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This is the first of McLaren’s new generation of cars — and what a way to begin it is

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Sequels don’t come much bigger than this.

Whispers within the walls of McLaren Automotive’s Woking headquarters suggest the new 720S – a replacement for the 650S – is considered by many to be the most important car in its maker’s modern history.

It’s not just air ducts concealed in the car’s flanks; the door handles are tucked away there as well. They’re proper handles now, completing the move from sliders to orthodoxy

In succeeding the 650S, it becomes the first car to replace a model in McLaren’s line-up and it’s the first of 15 new-generation models promised by CEO Mike Flewitt by 2022.

Therefore, with bold sales targets and a new £50 million UK chassis factory recently unveiled to help realise McLaren’s ambitions, there is a huge weight of expectation on the 720S.

The mid-engined, rear-wheel-drive supercar – codenamed P14 – was actually conceived alongside the development of the 650S and promises to encapsulate the very best elements from McLaren’s illustrious line-up: the usability of the 570GT, the thrills of the 675LT and, perhaps, the pace of the P1 hypercar.

The 650S – itself a glorious mutation of (but not a replacement for) the admirable but imperfect MP4-12C – has been comprehensively reworked, including a complete rethink of the structure of the car, to create the 720S.

The new carbonfibre chassis, dubbed Monocage II, now incorporates an upper structure and chassis surround, making the car stronger and lighter than the 650S, and aerodynamic efficiency is double that of its predecessor.

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Read more: McLaren 750S revealed

The revised suspension – Proactive Chassis Control II – gets improved sensors and a more conventional set-up with a hydraulically connected damper system that means there’s no need for anti-roll bars. It should also offer some sideways thrills, thanks to the debut of McLaren’s Variable Drift Control.

As for the engine, the 3.8-litre lump from the 650S is now a 4.0-litre twin-turbocharged V8, made from a host of new components and producing 710bhp (720PS, geddit?) and 568lb ft of torque.

In this modern era of breathtaking supercars, the 720S is priced against the ferociously entertaining and currently class-leading Ferrari 488 GTB.

However, its performance figures suggest that it should compete in another price bracket entirely. No directly comparable track time figures have been officially released, but there’s every chance that all of these upgrades could make the 650S’s successor as quick as a McLaren P1.

Can this £200,000 supercar really eclipse the astonishing performance figures that we registered for a £900,000 hypercar?

This is our chance to find out.

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McLaren 720S doors open

It is well that the 720S’s appearance has changed markedly from the previous generation of Super Series cars – the middle grade of McLaren’s three-tier line-up – because the established ingredients of McLaren’s principal model (the mid-mounted turbocharged V8, the carbonfibre tub, the elaborate active suspension, the dihedral doors) have all been extensively redeveloped but not fundamentally altered.

Its latest styling, though – part aerodynamic due diligence and part schoolboy fantasy – is unmistakably and triumphantly different.

If you activate the ignition and put the car in Track mode on both modal controllers before you turn the engine over, the 720S’s exhaust sounds off like a railway gun at a military tattoo

Of course, this being McLaren, many of the changes are either the result of engineering modifications beneath or else intended to service them.

Hence the apparent disappearance of the side air intakes, made redundant by the new ducts in the doors that now channel a cooling breeze into the 720S’s radiators.

Then there’s that teardrop of a glasshouse, its spider-web-thin pillars indebted to the next generation of the Monocell carbonfibre tub.

Extending the tub to include roof elements is arguably at the heart of the 720S’s overhaul. Now aptly dubbed Monocage II, the new structure not only delivers a predictably strong passenger cell
but also lessens the amount of steel used in the car’s construction – reducing weight by 18kg and lowering the centre of gravity by 3 percent.

In the chassis, alongside the introduction of more castor angle at the front and toe at the rear to enhance high-speed stability, efforts to re-engineer both the suspension uprights and the double wishbones have meant shedding 16kg in unsprung mass.

