Last year was a banner year for McLaren, the British exotic carmaker. After a flattish 2017, McLaren saw sales jump nearly 44% in 2018, to 4,806 cars sold globally.
It was another sales record in North America, McLaren’s biggest market. And you know who else has North America as its biggest market? The boys in red from Maranello — Ferrari (RACE).
The McLaren name in motorsports is huge, and its name in the sports-car world is growing in clout big time. But if you’re going to take it to Ferrari, you need to bring it, and that means bringing it to Ferrari’s standard bearer, the stallion that every performance carmaker wants to measure up to — the Ferrari 488.
I tested the 488 Spyder last year and it was all that you could want in a sports car. It was so good its few faults felt endearing. So against that backdrop, McLaren is taking on the superb 488 with an animal of its own — the 720S.
Part of the Super series, the 720S is a notch above models like the 570S, borrowing a lot of high-tech from the hypercar McLaren P1. The 720S replaced the outgoing 650S back in 2017.
Upon first impression I thought to myself the 720S has a shark-like vibe. Apparently that’s on purpose, as McLaren took inspiration from the great white shark, “a beautifully sleek yet brutally efficient hunting machine.” Those are McLaren’s words not mine, but seems apt once you realize what this machine is capable of doing.
The 720S is blazingly fast, capable of hitting 0 to 60 in 2.8 seconds, according to McLaren. Numerous testers believe the car is faster than that. In fact Road & Track found the only rear-wheel drive car faster than the 720S on the quarter mile was the Ferrari LaFerrari hypercar (9.9 seconds vs 9.7 seconds, respectively). Those are insane numbers for the quarter mile.
What’s lurking under the hood
The 720S begins life as carbon-fiber chassis with rear extruded aluminum subframe (as McLaren puts it), but in that rear subframe is one special motor. It’s McLaren’s own design, a 4.0 liter twin turbo V8, capable of a thunderous 710 horsepower and 568 lb-ft of torque. Great numbers, but when you consider the car weighs only 2,829 pounds, the 720S drives like there’s an outboard jet engine behind you.
Sharp looks, roomy cabin
Open the the twin-hinged “dihedral” doors (don’t you dare call them scissor doors) that sweep forwards and up, and you’re presented with a cabin in a sports car that is — gasp — actually quite easy to get into. Yes, you’re stepping into a what seems like a low sled, but with the doors swept up and out, there’s no issue with getting your head inside (and not clanking it on a door frame).
It’s a great cabin, very airy, with a nice seating position. A panoramic-style glass roof gives the illusion of even more space.
Firing up the 720S is a dramatic experience. The engine turns over and roars to life behind your head, blasting out a sweet exhaust note.
But grab the right paddle, shift into first gear, pull away and you’d think you were in a grand tourer. With the transmission and chassis set to ‘comfort’ mode, you could drive the 720S around all day running errands like grabbing some groceries at the market, or picking up a friend at the train station (so long its just one friend).
But that’s not why someone buys a 720S. Set the transmission and chassis dials to sport and the predator awakens.
Everything is a bit tighter, and the engine becomes more twitchy. This is where you can get in trouble with this car. It is, without question, the fastest vehicle I’ve ever driven.
Yes, it is a turbo-charged engine, but the power comes on right away and all way to the redline and through the higher gears.
With cars like this — even with traction control activated — mashing the throttle too enthusiastically will create unsettling rear-wheel spin when you don’t exactly want it. Be careful. Full throttle is so insane I could barely do it on normal roads. I was slightly half throttle at some points during my weekend with the car, and the 720S was almost soaring over the road.
With all that said, the McLaren handles like it should, as a race car for the street. It’s slippery but has amazing downforce, something you only feel at higher speeds; everything feels under control despite the horizon whizzing by.
Overall the handling is precise, steering feels weighty, and visibility out the windshield and down the nose of the car is spot on. There’s immediate firing of an up or downshift with the paddle shifters, with extremely positive, mechanical feedback.
I did not try track mode on the street, as it was a little rainy during the weekend, and to be honest track mode would be massive overkill in the greater metropolitan NYC area. Although I did enjoy the 720S’s feature of having its instrument panel (IP) fold over when entering track mode, showing only vital info for the driver who’s about to embark on something akin to launching himself to the moon. Luckily, you can engage this flip of the IP panel without being in track mode with the push of a button.
My only complaint with the car’s driving dynamics was braking, which took some effort. You really had to stomp on pedal to get some bite. It’s possible the carbon ceramic brakes weren’t warmed up properly during the cool weekend I had the car, even after some spirited driving.
Putting the 720s in perspective (i.e, the competition)
Of course, the 720S doesn’t just exist in a vacuum. It exists because McLaren has competitors to battle in the marketplace.
So - can the 720S take it to its sports car rivals, and more specifically, the Ferrari 488? This isn’t an easy question to answer - it really depends on your preferences.
The McLaren is all business, and it gets to it with cutting-edge technological muscle, mustering all the best from the minds at McLaren HQ in Woking. The 488 on the other hand is a bit nuanced, it almost feels more ‘alive’ than mechanical with its Italian flair and subtleties like a more refined cabin, and perfect exhaust note. Yes the 720 is faster and awe-insipiring in the corners, but there’s something about the 488’s character that gives it the slight edge, in my mind, over the 720S.
Really, I’m splitting hairs here. And the fact McLaren has basically equalled its rival (who’s been in business for nearly 80 years) says a lot about where the British performance automaker has come, and where it’s headed next.
The McLaren 720S starts at around $285,000, but can easily head upwards towards $400,000 with options.