One of the greats? The McLaren 720S gets put to the test

Matthew Hansen
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Photos / Matthew Hansen

I didn’t like the looks when I first saw it.

The glasshouse was too far forward, the flanks too sparse, and gone were all the Kiwi insignias hidden in plain sight. The headlights, once shaped like our famed flightless bird, had faded back into two pools of black on each side of the nose ... as if McLaren had stripped the car of its identity.

Since the first spy shots hit the internet we’ve waded through McLaren’s subsequent canapé-laden launches both local and international. Each of them revealed a wave of new images and new media about the newest British supercar, and each drew me in further until the jarring call came from across the office … I’d be testing it. By the time I’d finally arrived at McLaren Auckland to pick up the thing, my mind had done a complete somersault.

It isn’t exactly revolutionary to suggest that certain cars look better in person than they do in photographs, but the 720S is a textbook case.  A machine that looks quite reserved and conservative pictures looks much more focused and sculpted in person.

Those carbon-fibre clad pods that house the headlights are full of detail. Two subtle lines on the nose, one that follows the edges of the cavernous frunk and one that fades in a few centimetres above, build to encase the cabin and glasshouse — flowing around the car like a teardrop while also driving air into the radiators and the mid-mounted explosive device wedged between the rear wheels.

There’s something naughty, almost pornographic about the back of it. The stacks of vents that help it spew out heat also give passers by a view of almost everything. The diff sits proud, almost close enough to touch, while the V8 peeks over the top. It’s all a bit like the P1, which is a very good thing indeed.

The 720S represents the first of McLaren’s steps towards its next-generation cars across the Sports, Super, and Ultimate Series families, replacing the much loved 675LT and by proxy its 650S and 12C forefathers. Pricing starts at $436,000, with the most popular luxury and performance-spec variants starting at $466,000.

The figures place it squarely next to the Ferrari 488 GTB ($449,888), Lamborghini Huracan LP 610-4 Coupe ($440,000), and the Porsche 911 Turbo S ($418,000) , yet the looks and performance digits would suggest it would feel more at home competing alongside each of the aforementioned car’s more expensive bigger brothers.

Naturally it packs more of just about everything underneath that svelte body. The all-new 4.0-litre twin-turbo M840T engine sends 537kW and 770Nm of torque to the rear wheels. Linked with a revised 7-speed SSG gearbox, it’s capable of hurling the 720S’s 1,283kg of mass from woe to 100km/h in 2.9 seconds. Five flat-footed seconds later it’ll hit 200km/h, and if you’ve got enough real estate to play with the McLaren will eventually top out at 341km/h.

This makes it quicker in each measure than the $693,100 Ferrari F12 Berlinetta and quicker off the line than the $675,000 Lamborghini Aventador LP700-4. In fact, it’s just a few milliseconds and kilometres off equaling the specs of the Porsche 918 hybrid. On paper, it's a giant killer.

But raw numbers and data aren't why people love modern McLarens. They tend to love them because they're among the easiest supercars in the world to live with … and the 720S picks up where the others left off.

McLaren's suspension wizardry continues to be one of the motoring world's great magic tricks. To say that the 720S’s ride is soft and supple is understatement of the year territory — it’s good enough to shame a disturbingly large number from the current luxury sedan crop. 

This comes down to McLaren's improved Proactive Chassis Control system, which has 12 more sensors than it did before as well as an accelerometer on each wheel hub. Combining all the data each element gathers, the system chops and changes your suspension damping on the fly according to your mode selection (Comfort, Sport, or Track). And on the road it works, perfectly. The hydraulically assisted steering is a breeze at low speeds, too. It’s light, and controllable with your fingertips.

The fly in the ointment remains the carbon-ceramic disc brakes. With a diameter of 390mm in the front and 380mm in the rear, they’re more than adequate when stopping the car in a hurry. But in generic commuting they offer little in the way of feedback, responding best when you treat them like an on-off switch.

Of course, these are all traits that we’ve come to be used to with new McLarens, as is the beautiful level of fit and finish inside. Dials and switch gear are mostly metal, and look as premium as anything else when fastened to this backdrop of tan leather and carbon fibre. The articulating dashboard display in front of the driver is a novel idea, but a bit gimmicky in the flesh. 

The real surprise is the huge amount of visibility and space. For decades, we’ve been taught that all supercars had to be impossible to see out of as some kind of exotica prerequisite. But the 720S, with its incredible amount of windows (including two portals above the driver and passenger), is one of the easiest cars to see out of on the market. We can thank McLaren’s Monocage II central structure for this; its incredible stiffness results in wafer-thin pillars, as well as the scant weight.

The car is so usable and so easy going that it lulls you into a false sense of security when the time comes comes to finally plant your right foot. The surface expectation is that it’ll be like the 570S but quicker — a kind of performance that’s easy enough to simply reach out and touch when you’re in the mood for it.

But, I couldn’t be more wrong.

Despite the comfort, the poise, the ease with which it greets on first impression, the 720S is a crazed madman when you put the foot down. The twin-turbo V8 doesn’t necessarily howl like one would expect, but the torque that it generates hits you like a freight train.

Just a few inches of pedal travel are required to throw you deep into the base of the bucket seat. On stiff acceleration the rear Pirelli P-Zeros struggle to keep up, needing no invite to start generating wheel spin as peak torque hits at 5,500rpm. The band aid solution is to make rapid use of that lightning quick SSG box and short shift. The real solution is, quite simply, to be a better driver.

The steering is satisfyingly positive off centre, and doesn't feel too far removed from its more mechanical cousin in the 570S. As speeds climb and corners tighten, it perhaps doesn't offer the same amount of feedback as its Sports Series siblings. But for a largely electric system, it's very impressive.

McLaren's various iterations of Monocage have always provided a solid baseline, and the 720S is up with the best of the breed. At speed it feels planted and sure-footed. Its all-wheel drive rivals do too, but being rear-wheel drive makes this a much more engaging experience; as well as subject to the occasional break of traction.

It might be a breeze to drive most of the time, but the 720S is still loyal to the supercar genre’s roots. It is frightening, like all true beasts. But that’s why it's authentic — the kind of car that inspires its owners to want to master it.

A true supercar that doesn’t need to cling onto history to prove its worth.

McLaren 720S

$436,000 + ORC

Pros: Lovely to drive in every application, looks and goes like a hypercar
Cons: Brakes still numb, doesn’t sound special, isn’t in my driveway


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