Along Exmoor National Park’s coastal bluffs, indigo waves fold over one another as they crawl onto gray sand beaches. Far in the distance, factory smoke stacks rise up from the shores of Wales. At the bottom of this steep country road sit Lynmouth and Lynton, small towns lighting up as the sun dips below the horizon. The rolling hills of lush greenery sit in stark contrast to the fluorescent orange sky as the all-new 2018 McLaren 720S bleeds slowly into the background, the fading light finding its way into every channel and outlet of the mid-engine supercar’s auburn body.
Exmoor is an hour drive but a world away from McLaren’s headquarters in Woking, where I picked up the successor to the 650S. “The objective was to create something that went beyond the current supercar market,” said Alex Long, head of product for McLaren Automotive, as we sat with Ian Howshall, product manager for the Super Series cars, and discussed the significance of the 720S for McLaren Automotive, which has been at full steam for less than a decade. The first Super Series car, the MP4-12C, showcased seriously impressive tech, including an interconnected hydraulic suspension setup, but it looked too safe, too soulless. McLaren has since been more adventurous, peacocking its engineering grit through the range-topping Ultimate Series, which sprouted with the P1 hypercar, and expanding its customer base with the Sport Series, which launched with the 2016 Automobile All-Stars-winning 570S. Research and development for the 720S started late in 2013, a few months before the 650S even made its debut. “The 720S skips a generation from where we were before,” Long said.
“We said, ‘We might not pull this off, but we have to go for it,’” Howshall recalled. “If you have a Plan B, then you probably won’t pull it off.” That meant scooping out space behind thin LED headlights for better airflow. It meant using a new aluminum-forming process to create rigid-but-lightweight, twin- skin doors that direct airflow from the front arches to the rear shoulders. It meant challenging immature manufacturing to twist Gorilla Glass for the C-pillars, re-engineering the rear suspension geometry halfway through the program, and designing the infotainment architecture from the ground up. It meant six years spent working with Cambridge on advanced algorithms for the hydraulic suspension system to actively maximize the tires’ contact patches. “We went balls out pretty much everywhere, and the result has manifested in this car,” said Howshall, adding that the project’s teams adopted the mantra of famed McLaren Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna to push beyond what they thought possible in hopes of discovering something new.
Two days and some 900 miles of driving separate me from running a few laps around the historic Goodwood Circuit. I turn from Exmoor’s shores to see the 720S, its doors dangling from its carbon-fiber spine, then hear footsteps rushing toward me. A wide-eyed little boy is running down the road, iPhone in hand, asking if he can take a photo of the “new McLaren.” After I snap a photo of him standing with the car, I set off down dark country roads until I stumble upon my hotel, Kentisbury Grange, where I sit in a blue velvet chair and scarf down Scotch quail eggs. At dawn I drive to Ilfracombe, where artist Damien Hirst’s 66-foot-tall bronze sculpture, “Verity,” stands on the edge of the water. Greening from oxidization, a strong, pregnant woman holds a sword straight into the air, the skin on half of her body peeled away, and I can’t help but compare her leg’s musculature to the tendonlike forms on the McLaren’s doors. The coastline leads me to the beach town of St. Ives, where I grab a Cornish pasty and watch people stumble as they pass the 720S. You’d think the circus had come to town and walked a six-legged lion down the middle of the street. Some stare in awe, some in confusion, but most just wonder aloud if it’s a Ferrari or a Lamborghini.
A narrow, stonewall road running from St. Ives to St. Just gives me a chance to fully experience the engine, which uses the same basic block as the 650S but has been stroked and upgraded with port fuel-injection, new heads, a lighter crankshaft, lighter connecting rods, and twin-scroll turbochargers. The smell of dung fills the cabin as the 720S screams by shaggy cows that snap their heads to watch it pass. The 720S generates 69 more horsepower and 68 more lb-ft of torque than the 650S, and as such the car goes from 0 to 60 mph in 2.8 seconds, 0 to 124 mph in 7.8 seconds, and hits a top speed of 212 mph.
Just outside St. Just is Land’s End, which marks the westernmost edge of mainland England. I park the 720S in front of a small street sign that says it’s 3,147 miles to New York, and some two dozen people gather for photos. Seemingly everyone is drawn to this car. I stare at remnants of tin mines that used to blanket Cornwall as I drive east on tree-canopied back roads that start smooth and wide but become narrow and harrowing, so I electronically raise the car’s front end and keep speeds low. My knuckles go white as ivy slaps the carbon-fiber mirrors, earth scrapes the completely flat underbelly, and the overly sensitive parking-assist system screams its warnings. These aren’t the roads McLaren engineers developed their second-generation chassis-control system for. Unlike the 12C’s suspension, the 720S’s setup is more active than passive, using sensors on both the chassis as well as unsprung mass — like the suspension uprights and wheels—to monitor environmental inputs such as changing road conditions, bumps, and camber.
