Driving the McLaren 720S Is a Painful Exercise in Self-Control

McLaren's newest supercar redefines street car performance. Good luck finding a way to enjoy it on the street, though.

There are worse things you could sell your soul for than a McLaren 720S. (A donut, for instance.) McLaren's latest Super Series sport car is, after all, a modern-day icon, delivering performance that arguably redefines what it means to be an exotic sports car, capable of whipping Dodge Demons at the drag strip or a Porsche 918 Spyder at Virginia International Raceway while still being comfortable enough to knock out a cross-country road trip. 

Luckily, when you're lucky enough to stumble into a job writing about cars, you don't have to trade your immortal spirit for a spin in a supercar; a promise of a video or a write-up is usually enough. But as with a Faustian bargain, there was still a catch or three. The agreement McLaren asked me to agree to included a few onerous clauses that seemed almost designed to hamstring my fun: there was the usual cover-your-butt legal phrasing about the need to respect all speed limits and traffic laws, as well as the occasional mileage restriction—here capped at a painful 300 miles, not nearly enough to take the car on the long journey it deserved. But worst of all...McLaren said I couldn't hustle the car on track. 

It was with all these restrictions in mind that I climbed into the 720S for the first time, fired up the 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 mounted out back, and took off into New York traffic. 

Will Sabel Courtney

The first few minutes in any supercar are a blur. No matter how many obscene speed machines you've driven, the feeling stays the same: a whirlwind of semi-frantic confusion as you constantly trying to figure out all the counter-intuitive controls while simultaneously scanning 360 degrees of traffic every few seconds, eyes and ears on high alert for any vehicles or pedestrians that might make a sudden maneuver towards you. Nobody wants to be the guy who crashes the $300,000 car one mile into the drive. Luckily, the greenhouse offers incredible visibility for a supercar. For any car, really; the thin pillars and ample glass mean the 720S basically has no blind spots. It’s like wearing a giant helmet (albeit much easier to breathe in).

But after a couple miles, you start to learn how it reacts: how quick the steering rack is (in the 720S, mongoose-like), what road imperfections are substantial enough to rattle the car (a surprisingly high bar for the McLaren, thanks to its fancy dampers), how to switch from radio to iPod on the infotainment system (press the home button twice to bring up the main menu, then choose "Radio" or "Media"), and whether your 32-ounce Dunkin' Donuts cold brew is at risk of flopping out of the cupholders (it is not). At that point you can start to relax a little, take in the outside world, and savor the flossing that's part of the bargain in cruising around town in a supercar.

Will Sabel Courtney

Yet oddly enough, the people of New York City seemed remarkably rather uninterested. Over the course of seven miles of surface streets from the Manhattan Classic Car Club, where McLaren keeps its NYC-area press cars, and The Drive's Brooklyn offices, not once did I see anyone point a camera phone or a finger at it. The understated blue-with-black-trim paint job—which looks dynamite, for the record, playing up the flowing shape while minimizing the awkward empty-eye-socket look of the open-air headlights—but even in this understated livery, this thing still looks like an alien spaceship Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum would fly off to save the world in. It's only after I finally park it on my block after work—the user agreement saying nothing that would bar me from street-parking this house-priced carbon fiber wonder—that somebody asks me about. 

Considering how slowly the Macca has to go to navigate NYC’s battered streets, hoping people eyeball the car is about the only entertainment to be found. And my route is worse than usual; grooved pavement and exposed cobblestones lies where more-or-less-smooth asphalt was just days before. Manholes tower above the road surface like shield volcanoes now, divots dot the streets as though King Kong had made Cobble Hill his personal back nine. And then there’s me, driving the McLaren through it all, teeth gritted together hard enough to crunch rhino bones as I bob and weave the nose around the obstacles as best I can. At first, the Macca takes it all in stride, just not at speed; my 212-mph British speed machine is being passed by middle-aged women on bicycles. 

Will Sabel Courtney

Once I'm forced to bring the 720S onto the highway, though, going slow ceases to be an option. Every few hundred yards along the Brooklyn Queens Expressway—one of the only decent paths out of the city from where I am—there’s an unavoidable ridge stretching across it, a poorly-paved patch over a bad expansion joint that sends the wheels against their bump stops and prompts another curse from my mouth. Battling it out through the city proves nerve-wracking; experience has taught me to look down the road as far as possible to prepare for whatever’s coming, but the lunar road conditions mean I can’t afford to look more than a few car lengths’ ahead, in case I need to make a last-minute evasive maneuver to save the tires. Which happens often.

Once on the Taconic Parkway headed north, the traffic thins, the road improves (albeit slowly)...and the Macca starts to wake up. The body stays flat as Nebraska even though the trickiest turns, even when tightening them up by changing lanes into an off-camber corner. Clicking down to sixth gear is all it takes to push the engine close to its torque plateau that starts around 3,800 rpm—the maximum of 538-pound-feet comes at 5,500, but the curve is effectively flat from just shy of 4,000 all the way to seven grand—and fire off a pass. But even this winding wonder of Gilded Age road construction—made for a day when driving was something to be enjoyed, not dealt with, when every automotive trip had the majesty of a drive in a supercar—isn’t a true test of the car. If it were completely cleared of traffic and police, the 720S feels like it could blitz along it at more than double the 55-mph speed limit without a problem, even in the tightest turns. 

