Wild looks, warp speed acceleration, delicious handling balance and surprising civility mark out the remarkable 720S

The McLaren 720S is current Super Series flagship of the British brand’s line-up, effectively replacing the old 650S. Featuring an all-new body design made from superformed aluminium with gullwing doors and lots of concealed vents and ducts for a smooth appearance – apart from the signature ‘eye socket’ headlamp-cum-air intakes. 

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The bi-turbo V8 engine is bigger than before at 4.0-litres, developing a monster 530kW (720ps), and the suspension is a revised version of the original ‘Proactive Chassis Control’ (PCC), with more sensors, that manages roll and pitch even more effectively. In short, it’s not just a new look, it’s a faster, more capable car. And it features a drift-mode, too. Which is nice.

 

Drive the 720S and it feels more than just a step on from the 650 S: it feels like a gamechanger. The performance is what you’ll notice first, the twin turbo V8 firing you down straights with the sort of violence that was previously the preserve of a select band of hypercars. Sure the engine lacks the spine-tingling soundtrack of a Ferrari or Lamborghini, but when the acceleration is this explosive you’re willing to cut it a little slack.

Perhaps even more impressive than the pace is the McLaren’s remarkable chassis. There are numerous driver modes to choose from, but the bottom line is that the 720S can play scalpel sharp track tool one moment and comfortable commuter the next – it’s bandwidth of abilities is jaw-droppingly wide. It’s blessed with a cabin that manages to be spacious and easy to see out of, yet also incredibly cosseting and special in feel.

Such talents can’t go unnoticed, so you’ll not be surprised to find our favourite supercar is also our 2017 Car of the Year.

New McLaren 720S – McLaren test driver drifts the 650S replacement on video

Performance and 0-100 time

The numbers the 720S are properly mind scrambling, with McLaren claiming 0-60mph in 2.8sec, 0-200km/h in 7.8sec and a top speed of 340km/h. And these aren’t fanciful figures, as when we strapped our timing gear to the 720S it rattled off the benchmark 0-100km/h in 2.9 seconds, while 290km/h was in the rear view mirror in 19.4 seconds. Quarter mile? How about 10.4 seconds at 200km/h.

Yet the raw data only tells half the story, because it’s the way the 720 delivers its performance that literally has you gasping for breath. Like other McLarens there’s the merest hint of a pause, as if the turbos are taking a deep breath, before the 4.0-litre unit unleashes the full force of its Volcanic muscle. To squeeze the throttle to the floor is to enter a warp drive moment, where time and space are temporarily left scratching their heads at the physics-mocking ferocity of it all. In truth it’s too fast for the road, and you’ll need to pick your moments with care, but when the tarmac opens up and you do indulge, the moment will live with you long after you’ve stamped on strong carbon ceramic brakes and re-entered the real world.

Sure, the 720’s slightly industrial sounding V8 doesn’t perform with the same musicality as a Ferrari’s, but we kind of like the guttural growl that’s overlayed with whoosh and sigh of turbocharger and wastegate.

Engine and gearbox

The new ‘M840T’ 4-litre version of the flat-plane crank V8 is the first up-sizing of the engine that has already seen service in the brand’s earlier models. Yet it’s more than a capacity increase, as around 41 per cent of the unit comprises new parts. For starters, there are lighter pistons and connecting rods and a stiffer crankshaft, while the turbochargers (twin scroll, capable of 160,000rpm) and intercoolers are all new. Also included is McLaren’s Port Fuel Injection, which doubles the injector count from eight to 16, effectively giving each cylinder it’s own injection. As a result, compared with the 3.8 in the 650S, power goes up almost 70bhp and torque by 68lb ft, with headline figures of 530kW and 770Nm, which is more than adequate.

This engine is mated to an uprated version of the brand’s SSG (Seamless-Shift Gearbox) seven-speed dual clutch transmission. Changes can be delivered automatically, or manually via the steering wheel paddles, which unlike rival set-ups have a Formula 1 style ‘rocker’ installation that allows you to change up and down gears on both paddles.

