When McLaren announced it was returning to the realm of street cars in 2011 after a 13-year absence since the legendary F1 called it quits, it was easy to dismiss the idea as a flight of fancy. But where so many companies with grand sports car plans have belly-flopped into the annals of history, McLaren has thrived. Part of that has been through sheer force of will, but much of it has been through innovation and clever engineering. Every car from the $192,500 570S to the $837,000 Senna and the $2.24 million Speedtail uses the same engine — a modified version of the same engine used in every car all the way back to that MP4-12C that relaunched the brand eight years back.
Those trends, in many ways, have culminated with the 720S — a super sports car that combines the performance of an honest-to-God supercar with the road-going comfort of a family sedan. It redefined its own category, delivering performance figures stellar enough to leave even mighty Ferraris and Lamborghinis sucking its turbocharged exhaust while simultaneously freeing the mid-engine sports car shape from the giant air-sucking flank intakes that have dominated for decades. For 2019, it adds to its appeal with a pop-top option that lets the sun shine in with effectively zero negative effect on weight, performance or appearance. In other words, the 720S Spider, at least in theory, delivers all the good parts of a convertible with none of the sacrifices.
The Good: McLaren is good at one thing above all else: Making Fast Cars. The 720S Spider lives up to that reputation — and then some. The company claims performance is effectively unchanged versus the hardtop, which weighs just 108 pounds less; considering that car can run from 0-60 miles per hour in 2.4 seconds, 0-100 mph in 4.9 and crack into the nines in the quarter-mile, perhaps Macca is simply counting on drivers not to notice any fractional degradation in acceleration, since they’ll be too busy screaming. The Spider’s power-retractable hardtop not only makes it easier for the world to see you in your ever-so-zippy sports car, it also brings added sensations to the experience of blitzing track and street: more engine noise, more wind roar, more breeze tousling your hair. The gullwing doors that add a bit of panache to your entrances? They’re just icing on the cake.
Who It’s For: Those with a Maverick-and-Goose feeling of the need for speed.
Watch Out For: Well, speed limits, for one. Curbs, potholes and other obstacles of two inches’ depth and/or height, for another. Thankfully, the nose-lifting hydraulic function in the 720S is much easier to use than the one on the 600LT, always available at low speeds with the simple flick of a finger against the stalk. Still, unless you’re quick on the trigger (and vigilantly scanning the road ahead), you’ll likely scrape that low-slung carbon-fiber jaw more often that you’d like.
Alternatives: Ferrari F8 Tributo (est. $350,000), Lamborghini Huracan Evo ($261,274), Porsche 911 Speedster ($274,500)
Review: The McLaren 720S was never going to be the prettiest car at the Cars and Coffee. The function-over-form mindset found in Woking pretty much guaranteed that; every line, every body panel has been designed to help it grip the ground and slip through the air. The final product’s Area 51 skin delivers plenty of visually-arresting gravitas — especially in the electric-arc Belize Blue of my test car — but gripping doesn’t mean gorgeous. Knowing those openings around the headlights are there to send cool air to the radiators doesn’t make the front end look any less like a dead-eyed skull. (Opting for a dark color minimizes the issue, but at the expense of muting the curves and facets found elsewhere in the sheetmetal.) Still, the Spider at least offers a little variation to liven things up; if you’re bored with how it looks with the top up, you can always drop it.
But oh shit, is it fast.
Burrow down into the throttle, and the 720S accelerates with breathtaking speed, the kind of push you come to associate with truly fast cars wearing raging bulls or prancing horses on their prows…and then you realize you still have more than 1,000 rpm at the top end to explore. Dig into that, and boom — welcome to warp speed. Mind-blowing, full-afterburner, jump-to-hyperspace, gone-to-plaid fuckyeah. Even by the standards of this crazy day and age where Dodge sells a 797-hp muscle car and a Porsche 911 Carrera S does 0-60 mph in three seconds flat, the way this McLaren pulls is, in all honesty, surreal.
The power is intoxicating. I know it’s a cliché; I loathe the fact that I’m using it. But it’s the best word to describe the rush that comes every time you hammer the accelerator and ride the V8’s surge towards the redline. Also the license-losing line; by the time you hit redline in any gear other than first, if you’re not on a long straightaway, you have to brake. You’ll be going too fast — not for the car, but for everything else. Like a cat in a studio apartment, you’ll have to settle for brief sprints back and forth before slamming on the brakes for traffic or blind curves.
Indeed, if there’s anything to complain about with the 720S, it’s that there just aren’t enough places to exercise it. Real-world roads just have too many variables to safely handle the sorts of speeds this car can achieve at a moment’s notice. You have to reset your mental standards as to how hard you can push the car; if you’re used to taking a turn at 7/10ths in most sports cars, you do it at 4/10ths in this guy. It could do it at 7/10ths, of course — but you’d be going so fast, you’d have no chance of reacting in time to any unexpected obstacle on the far side of the bend.
The grip is phenomenal; the power delivery fluid and easy to dial in in a way you certainly wouldn’t expect from a car at this sort of level. Even though there’s no limited-slip differential in back, the computers use their electronic control of the rear brakes to help yaw the stern in the desired direction. Yet the ride is firm yet forgiving when you want it; McLaren has bridged performance and livability like few can do. The Proactive Chassis Control II suspension setup uses cross-linked hydraulic active dampers an in lieu of traditional anti-roll bars; if that sounds like Greek to you, just know that it translates to a ride setup that seamlessly delivers both a gran turismo ride and supercar handling. The end result is somewhat reminiscent of flying a fly-by-wire fighter jet: All the electronics let you squeeze far more out of it than you could through purely mechanical means.