The changes help to make the 720S the lightest Super Series car yet, with a dry weight of 1283kg. Brimmed with fluids, it was measured by us at 1420kg. That’s 135kg lighter than the 488 GTB we tested last year.

The McLaren is significantly more powerful than its Ferrari rival, too. Compared with the previous 3.8-litre V8, Woking claims 40 percent of the latest engine is new, including lighter pistons and connecting rods, the turbochargers and intercoolers, and a stiffer crankshaft.

The slight increase in capacity to 4.0 litres is the result of a 3.6mm increase in piston stroke. The result is 710bhp at 8200rpm and 500bhp per tonne. Peak torque is only marginally superior to the Ferrari’s, at 568lb ft, although 400lb ft per tonne is also a noticeable improvement on Maranello’s figures.

As before, the power arrives at the rear wheels via a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox. Also carried over, albeit in a revised format, is the chassis control system, which removes the need for anti-roll bars by hydraulically interlinking the dampers.

The bulk of the revisions are located in the control strategy, where the algorithms assessing the input of 12 additional sensors are the product of research carried out at Cambridge University and render both analysis and reaction to wheel motion within two milliseconds.

Engineering into infinitesimal margins is McLaren’s race-bred speciality, but the manufacturer has its microscope fixed on the fun, too: Variable Drift Control, a component of the stability system
not entirely dissimilar to Ferrari’s Side Slip Control 2, now features for the first time.  


McLaren 720S boot space

There’s plenty else to talk about in this road test, so we won’t dwell on the interior for too long.

Suffice to say that it’s a marked improvement over that of the 650S, from the moment you get in it until the moment you start to use it.

Luggage compartment requires no additional safety release catch to open it. Just push the button and open it pops

First and foremost, then, it’s easier to get in and out of than any other McLaren, 570S included.

Partly it’s the lower sill of the Monocage II and partly it’s doors that open wide, but mostly it’s that they cut into the roof, letting you step over rather than limbo across the sill.

Once you’re inside, things are good. The driving position is dead straight, brake pedal central, as we’ve come to expect, and the optional, fixed-back sports seats of our test car are comfortable even over distance, as long as you push your lower back firmly into the backrest.

If that leaves you too upright, consider a standard seat. If you do, there’s no worry that the steering wheel – nearly round and perfectly sized – won’t reach you, because of its extraordinary reach and rake adjustment.

The 720S gets new, all-digital dials on a fold-out display that’s a bit gimmicky and is arguably the 720S’s weakest point.

It combines with an infotainment system that’s light years ahead of McLaren’s old IRIS system but is less intuitive than it could be – although it’s much better than a Ferrari or Lamborghini set-up – and the ‘active’ panel on the dashboard remains far too complicated for its own good.

Then there’s tyre pressure warning beeps that don’t have a Track mode where you can just disable them (if the pressure is too low following a rest between stints), ESC that’s reluctant to turn off and even a nose lift that needs careful pre-planning. These kinds of ergonomics are the biggest bugbear of the 720S.

McLaren has ditched its old in-house IRIS system in favour of an ostensibly similar one that has been developed in conjunction with an experienced supplier. And it’s better, no question.

There’s still a large central dial that pulls you back to the home screen, and minor menu buttons, but you can scroll through the 720S’s different functions by swiping up and down as if scrolling through a Rolodex.

It’s still less intuitive than the system on, say, an Audi or a BMW, but it’s effective and still good against class rivals.

The car hooks up to Apple CarPlay and the like easily, and the driver-centred display is of satisfactory resolution. But sometimes the McLaren still tries to nanny you too much. There are times when you won’t be able to switch the ESC out because it’s not in the mood.

Still, there’s a clever track telemetry system that can show lap performance on the central display, or download it if you want to analyse it better later.


McLaren 720S drifting

There’s much debate at the moment about what constitutes a supercar, what is a hypercar and what exactly a supersports car is.

