THE McLaren 720S has earned many accolades. Most notably, Road & Track named it Performance Car of the Year for 2017.
But the McLaren 720S is a difficult car to love.
It’s not that it doesn’t represent a phenomenal feat of engineering and design. It does.
But this car is so advanced, it’s clinical. The 720S may be worth the US$284,745 (RM1.17 million) required to own it when it comes out in May, but I predict you’ll have more fun — you know, emotionally — on a regular basis living with something else.
The Starship Enterprise
McLaren’s 720S is the first car I’ve driven in a long time that genuinely required an orientation before pulling out of the parking lot.
By orientation, I mean a technician sitting in the passenger seat and taking 15 minutes to explain how to change drive modes (Comfort, Sport or Track), adjust the height of the front nose (to negotiate potholes and sudden inclines), engage the rear air brake, use the push-button parking brake, and even turn on the radio. At least a few of those things shouldn’t have had to be explained.
This is not a knock on the car per se. Vehicles should be evaluated based on their intended, stated purpose.
McLaren positions its newcomer as having “extreme performance DNA”, and that it certainly does. If that is the only thing you are looking for, you will likely appreciate it.
This machine is not meant for silk-walking SoHo’s cobblestone labyrinth or navigating Chinatown’s back alleyways. (I mean, I did do that, among other, smoother, faster jaunts to upstate New York and Long Island. But I don’t count those hairy moments against it.)
The space in the cockpit is larger than that of its predecessor, big enough to feel comfortable. And the front trunk is large enough to accommodate a light weekend’s worth of luggage.
But since I look at cars from more of an experiential perspective, I feel obliged to warn you about its drawbacks. In the midst of all the car’s splendid advancements, something has been lost.
Maybe user logic was just overlooked in favour of other priorities, but few things in this car are easy or intuitive. Reach out to change the positioning of a side mirror, say, and you’ll spend a few moments looking for a knob in the wrong place. (It’s underneath the steering wheel.) You’ll wait three seconds before the parking brake disengages. You’ll push one small button to “activate” an override system before “activating” the spoiler and then turning other knobs to switch drive modes.
It’s one thing to sacrifice comfort and ergonomics in the service of the shape and function of a vehicle that’s more rocket than car. But the awkwardness inside the 720S goes even further than that of its high-priced rivals, the Lamborghini Aventador S and the Bugatti Chiron. (Those will set you back about US$420,000 and US$2.99 million, respectively — raising the fair question of whether having a conveniently-placed side mirror toggle is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to you.)
Combined with overactive proximity sensors that beep and ring even in normal traffic, a stop/start function that functioned roughly half the time, and an odd, Star Trek-y centre console that literally blocks direct access to the cup holder that sits behind it, many things in the cabin of the 720S feel just a step too difficult.
When the cutouts in the bottom portion of the (optional) sport seats routinely consume cameras and wallets and cell phones because you set those things there between your legs instead of any (absent) door wells, or side pockets, or even divots around the cabin big enough to hold the normal accoutrements of modern daily life, you’ve got a problem.
This struggle to achieve a smartly minimal yet dynamic cabin design, with intuitive working crash-avoidance, driving, and entertainment systems is not new to McLaren.
When the 650S CoupÈ made its debut in 2014, the only real demerits from most critics regarded the car’s electronics.
The 720S represents the first time McLaren has replaced an entire product family; it is the successor to the 650S and the second-generation in the Super Series line that denotes the highest-performance side of the McLaren brand.
The universe inside its two-passenger rounded pod of a cockpit is better than the company’s first effort. It just needs to be better than better.
Picture perfect perfection
Anyway, I started with dissecting the interior of the car because I want to end this column on a positive note. And there are many positive things to say about the 720S.
The 720S is lighter, faster, and more dynamically capable than its predecessor. Credit goes to a new carbon fibre monocoque “tub” and upper structure that give newfound strength and rigidity to the 1,282kg coupe.
From behind the wheel, it feels feather light. You experience the lightness, without question, the moment you get inside and push the gas pedal - but especially in the higher gears. When it comes to the drive, the word “flawless” comes to mind, as does “compliant”. The responsive, instantaneous steering and balanced grip of the 720S even around the most harrowing of corners are without peer.
New (of course) are the 4.0-litre, twin-turbocharged V8 mid-engine and seven-speed, dual-clutch, rear-wheel-drive transmission. They produce 710 horsepower and 568-pound-feet of torque. Top speed is 341kph; zero to 96kph is an insane 2.8 seconds.
It does feel insane. At one moment cruising up the Palisades Parkway last week I saw 185kph on the speedometer. I had no idea we were going that fast - the car was as chilled and compliant (there’s that word again) as a little robot kitten.
This, more than any car I’ve driven this year, represents a dangerous proposition when it comes to speeding tickets: to drive it is to get lost in the experience of moving beautifully and effortlessly through space. Unfortunately “lost in the experience of moving beautifully and effortlessly through space” doesn’t tend to convince state troopers that one shouldn’t be punished for speeding.
I should note that the superfluous wind noise above 160kph was disappointing. It grated on the nerves and impeded on conversation, radio levels, peace of mind. And latent brakes lacked the initial bite one loves to feel - expects to feel - from a car of this magnitude. They left me needing more immediate feedback than what they gave.
If you are a fan of McLaren, the first thing you’ll notice about the 720S is that it looks different from anything else on the market - but maybe you won’t be able to put your finger on why exactly it screams, “Look at me”.
It’ll take a moment or two to determine that the odd feeling comes from the lack of radiator intakes on either side of the car. It’s like seeing a belly without a button.
Instead, the “double-skin” design of the dihedral doors channels air to radiators that help cool the engine. With the doors raised, the 720S is among the top two or three most visually arresting cars on the road today. (See also: Lamborghini Aventador S, or anything from Pagani and Koenigsegg.)
The 720S has the widest breadth of any McLaren ever built. This makes it at least incrementally more suitable for traipsing around town. You’ll definitely want to do that, too, mostly to show off. This is nothing if not a jaw-hanging-to-your-chest type of car - both from behind the wheel and from the sidewalk.
Just be sure you get the full orientation before you push “start”.