But all that’s true of the coupe, too. What makes the Spider special is that folding top, flipping open or shut in a mere 11 seconds at speeds up to 31 mph. No matter which position it’s in, the roadster feels as rigid as the coupe — a helpful byproduct of the MonoCage II carbon fiber platform that makes up the skeleton of the latest Maccas. Adding to its versatility: the optional electrochromic roof, which shifts from nearly-opaque to almost-transparent at a moment’s notice.
The best part about the Spider, though, is that top-down driving gives back the thrill that the coupe can lack. It’s hard to feel remote, cool and disassociated from the world the way you can in the almost-anodyne 720S Coupe with the wind whipping by and then sun blasting down on you. Convertibles are always more fun; coupes always drive better and look better. The Spider does both.
If there’s one main beef to be had with the Spider, it’s that the engine doesn’t sound good, even with the optional sports exhaust system. Loud, sure — but not fiery or compelling or passionate the way you’d like a car that looks this wild to sound. Just loud. Everyone from Ferrari to AMG to BMW has figured out how to make small-displacement twin-turbo V8s sound good, so it’s hard to say why Macca can’t. Granted, that complaint’s true of the coupe as well, but the Spider’s al fresco driving position means you’re far more aware of the problem than you are in the solid-topped version.
The 720S interior remains a high-water mark for mid-engined sports cars, at least in terms of visibility. Those skinny A-pillars allow the driver to survey the land ahead with unexpected ease; even looking over your shoulder for cars lurking in your blind spot is less stressful than expected, though a slight step down from the coupe, which benefits from tiny windows behind the B-pillar. The only chink in the clarity armor: scanning your six for the 5-0 when driving fast. That’s when you’ll wish the active rear wing weren’t quite so happy to rise up every time the speedo climbs to highway speed. (That said, it is entertaining to glance back and see it pivot into an air brake when you slam on the left pedal.)
Legroom is a little tight in the driver’s throne — at least, it is for six-foot-four people like your humble author. Most folks should be just fine, caressed by a leather seat that manages to be both road-trip comfy and track-day supportive. They’ll also be undistracted, as they should be when behind the wheel of a sports car packing this sort of power. The thick steering wheel connected to the responsive, communicative hydraulic steering rack features no ancillary controls for the radio or anything else; the only thing it controls beyond the front wheels is the horn. The all-digital instrument panel sticks tachometer and speedometer — the former a simulacrum of an analog gauge, the latter a clear white number inside it — front and center, with other info like temperatures and fuel levels pushed to the sides. If that’s still too much info, snapping the car’s powertrain into Track mode causes the panel to fold onto its side, revealing a second, thinner screen that only shows a wide multicolored band for a tach and a simple speedo beside it.
McLaren’s active drive system dials controlling powertrain and suspension settings — a staple of the company’s interiors since its return in 2011 — remain one of the bright points of the interior. (Literally, as well as figuratively, thanks to their metallic sheen.) The mechanical switches and buttons are a reassuring touch in a world filled with software and touchscreens; the object permanence of the twin dials’ position is as deeply reassuring as the tiny click they make when you thumb them between Comfort, Sport and Track settings.
The touchscreen-and-knob-controlled infotainment system works more smoothly than it used to, though it’s still more awkward than most manufacturers’ units. McLaren’s independent-automaker status rarely holds it back, but it does here; Lamborghini uses a reskinned Audi infotainment system, Ferrari makes do with a dolled-up version of Chrysler’s Uconnect and Aston Martin borrows Mercedes-Benz’s setup, but McLaren lacks any ties to a broader network of vehicles, so they’re stuck with their in-house Iris arrangement.
Going Spider does carry with it one specific interior-related flaw: You lose a bit of storage space compared with the coupe. The fixed-roof 720S has a small storage area behind the seats where you can put the same sort of items you’d jam under the seat in front of you on an airplane. The Spider, for obvious reasons, lacks that. So you’re restricted to whatever you can cram in the frunk — basically, one person’s carry-on luggage. Maybe two people, if they stick to squashy bags, pack carefully, and plan on spending an hour steaming their garments at their destination.
Verdict: The McLaren 720S Spider may be the best series-production example of what automotive TV host Mike Spinelli sometimes describes as the Iron Man Theory of Sports Cars: their ultimate goal is to use technology and engineering to improve your own capabilities. It’s an idea originally applied to hypercars — but with the 720S, McLaren has brought it a little bit closer to Earth. Sure, it’s still as expensive as the median home price in Virginia. But at the end of the day, it’s a road-going Iron Man suit that lets you take off the helmet and fly with your hair in the breeze. Who needs a house when you can have that?
2020 McLaren 720S Spider: Key Specs
Powertrain: 4.0-liter twin-turbocharged V8; seven-speed dual-clutch transmission; rear-wheel-drive
Torque: 568 pound-feet
0-60 MPH: 2.8 seconds
Top Speed: 212 mph (roof up), 202 mph (roof down)
McLaren provided this product for review.
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