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2018 McLaren 720S: First Drive Review

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author photo by Michael Harley June 2017

The 2018 McLaren 720S resides in the upper stratosphere of the automotive heavens in an unearthly realm that enthusiasts call "supercars." That special term defines vehicles with low volume production, exotic manufacturing components, extraordinary performance, and (to nobody's surprise) lofty prices.

All supercars share similar amounts of the above-mentioned ingredients, yet there are two additional additives -- driving dynamics and emotional appeal -- that allow a handful of supercars to rise above their peers to achieve true greatness.

One such masterpiece of automotive engineering, encapsulating all the proper elements, is the all-new McLaren 720S.

A Funky, Functional Exterior and Interior Styling

There's no mistaking the 720S for anything but an exotic supercar. It's lightweight chassis (a carbon-fiber tub McLaren calls the Monocage II) is covered in artfully sculpted aluminum panels that are designed to cheat the wind and simultaneously channel fresh air through the doors into the engine compartment. The hidden intakes, which are complemented by a near-flush underbody and an open rear fascia, deliver a clean, unique, and fresh appearance to the traditional two-door coupe design that is unmistakably McLaren.

Swing open the twin dihedral doors to reveal a passenger cabin that mimics a two-place aircraft cockpit -- its digital gauge clusters switchgear would be right at home in a corporate jet. Fine leather, genuine alloys, and rear carbon fiber is used generously within the interior and all controls are driver-centric and easy to operate -- no owner's manuals required -- except for the oddly placed seat controls on the inside front part of the seats (they are maddening). Occupants sit unusually close together, but the inboard position keeps feet well within the track of the wheels to deliver plenty of foot space on both sides, so the level of functionality is impressive.

There's even a trunk, mounted in the nose, which will hold a week's worth of luggage.

Potent Powertrain Engineered to Dominate

Mid-mounted in the McLaren 720S, for ideal weight distribution, is a 4.0-liter V8. It is hellishly powerful thanks to a pair of turbochargers that help it make a whopping 710 horsepower (the "720" name comes from its PS rating in the U.K.) and 568 lb-feet of torque. Copying a race car, the engine is mated to a 7-speed dual-clutch automated gearbox that sends power to just the rear wheels (while most of today's supercars are all-wheel drive, which enhances grip under acceleration, McLaren chooses to save weight with just rear-wheel drive). A glance at the performance figures -- the 0-to-60 mph sprint is accomplished in about 2.5 seconds and it will hit the quarter-mile in 10.3 seconds -- reveals very little, if any, handicap.

Don't ask about fuel economy or maintenance costs (both are likely better than you'd expect), as this McLaren is all about power and speed -- think SR-71 Blackbird or Saturn V rocket. It's wickedly fast.

Ferocious Track Manners That Devour Lap Times

A day lapping a road circuit outside of Rome allowed me to experience the McLaren's true proficiency, which is dynamic handling. And, as expected, the sport car's limits are phenomenally high. Whether accelerating, cornering, or braking, the 720S dances merrily at the very edge of the performance envelope, which equates to an afternoon of high g-forces and continuous rushes of adrenaline.

Acceleration is effortless, as the twin-turbo engine wails to redline while pinning its occupants into their seatbacks (it is literally dizzying). Mash the pedal and there's a moment where the rear tires claw for traction, typically between each rapid gearshift as the coupe pulls out of the corners, but the slight yaw in the tail is easily corrected with the steering wheel. In contrast to most high-performance vehicles, which slow as aerodynamic drag increases, the McLaren feels unimpeded; it accelerates as if within a vacuum.

The brakes have a very firm pedal, much like a race car, but their modulation is excellent. The carbon-ceramic rotors, which fill the void inside the wheel, are nearly impervious to heat, so stopping is an effortless exercise. The mechanical braking system is complemented by an active rear spoiler that stands near-vertical under hard deceleration -- as effective as the airbrake on a decelerating jetliner.

Lateral grip in the corners is best described as tenacious, almost magnetic, and the speeds test the driver's skill (and nerves). Overall, the McLaren 720S is one of the most capable, and most balanced, sports cars I have ever taken on a track.

A Delicate On-Road Demeanor

Countless supercars abuse their passengers with harsh and punishing rides, stiff suspension is the trade-off to world-class handling, they profess. But McLaren doesn't subscribe to that logic, as it fits the 720S with Proactive Chassis Control II. This is a sophisticated suspension system that uses hydraulics and state-of-the-art processors to keep the chassis perfectly optimized to maximize available grip and maintain a comfortable ride (it is so competent that the system does without any traditional anti-roll bars). It is unbelievably effective.

Drop into the cabin and move the three-mode (Comfort, Sport and Track) rotary Active Dynamics Panel to its softest setting and the ride is firm, but genuinely comfortable -- the abusive impacts are mostly removed. I covered several hundred miles in one day, touring downtown Rome and its surrounding countryside, and I emerged without aches and pains, which are common with its competitors.

The True Supercar for the Intellectual

With a sticker price north of $275,000, the 2018 McLaren 720S competes directly with Ferrari and Lamborghini. Yet unlike those Italians, which boast eye-catching sexy bodies to attract trendy clientele that frequent Miami Beach, the McLaren appeals to a more traditional (dare I say educated?) shopper. This Brit unabashedly appeals to enthusiasts that crave artful design, world-class engineering, near-flawless driving dynamics, and an engrossing emotional experience. I validate their decision -- as of today, it's the world's finest supercar.

To gain access to this information, Autotrader attended an event sponsored by the vehicle's manufacturer.

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2018 McLaren 720S: First Drive Review - Autotrader