Will Sabel Courtney

Off the highway, then, and onto the quiet back roads of Columbia County. I manage to hit it at more or less full blast through a handful of turns—and it’s then that the 720S comes into its own. It’s content to spar, but it wants to fight; it’s happy to jog along with the crowd, but it’s only really happy when it can run wild and free. The roads of this world will always be something of a prison to it, in spite of how much fun its driver may have pushing his or her limits there.

With a quiet stretch of straightaway identified, it's time to dabble with the launch control. I grope for the owner's manual, but can't seem to find it, and cell phone reception in this stretch of upstate New York is too weak to pull up a digital version, so I attempt to fumble my way through the process. I follow the usual sort of procedure for cars like this: twist the drive mode dials to Track, press the "Launch" button, follow the instrument panel cues, and light this mutha

On the first run, though, I slam into the rev limiter just past 50 mph. It doesn’t shift automatically in launch mode, the way many cars with the function do. Weirder yet, I can’t figure out how to run launch control with the gearbox in automatic, in spite of a decade of new car-launching knowledge, and my attempt to brake-boost the car from a start without using launch falls flat. As a result, even with 710 horsepower on draft, the launch feels…underwhelming. There’s no shockwave of acceleration to knock you back into your seat, like in a Panamera Turbo or Huracan Performante

But as a result, the way it gains steam after those first two seconds feels all the more remarkable.  It’s a steady push that grows and grows with each passing second, like what I imagine a space shuttle launch must be like. Give it a five count, and it feels as though the world is on fast-forward, like you’re literally riding a lightning bolt across the plains. Everything around you might as well be in slow-motion. If a cop were to pull me over, I think my license would just evaporate at the sound of his footsteps. Dips and skips in the road prompt immediate counter-steering and compensation; be good, or be gone.  This car needs more than just a track. It needs the whole world to turn into a track.

I have a name for this car now, I think. I shall call it the Blue Bolt.

Much as it may be skirting the edges of the agreement McLaren made me sign to do so, it’s a goddamn hoot, tearing up those back roads as fast as I dare for a little while. It’s just…too freaking fast. I hate saying any car is too fast for public roads, but this one is too fast for these roads, at least; by the time you get to the speeds where it wants to play, you’re taking turns and cresting hills too fast to be able to guarantee you can brake or swerve in the event a deer runs out ahead of you.

So I dial it back, bring it down to what feels like a slow-but-steady pace before crossing the state line and closing the gap to my destination: Lime Rock Park. The exceptionally nice staff of both track and the Skip Barber Racing School let me in, even let me drive the car out onto the straight for a quick photo while they’re taking a break from classes. The sight of the open course ahead, the sound of the rumbling V-8, is all damn tempting. It takes the willpower of Bruce Lee to keep from hauling ass down the 1.5-mile track for one quick lap.

Will Sabel Courtney

Instead, it’s back onto the streets for the drive home, feeling a bit disgruntled and frustrated. Even as much as I've tried to squeeze as much as I dare from the car, it still feels like I haven't come anywhere close to its limits. In some odd way, it feels like a wasted day.

Still, it's a chance to ruminate on the car's traits and technology. The steering is craftsmanlike, not artistic. It does what needs to be done with exceptional precision, but it doesn’t dance; it’s fast, super fast, but heavy and a bit numb. The crosslinked hydraulic damper system called Proactive Chassis Control II that lets the 720S do without anti-roll bars, on the other hand, does a dynamite job balancing roll and bounce, all things considered. And it's shocking to believe the car does without a limited-slip differential; Woking has managed to use computer wizardry to create a car sending 710 horses through an open diff feel every bit as capable as cars with trick electronic LSDs. 

McLarens have, to me, just always felt a little cool to the touch; the 12C, 650S, and 570S/570GT were all fast, but none climb under your skin and jack up your adrenaline like Venom's symbiote. The 720S shares that coolness, but it couples it with such an outstanding breadth of capability that it's impossible not to be impressed. A Ferrari or Lamborghini may have more emotion, may look and fee more outgoing and extreme—but the Macca has a substance, a deep technical mastery that demands respect. 

Yes, it's frustrating not to be able to rip around Lime Rock until the tires scream. Yes, it sucks not being able to go farther. But at the heart of the matter, it simply sucked not being able to make the 720S mine. I want time and space with it, to go farther, get to know it better, push its limits. I want the time and room to find an empty parking lot and play around with the ESP's Variable Drift Control, see how it dials in different amounts of degree as I swoop around imaginary gymkhana cones. I want to play around with launch control and figure out how to make the damn thing work. I want to run a back road three or four times until I know it’s clear of traffic and cops and then just go for broke. 

I want, in a nutshell, to own it. Guess I might have to reconsider that deal with the devil after all.