of confidence,” Goodwin says. “This is exactly how we use traction control in GT3 racing.”

The 720S is the clearest expression yet of McLaren’s approach to the art of the supercar, overlaying key performance fundamentals—low weight, high responsiveness, balance, grip, power—with technologies that allow owners to progressively peel away electronic support systems as their confidence grows to discover the purest possible driving experience.