I couldn’t be more relieved to reach Glendurgan Garden, where I spend an hour unsuccessfully trying to find my way to the center of a 180-year-old labyrinth constructed out of cherry laurel. Then I drive into Dartmoor National Park and sneak onto a stretch of perfectly paved private road, juking to avoid wandering sheep with numbers spray-painted on their wool. As the moon grows brighter I find my way toward the highway and settle in for a long drive to Dorchester. With alt-J playing through the hollow, four-speaker audio system, I fold away the pop-up gauge cluster, set the chassis and powertrain to Comfort mode, and settle into my thin-but-supportive seat. It’s sensational how humdrum this car becomes when it has room to breathe. It feels small and thin, spacious and not at all special, but I’m reminded the 720S is unique every time I gaze through its glass top and see stars.
A night’s sleep in a 16th century thatched-roof pub has me rested and ready to turn laps at Goodwood. During a quick stop in New Forest to see some unshorn pastoral horses, I get a text from my brother: “Love you. Be safe out there. Just jarred from sleep by a dream that felt way too real of you crashing. Love you.” Only a couple hours remain before I’ll drive the McLaren around the 2.4-mile road course that in June 1970 claimed the life of Bruce McLaren. I can’t shake that thought until I drive through the tunnel passing under the Goodwood Circuit, and excitement overwhelms fear. I pull on a helmet for a few sighting laps, then turn on the car’s active aerodynamics, set the powertrain and chassis to Track mode, and take off out of the pits. Immediately a marshal holds out a noise violation sign, but lifting as I pass the track’s three sound meters doesn’t slow the 720S much. On my first run down the back straight, the car exceeds 170 mph. I bury the carbon-ceramic brakes, and the rear wing raises instantly to act as an air brake. As the car wiggles under enormous stress, a message pops up: “Front tyre pressure critical. Stop vehicle.” I pull into the pits and, after a quick call to McLaren, let a few psi out of all four Pirelli P Zero Corsas. Consensus is this preproduction model simply has a few wrinkles left to iron out, and I’m let off the leash.
I barely breathe during my first flying laps around this big, ballsy track, and I cackle uncontrollably as I putter through a cooldown. So much power, such quick shifts. Talkative steering, unbelievable sight lines, and predictable, stable braking. It’s damn near impossible to upset the chassis, which seems not to roll, pitch, or dive. I’m dialing in my line, driving faster and braking later. Not once have I thought of my brother’s foreboding text. Then I enter Fordwater — a quick right-hand kink — going flat out at about 140 mph. The back end steps out on entry, and the 720S skids toward a thin strip of grass and a very flat wall. I countersteer quickly and manage to hold the high-speed slide without going into the weeds. When the car slows enough, I flick it back straight, downshift twice, and continue on. The tire has a nasty flat spot. Back in the pits, I see just how nasty — steel braiding is sticking out like unruly strands of hair. The marshal working Fordwater smiles when he sees me, tells me he didn’t see any difference in driving style or line from previous laps, and asks how I’m doing. “I want to still be out there. I would take that corner the exact same way again and again and again.” It’s then I appreciate that I should probably be more shaken up than I am, coming uncomfortably close to realizing my brother’s premonition. But over the past few days I’ve gained trust in and respect for the 720S, and it would take more than a 140-mph skid to keep me out of the car.
The 720S is a supercar McLaren should be proud of as it continues to dance along the cutting edge. The car has a natural flow, it’s confident and adaptable, and it keeps the driver engaged. To call it a successor to the 650S would be shortchanging it because the 720S certainly does feel like it skips a generation.
2018 McLaren 720s Specifications
|ENGINE||4.0L twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8/710 hp @ 7,500 rpm, 568 lb-ft @ 5,500 rpm|
|TRANSMISSION||7-speed dual-clutch automatic|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 2-passenger, mid-engine, RWD coupe|
|EPA MILEAGE||15/30 mpg (city/hwy) (est)|
|L x W x H||178.9 x 81.1 x 47.1 in|
|0-60 MPH||2.8 sec|
|TOP SPEED||212 mph|