The differences in terms of bald speed are pretty clear: hypercars (Bugatti Veyron Super Sport, McLaren P1, Porsche 918 Spyder) need about 10 seconds for a standing quarter mile; ‘modern’ mid-engined supercars (488 GTB, Lamborghini Huracán) typically need about 11 seconds and supersports cars (Porsche 911 Turbo, Nissan GT-R, Jaguar F-Type SVR) tend to need about 12 seconds.

The 720S won’t quite take shallower corners flat out, but it barely needs more than a nose-settling feather of the accelerator

The 570S, of course, took an axe to that logic with its supercar-level acceleration for supersports car outlay. And the 720S does precisely the same thing, just a rung farther up the performance ladder.

It’s as if redefining established performance benchmarks has become a minimum requirement of any new McLaren.

The 720S’s 10.4sec standing-quarter pace is much closer to that of a P1 (10.2sec) than that of its direct Ferrari rival, the 488 GTB (10.9sec).

With two passengers on board, a full tank of fuel and averaged over two directions, it also recorded a 2.9sec 0-60mph and an equally staggering 5.6sec 0-100mph showing.

Upshot? The 720S could give that Ferrari a head start of almost three seconds – allowing the 488 to have hit 60mph before the 720S had even moved – and still beat the Italian to 170mph. And then go on to hit 190mph within a standing mile, less than a second slower than a P1 would have, and also allow a little room for braking. ‘Fast’ hardly does the car justice.

The McLaren’s stroked-out engine cylinders remain markedly oversquare in terms of design, and the car’s power delivery feels like that’s the case.

It’s far from inflexible, but you do need 4000rpm on the tacho before the car really takes off. When it does, it feels sensationally rapid – unexpectedly seamless and smooth but no less dramatic for it, and building savagely as the revs rise towards 8000rpm and beyond.

The seven-speed gearbox can shift a little bit softly at low revs but is never anything less than superbly quick at high revs when Track mode is selected on the active dynamics panel. And when left in D, the transmission’s control logic would seem to have been improved so that, in Sport mode, it can now seemingly predict when you’re about to overtake on country roads, dropping two or even three gears the instant you begin to dig into the accelerator.

We’ll record only a couple of notes of disappointment. Firstly, that six years after the launch of the MP4-12C, Woking still hasn’t made something that sounds like a bona fide supercar. The 720S’s engine has more rasp, whoosh and fizz about it than that of a 650S, but it’s still a bit ‘angry Terminator’. There’s nothing rich, mellifluous or soulful here.

And secondly, that the carbon-ceramic brakes don’t have better initial bite or all-round pedal feel. On both of those relatively minor considerations, this car could perhaps have done more. On the major one with which this section is concerned, it’s simply phenomenal. 


McLaren 720S cornering

From the moment you first turn the 720S’s steering wheel, you realise why McLaren’s choice to stick with hydraulic steering was a good one.

At 2.5 turns lock to lock, it’s never nervous but always absolutely direct enough, plus unerringly accurate, deftly weighted and offering terrific road feel.

High-speed stability in hard braking is much better than in the 650S

It sets a precedent that the rest of the 720S’s chassis duly follows. Changes to the Proactive chassis control system mean that, in the softest of the three settings (now Comfort rather than Normal, because “there’s nothing normal about a McLaren”), the ride is deft indeed: softly sprung when it needs to be but offering firmer responses as roads become more challenging, as well as excellent body control and roll resistance at all times.

Flick it through Sport and Track and you get an extra dose of control to offset some of the comfort, but there’s always enough suppleness to cope with the rigours of demanding road or track use. This is a car that shrugs off mid-corner bumps like no other.

A Porsche 911 GT3 might lift a wheel, but the 720S will accept that the track or road is different for a nanosecond and then carry on.

Still, it has usually been thus with McLarens.

The difference this time is that the 720S is happy to be driven on a circuit in a more liberal manner than, say, the 650S ever was. The 650S wanted you to drive it its way: trail the brakes to an apex, nail the throttle at it. That was fine on some corners, but not all, and meant it wasn’t as engaging as the 488 GTB, whose chassis balance gave you more options, more often.