Ride and handling

McLaren has worked hard on the 720’s suspension set-up, which is an evolution of the firm’s Proactive Chassis Control. The new control system for the cross-linked hydraulic set-up (which does without anti-roll bars) adds another ECU and a dozen more sensors to know more accurately what the car is doing and what road inputs there are. Using that information, it goes to look-up tables to determine how the car should respond. It’s the fruit of a PhD project that has been in development for five years. It’s said that the superior wheel control it brings improves braking to P1 levels and cornering to trackday-tyre levels, all on the latest spec ‘everyday’ P-Zero with its all-weather performance and ride-enhancing suppleness.  

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What’s immediately clear is that there are certainly none of the chassis foibles that characterised the first MP4-12C and, to a lesser degree, the 650S – the sensation that there was occasionally diagonal pitching and that the car wasn’t quite as firmly tied down as it could be.

The feeling that ride comfort was gained at the expense of handling was less the case with the 650S and the 720S moves things to another level with exceptional ride comfort for a supercar and the roll- and pitch-free control you’d expect in the corners. It’s sensationally quick and control is clean and precise.

The steering is sharp and packed with all the feedback you need, while grip levels are sensational. You can lean on the car’s front end with impunity, while in the dry the supple suspension helps deliver remarkable traction. As a result, it’s possible to drive the 720S with the sort of abandon for, say, a Lotus Elise. A big Elise granted, but an Elise nonetheless. Of course, turn off the stability control and you’ll need your wits about you, because the ferocious power delivery and low moment of polar inertia mean the McLaren quickly gets wild, but build up to its limits and the 720S is remarkably approachable.

Turn the wick down a notch and the McLaren is a composed cruiser. The ride does a remarkable job of smoothing out bumps, there’s very little road noise and the engine settles to a background growl. The aircraft canopy style wraparound glasshouse also makes it easy to see out of the 720S, making it a doddle to place on the road and relatively straightforward to park.

Interior and tech

McLaren has come on leaps and bounds when it comes to interiors, with the 720S treading a neat line between the usability of the smaller 570 models and the cocooned, sports prototype vibe of the wild P1. There’s plenty of leather, carbon fibre and Alcantara, while the fit and finish is as good as you’d expect from what is essentially a hand-finished machine. 

McLaren’s IRIS infotainment system has been updated and is quicker and more responsive than before, but it’s operating system is still frustratingly oblique at times – although it’s competition is limited to Ferrari’s equally confusing system and Lamborghini’s three generation old Audi hardware. Highlight of the interior, from a theatrical point of view at least, is the instrument binnacle, which rotates through ninety degrees at the touch of a button, changing from a comprehensive TFT dial pack to a thin display with strip rev counter and shift lights, gear indicator and speedo – perfectly pared back to the trackday information essentials.

The wraparound glasshouse creates excellent visibility and bright, airy feel, while there’s plenty of leg and headroom for the driver and passenger. The straight-legged and slightly recumbent driving position is also spot on, being both comfortable and evoking the spirit of the firm’s racers. 

There’s also stacks of standard kit, with the only real options being the sort of bespoke colours and material that are provided by the brand’s MSO division. Oddment stowage is a bit thin on the ground, but this is a supercar and not a family-sized SUV, so we’ll forgive it a lack of practicality.

Design

The bold styling of the 720S is indicative of a company growing in confidence – the slightly anonymous lines of the original 12C have been banished, to be replaced by something rather more memorable. For instance, the aluminium body panels are so closely wrapped over the carbon fibre structure it looks like the car’s been shrink wrapped. It’s also clear that aerodynamics have dictated much of the McLaren’s exterior, it’s mix of flowing lines, complex surfaces and numerous vents hinting at the car’s lengthy wind tunnel gestation. It’s paid off too, because there’s 30 percent more downforce than the 650S, while motorsport-inspired additions include a drag reduction system. And as with the original F1 there’s an airbrake that can be deployed in around 0.5 seconds and shifts the braking balance by 20 percent for increased stability. 

Less functional highlights include the dihedral doors (no supercar worthy of the name can get away without some sort of novel door opening) and the sunken ‘eye socket headlamp design. It’s a stunning and beautifully detailed effort that announces McLaren’s final arrival among the pantheon of supercar brands.