First Drive: 2017 McLaren 720S Coupé

First Drive: 2017 McLaren 720S Coupé

Clearly there are some hipsters working in the McLaren Automotive PR department because this scene is loaded with irony. For I am threading my way through Rome in McLaren’s brand-new 720S: a car designed to replace the 650S as the core offering in this British firm’s Super Series range and rival the Ferrari 488 GTB. Launching this thing here, pretty much in old Enzo’s backyard, is a cheeky move. Kind of like the Italians opening a gourmet fish and chip shop on Brighton pier. So obviously McLaren is cocksure about its new supercar’s capabilities, right?

But then why shouldn’t they be, because the 720S makes an aggressive visual statement. Although it may look a little generic from some angles (think 13-year-old boy designing the sportster of his dreams) the 720S is one of the more attractive McLarens of the last seven years.

It also has some interesting design features like the eye-socketed headlights — no doubt inspired by artist HR Giger — that double as ducts to channel extra air to the radiators. There’s a similarly clever aero feature built into the all-new double-skinned doors. By driving a channel between the two aluminium door skins the designers have negated the need for the traditional side intakes that were too prominent on the 650S.

Smart engineering. This is what McLaren has always been about. There’s further evidence of this inside the ultra-rigid, carbon-fibre Monocage II central structure. First seen in the P1 hypercar, this chassis system not only ensures that the 720S sports the lightest dry weight in its class but also allows for some of the spindliest roof pillars I have ever seen on a production car. The C-pillars are actually transparent, formed from a type of gorilla glass, which means rearward visibility is way better than what it was in the 650S.

Everyday usability: a theme the PR team has been punting since I arrived in the Italian capital. But as I weave my way out of the trafficked city into the countryside towards Circuit Vallelunga, I’m not quite sold.

Firstly because things are quite tight inside. Maybe not from behind the steering wheel but as a passenger (particularly if you’re tall), the 720S ain’t something you would want to sit in for more than 200km. Especially not with the standard seats which are, aside from being about as firm as Anthony Bourdain’s chopping board, ridiculously complicated to adjust.

Then there’s the ride. McLaren has equipped the 720S with independent adaptive dampers controlled by their second-generation Proactive Chassis Control system. If this sounds complicated it’s because it is. Complicated and brilliant and probably better than what most other companies are offering in comparable products. Yet when set to comfort mode (sport and track are your other options) you can’t help but feel a lack of suppleness.

Small bumps and undulations are swallowed up fine but gnarlier road scars — and there are plenty in rural Italy — are hard, man. Enough to make you grimace and wish that you were in something like a Porsche 911 Turbo S. Ditto when it comes to refinement. Although McLaren has upped its interior game with better materials and more tactile switchgear, the 720S still doesn’t quite match the polish of its rivals. Particularly so far as wind/road noise insulation is concerned.

From this point of view it’s easy to feel underwhelmed by what this 650S successor is bringing to the party. But then you steer it onto a track like Circuit Vallelunga — a mean playground of sweepers, hairpins and supersonic straightaways — and the 720S makes perfect sense. The new turbocharged V8 may sound like a muted V6 but oh my God, does it pull hard. It produces massive torque too, which helps to slingshot you out of corners.

Yet it’s the way the 720S rips through them that’s most impressive. For a rear-wheel-drive car the grip is dumbfounding thanks to the pairing of strong aerodynamic downforce and custom Pirelli P Zero Corsa tyres.

You kind of have to reprogram your own limits to get anywhere near this car’s true potential. And when you do — keep your foot planted when instinct is telling you to lift — the experience is intoxicating. The 720S is an intimidating beast on the surface but after a few laps you learn that it’s a machine designed to massage the driver’s ego. It’s equipped with the tools to do so. No joke, those carbon ceramic brakes are some of the best anchors I have experienced outside a racing car.

The dual-clutch gearbox shifts Gatling-gun fast while the electro-hydraulic steering telegraphs nuances you just don’t feel in other supercars anymore. Around Vallelunga the combination of that pyramid-rigid chassis blending with the trick suspension system serves up a cocktail of G-force driving nirvana. Never once does the 720S feel skittish or uncertain or aloof. You can provoke it, sure, get its tail out in a cloud of expensive tyre smoke, but that’s not what this McLaren is about. Instead it advocates a life of precision: pursuit of the smoothest distillation of raw speed.

You can sense that this is what McLaren set out to achieve. You see it in the built-in telemetry system (to improve lap times) and in the way the instrument display folds away to provide a clearer view of the road. Although there is some kind of attempt at making a supercar with 911 values, the 720S is more at the other end of the spectrum.

Only a masochist would drive one every day. And even then you might grow tired of it. But keep it as a weekend treat, savour it when the time or place allows, and you’ll be glad you added one to your collection. The 720S is a purist’s track car dream. And if I were sitting behind a desk in Maranello, I’d be a little concerned. – Thomas Falkiner

Fast Facts: McLaren 720S Coupé

Engine: 3994cc twin-turbo V8
Power: 530kW at 7500rpm
Torque: 770Nm at 5500rpm
Transmission: Seven-speed SSG
0-100km/h: 2.9 seconds (claimed)
Top speed: 341km/h (claimed)
Fuel: You shouldn’t care
CO2: Really?
Price: From R5.5-million