All you need to know about the McLaren 720S
“it looks like it’s moving even when it’s standing still”. And yet, as a shorthand, maybe they’ll do. The front end has a shark-like profle, and the air intakes around the headlamps give them an eye-like nature. The side profle is stretched, for two reasons. First the gloss-black glass bubble efectively lowers the painted bodyside, and also because the doors and wings hide their airchannelling. Instead, you have a smooth dune-like surface that dances with the light. The outer panels are aluminium, because it can be painted to a better fnish than carbon fbre.
Round the back, it’s long and low. In fact the engine’s top is signifcantly lowered versus the 650S’s. The engine is lit by red LEDs when you frst unlock it. The tail-lights, more LEDs, defne the swelling form of the rear wings. It’s lovely. One quibble: the number of cut-lines in the cockpit, because of all those pieces of glass and the doors carving into the roof, make matters a little messy in the rear-three-quarter view. But the tint of the glass helps disguise it, and anyway most onlookers will be gazing at exhausts and transmission casing, visible through big grilles as if in museum display cases.
Above those mechanical parts, a compound-curved spoiler is raised, angled and lowered again at the behest of a complex series of algorithms whose inputs include the aero mode you’ve selected and the speed you’re going. Plus whether that speed is rising or falling, and how much you’re steering – respectively DRS, air-braking, or downforce.
At the moment, I’m on the road and the corners are too tight for downforce to play. Here I’m all about the fun, not about the absolute grip. Every other carmaker claims that electric steering is needed to save the odd gramme of CO2. I’m not convinced: its endless march is being perpetuated by the fact it enables lane-keeping and self-parking and other stuf
that has little place on a sports car. But whatever, McLaren has dug its heels in and stuck with the hydraulic sort. It’s even improved the system, via front-end geometry changes.
The result is magical. This is no mere commandand-control apparatus from you to the tyre treads. It talks back, engaging you with endless billets doux on the state of afairs down there. Yet it has discretion too: despite all the feedback on grip, it never blurts too much about potholes or cambers. It flters these out amazingly efectively. The weight and gearing are spot-on too. It appropriately draws itself back to the centre whether out of a second-gear hairpin or a long motorway curve. And it avoids the fashion for gearing that’s so high it’s nervy. No, this system remains calm and collected, even as you ask it to do hectic works.
The coolness of the chassis’ reactions stems in part from McLaren’s cross-linked adaptive (they call it proactive) suspension. It was present on the 650S and 12C, but for the new car it gets more sensors and operates with even more bofny complexity and lightning speed. Fluid pipes link across the car, giving roll control. And conventional electronic damping control adds to the mix. Despite years of attempting to get my head around this system, the only thing I confdently understand is that I don’t understand it. That doesn’t mean I don’t know it’s working. If you think Britain’s roads are unkempt, you’ve never been to Italy. Some of the roads north of Rome where I drove the 720S were diabolical. It’s a lot cheaper to put up a load of “bumps” warning signs than it is to fx the bumps. So I’m using comfort mode a lot (the 720S ofers Comfort, Sport and Track, each putting a successively high priority on control and grip over a smooth ride). A lot of sports cars aren’t happy in their Comfort modes, because the dampers are then too foppy for the springs and anti-roll bars. Which makes them wobble from side to side and foat a bit. Not the 720S. Because it can modify damping and roll stifness, it keeps a level head as it passes over lumps and ridges and dips and craters. Oh, and by the way, there’s little wheel hop, because McLaren’s used new wishbones and uprights that total 16kg lighter than the old ones: the car soon tells you its unsprung mass has fallen.
Yet the moment the need presents itself, it can stifen itself in roll as well as damping, so the Comfort mode is actually all you need for most road driving. In too many cars you’re ceaselessly fdgeting the knob between diferent chassis modes without ever being satisfed. In the McLaren, Comfort or Sport modes are both perfectly OK, both beautifully harmonious in themselves.
Most bewitching of all, though, and equally most surprising, is the stream of chat you get from the chassis long before you’re at the limit. So many cars with huge grip are pretty much mute until you’re about to exhaust it. That’s boring, because on the road you seldom will. If you want to have a good time all the time, the 720S is your supercar. You’re always in the loop about the state of the front-end grip and the rear-end traction, and the remaining reserves of both. And if the chance does present itself, you can be confdent of probing them.
And then to the track. Time to switch to Track mode. This one really locks the car to the tarmac. The chassis-control system’s job description now becomes keeping the tyres upright and consistently pressing down. The active aero does its bit, securing you to the ground with vehement intensity through fast curves.
The renewed rear suspension geometry is supposed to make things more stable under brakes, though I never noticed that was a problem before. Anyway, as the air brake rises, it pushes down on the rear tyres so they can carry more braking load, again keeping things straight. That’s why you stand up and lean backward on your pushbike when you’re braking hard over bumps. The brakes themselves have epic power, which is a mighty fne achievement considering how velvety-progressive they are at road speed. Whether in the positive or negative longitudinal direction, this car has properly sewn up the business of the second derivative of distance over time.
As you’d expect, if you come into a corner too suddenly it’ll understeer a little. Only a little, because the brake-steer gadget is retarding the inner rear wheel and pivoting the car to your advantage. Lift of and the tail begins to move out. But as always with this car, it sends out the town crier good and early to tell you what’s happening. On a long corner you get time to feel this balance, because you mustn’t get on the power too early. There’s just too much of it. They’re grippy, those back tyres, but give them a chance. It’s like trying to fll a paper cup with a fre hose. You’ve got to get a good grip on the cup before you turn on the water or it’ll be jetted out of sight. So, get a good view of the exit before summoning the turbochargers.
With that comes a departure down the straight with almost ridiculous haste. Or, to taste, a bit of a slide. The slidey business isn’t controlled just by how you’re driving. It’s also afected by the positions of a few controls. Touch the ESP button and it’ll let the car move around more. Or get into the touchscreen and summon variable drift control. This is basically a set of calibrations for the traction-control part of ESP. Move the slider down and it’ll cut the power early and you can’t spin. Move the slider up and you go towards a state where intervention is more lax, and at the extreme setting, absent. In the upper portions of the scale, if you don’t actually add some opposite lock or reduce the throttle yourself, you can spin. It’s not a hero button then. Get it wrong and you could still land up, depending on your luck, embarrassed, poor, or hurt. McLaren people now wonder if the drift control part of the name was wise after all. It’s a track trainer. Well, fair enough to have this sort of thing on this car. It’s not a car for car-park burnouts. It’s at home on a track, and not just awesomely competent like a racer, but ready to give immense fun as it goes. Even when, as in my case, it’s manifestly better than its driver.
After a day encompassing all these conditions, we need to sum up the 720S. But that’s a troubling job. Because it’s almost all peak and no trough, it doesn’t lend itself to caricature. If not, does it have a character? The frst new-generation McLaren, the 12C, was also a dramatically competent car for its time, yet it was called soulless. Now we have the second full generation and again it’s a car with immense speed but a surprisingly subtle nature. But this time, don’t pigeonhole it the same way.
Some people, when you frst meet them, dazzle you with their creativity and enthral you with their humour. And their dominant nature slowly starts to drive you mad. Others reveal themselves to you more slowly yet end up, because of the mutual understanding, as the ones you really want to spend your life with. That’s how the 720S is. It’s not about telling you how great it is. It’s brilliant, but it brings you along.
“As always with this car, it sends out the town crier good and early to tell you what’s happening”