It’s not often that someone tosses you the key to what’s very possibly the world’s best supercar, tells you to knock yourself out for the next five days and then sends you off with a wave. Okay, so that’s not exactly how it happens when I pick up my 720S Spider at the McLaren factory in southern England, but it’s near enough as dammit.
In fact, as the key to my 720S loaner has already been tucked away in its seat-front pocket, McLaren’s genial PR Paul Chadderton confines himself to demonstrating how I can dim and lighten the electrochromic glass in the retractable roof and operate the vehicle lift (a must-tick option in a country where speed bumps are almost as common as street lights), before injecting a necessary shot of reality into the proceedings by suggesting — in the nicest possible way, of course — that I might try not to damage the car’s stunning 10-spoke lightweight alloys. That done, Chadderton really does send me off with the instruction to “put some miles on the car — that’s what it’s for — and we’ll see you Monday. Enjoy!”
Enjoy, the man says. So I ease myself into the low-slung, snug-fitting sports seat — left leg into the footwell first, then backside gently over the carbon-fibre sill and on to the cushion, and finally in with the right leg — then reach up to swing the butterfly door down to the closed position and, foot firmly lodged on brake pedal, press the starter button that’s prominently located on the slim centre console. Just centimetres behind me, four litres, eight pistons, four camshafts, 32 valves, a flat-plane crankshaft and a pair of rapidly spooling Mitsubishi turbochargers burst into noisy activity. Oh. My. God.
If merely getting into and starting up a McLaren 720S is an event in itself, then driving one is rarely less than epic. It’s not merely a case of having the wallop of 710bhp and 770Nm available beneath your right foot, though that certainly helps. There’s also the carbon-fibre monocell, which marries lightness with incredible strength and rigidity (and thus, not so incidentally, rendered the task of slicing off the roof for the drop-top Spider version a relative cinch), as well as the adaptive hydraulic Proactive Chassis Control, a complex cross-linked system that’s been progressively honed since the 2011 launch of the McLaren 12C to provide that elusive combination of class-leading handling and superb ride quality. All of which, in layman’s terms, means the 720S Spider is about as advanced as road-car technology circa 2019 can get.
And then there’s its styling, for which the word “sensational” seems barely an adequate description. McLaren’s former design chief Frank Stephenson, who was key to the 720’s conception, drew inspiration from the natural world (he’s said to have shipped an enormous stuffed sailfish to the factory after a Caribbean vacation), and there’s something almost animate about the Spider’s sweepingly curvaceous body and the profusion of gaping nostrils and slender slats that force the air flow into, out of and over it, not only to cool engine, transmission and brakes but also to minimise wind resistance, as well as plant the machine more firmly on the tarmac.
The headlamp clusters resemble blankly staring eye sockets, which is hardly surprising as they also incorporate large air intakes, as do the 720’s ingeniously designed double-skin doors, which when opened rise up like the wings of a bird taking flight. So yes, it looks other-worldly — I’m sure I’m getting more attention driving this Aztec Gold Spider than if I were skimming above the motorway aboard a UFO — but everything’s there for a reason: that active tail wing, for example, not only extends automatically at speed for greater rear-end stability but also assists during heavy braking by flipping up almost vertically, much like the spoilers on an airliner as it touches down.
If all of that, plus the facts that the 720S will reach 100km/h from a standstill in a hypercar-quick 2.9 seconds, double that speed in slightly less than eight and max out at around 340 (that’s with the roof up; with the top down you’ll be travelling some 16 klicks slower), sounds intimidating then worry not. This may be one of the most fearsomely fast and focused automobiles you can buy today — a car that, technologically speaking, is far more racetrack than road — yet it’s also incredibly civilised and unbelievably easy to drive. Touch the D and Active buttons, and set the chassis and powertrain modes to Comfort, and the Spider wafts on its hydraulic underpinnings as smoothly as an S-class, happy to dawdle at 40 in fifth or sixth, or even just 30. Whether the roof is up or down (it raises and retracts electrically in just 11 seconds, slotting in neatly behind the seats and above the engine) and partly thanks to the glass flying buttresses behind the Spider’s cabin, all-round visibility is superb, too — or at least compared with every other supercar I’ve driven.
As with all its cars, McLaren has kept the interior simple. It’s snug, comfortable and, of course, classy, with plenty of carbon to savour on wheel, paddles and around the instruments — as with the Coupe, the display rotates to show either a full digital suite or a minimalist linear version that’s automatically employed when Track mode is engaged. Unadorned with switchgear, the small wheel is absolutely perfect, as are the long gearshift paddles that turn with it; in fact, my only complaint concerns the fiddly electric adjusters for the otherwise excellent seats, hit-or-miss affairs that are tucked down at one corner and, as you can’t see them, utterly impossible to fathom. Although the portrait-format infotainment screen looks familiar it seems to work far better than I remember, probably due to updated software — and, ah yes, there’s a bespoke B&W 12-speaker sound system that I assume can rupture my eardrums, but I have to confess that I hardly ever turn it on.
And that omission, of course, is down wholly to the fact that the 720S Spider is so intoxicating that I really don’t have the inclination to do anything other than drop the roof and drive. It’s an astonishing motor car, so crazily fast, so agile and so alert in its responses that the human brain of advanced age (i.e., mine) can barely keep up with it. There is, to be absolutely honest, a spot low down in the 4-litre V8’s rev band when in a higher gear you might find yourself momentarily waiting for the compressors to kick in, but at anything north of 2,500 (and it’ll rev beyond 8,000) you’re riding a category-10 typhoon of twist and horsepower, thrust back in the seat by the relentless momentum while laughing at the insanity of it all.
In my five days with the 720S Spider, I find myself avoiding motorways, just so I can power up towards roundabouts and then brake ridiculously late, the fat Pirellis compressing against the road surface as the brake pads bite on the huge carbon-ceramic rotors and the rear spoiler flips up vertically, slicing off speed as if I’m being pulled back by a huge invisible hand. And then back on the accelerator through the junction and, punching forward as I snap up through the gears of the seven-speed dual-clutch box, I realise I’ve left four or five cars in my wake that might as well have been standing still. It’s only on the backroads of South Wales that I proceed with some caution, mainly because the army trucks and tractors coming at me around blind corners are even wider than I am.
There’s so much to savour here, from the beautifully calibrated electro-hydraulic steering that’s race-car quick, precise and superbly feelsome, as well as the fabulous suppleness of the McLaren’s underpinnings, to the reassurance that (unless your name is Senna, Hamilton or suchlike) its abilities are so much greater than yours are ever likely to be. It covers so many bases, too, effortlessly slipping from leisurely boulevardier to rip-snorting racer and, thanks to the torsional stiffness of its carbon construction, emphatically giving the lie to the notion that droptops are “soft”. Short of loading it up with people and stuff — there are only two seats and storage space is by definition limited, though there’s room for my medium-size suitcase in the front – there’s really nothing that this incredibly talented machine can’t do.
As instructed, I do put miles on the McLaren 720S Spider — around 800 (which, in real money, works out at about 1,300km), to be more or less exact — and there isn’t a moment when I’m not enthralled. Because if there really is a supercar out there that can match its extraordinary capabilities, I’d be very much surprised.
McLaren 720S Spider
Engine: 4-litre twin-turbo V8 transmission: seven-speed dual-clutch max power: 710bhp
Max torque: 770Nm @ 6,500
Max speed: 341km/h
Acceleration: 0-100km/h in 2.9 seconds
Kerb weight: 1,468kg