The 720S still doesn’t have a limited-slip differential, but here, at last, is a Super Series McLaren that can be steered and adjusted on the throttle – and not just on it but also by easing off it.

It’s less prone to understeer than the 650S, and when it slides, it does so with more ease, breaking away more controllably and predictably. Partly that’s McLaren’s brake steer at work, allowing more power to an outside wheel to overcome grip. Partly it’s just that there is a shedload more power and torque to overwhelm the back end.

Ultimately, the 488 GTB is that bit more immediate again in its response to throttle inputs, due to what feels like sharper throttle response, plus the fact that its e-differential can more effectively meter power between the back wheels.

To that extent, it’s more liberated, more of a hooligan, but the 720S almost matches it in this regard now, and it is the more composed and involving road car as well.

Unlike the 650S, the 720S feels like it’s rotating around its middle — like the pivot point is ahead or right next to you. The 650S never felt like that.

Whereas the 650S wanted to be driven its way, the 720S is much more liberated, accommodating and involving.

There’s less understeer than in the 650S, and its ability to change direction is never in question. It’s the most agile car in this class bar none.

When it does start to slide, it depends on how you entered the corner as to which end does it first. If you turned in on a trailed brake, the back starts to come around predictably and as a precursor to something else.

Full ESC is neatly judged. Half ESC gives you enough slip. All off and Variable Drift Control acts like a traction control and will allow slip from ‘barely noticeable’ to ‘wahey’. But switching everything off is still the most satisfying, if not the fastest.


McLaren 720S

A £208,600 starting price makes the 720S quite a bit more expensive than the £185,000 488 GTB and £155,000 Huracán, but it’s a truly exceptional bargain compared with the £900,000 P1, which it rivals for performance.

The true cost of ownership will hinge on the resale value, though.

Variable Drift Control allows you to hold some attitude in the corners

There’s no official data, but there’s reason to believe that it will be better than the 650S and 12C, although it’s still unlikely to rival the 488 GTB.

Investing in some extras will help to protect its value. The choices are mainly costly carbonfibre upgrades, but a nose lifter (£2070) is a wise choice if you won’t just be at the track.

Standard equipment includes carbon-ceramic brakes, an 8.0in infotainment system with sat-nav and the new folding driver’s display.

Our car had extras topping £50,000, including a sports exhaust (£4750), which still doesn’t make the 720S sound like a proper supercar, and a track telemetry app (£2160) that records track data for you through the infotainment system.

There are also 720S Luxury and Performance models, which each cost £218,020. Luxury gets electric and heated seats and Performance adds carbonfibre for the air intakes and door mirrors. Both models get different paint options.

An MSO-fiddled Velocity variant tops the line-up. It sports no mechanical differences but rockets the price up to £335,000. That’s because it comes with carbonfibre extras and new paint options that take 300 man-hours to apply. 

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5 star McLaren 720S

The 720S has gone through our road test process with imperious disregard for its norms.

In accelerating from rest to 60mph in less than 3.0sec and to 190mph from rest within a measured mile, in stopping from 70mph in less than 40 metres and in coming within a fraction of a second of smashing our all-time dry handling circuit lap record, it has shown itself to be a car of incredible, almost unprecedented speed and purpose.

Sufficiently complete and exciting to dominate rivals, and hugely fast

It’s the sort of car we’d have been delighted to call a ‘supercar’ in the original, decades-old sense – if that word hadn’t come to mean something slightly different today.

The 720S’s class-transcending performance comes combined with remarkable breadth of ability on the road (ride and handling that can be more supple, progressive, tactile and mild than any true rival), with excellent usability, too, and with more indulgent on-the-limit track handling than any McLaren we’ve known before.

That demands the ultimate recognition we can provide - and we’ll happily provide it. The Ferrari 488 GTB’s supercar-class reign is over – and what a way to end it. The McLaren has now taken the crown and lauds it over the 488, Ford GT, Lamborghini Aventador S and Huracan LP610-4.

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McLaren 720S First drives