Opinion: the 720S is (still) the finest achievement of McLaren’s first decade
In supercar terms the 720S is old news, but it’s still one of the 21st Century’s best cars so far
“Would you be at all interested in borrowing our 720S over the Christmas holidays?”
The TopGear.com inbox gets plenty of good emails. We enjoy chuckling at the vapourware hypercars and mocking ‘dramatic’ teaser shots of SUVs. When we used to actually be in a proper office every day, sometimes messages alerted us to a charity cake sale on the second floor. And provoked a stampede.
But ‘fancy a 711bhp twin-turbo V8 supercar for the festive season?’ really does take some beating. Especially when all the grown-up senior types remember they have children, dogs and mother-in-laws to transport through December, and a butterfly doored two-seater isn’t exactly the most practical device for strapping a captive fir tree to.
So, the 720S became our McLaren for a few weeks. The neighbours huddled outside excitedly puffing cloudy breath into the frosty morning air when it was delivered. It clambered onto my driveway without needing the nose-lift activated, so it didn’t scrape. My next door neighbour’s lowered Honda Civic Type R catches every morning, but the angry Mac didn’t. Result.
I set about dailying the 720S. For those of you not of a British persuasion, in about November it rains in the United Kingdom, goes a bit nippy, and all the leaves fall from the trees in a big mulchy clump. Nothing then dries out properly until March. If you’ve got a car with more than 200 horsepower, the blinking light you see most over the winter isn’t a decoration celebrating Christmas or Hanukkah or Chinese New Year. It’s the traction control guardian angel saving your bacon.
Very quickly, it became apparent that this wasn’t a McLaren 720S, it was more of a ‘350S’. Maybe a ‘450S’ if I was feeling brave, and short-shifted into fifth. In frigid conditions, you can’t hope to use anything like full throttle in this car. Especially as the McLaren engine is way boostier than say, a Porsche 911 Turbo S or a Ferrari F8 Tributo.
You hear the turbos whistle as they breathe the damp winter air in, and brace for the judder as the rear tyres say ‘are you kidding, mate?’ and fizz several hundred horsepower away into lively wheelspin.
But if ever there was a lesson in ‘just because you’ve got all the power, you don’t have to use it all the time’, this was it. We love the 720S at Top Gear. The coupe won our 2017 Performance Car of the Year award at Speed Week. The Spider beat out drop-top rivals from Ferrari, Porsche and Lamborghini when we pitched all the super-spiders into battle in 2020.
And after several of us were scared witless by the savage 765LT at Speed Week 2020, there was a sneaking suspension that it was the slightly heavier, less powerful but friendlier 720S that was the better machine in this rarefied world of carbon fibre and diminishing returns.
And it is.
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This is – still – such a great modern supercar. With each passing year McLaren's decision to use hydraulic power steering for feel and feedback is more gratifying. This car steers beautifully – like a big Lotus. Except it doesn’t feel big, because the slender pillar’d glassiness gives better all-round visibility than a Volkswagen Golf.
I love the play-value of its modes: how the graphics morph as you shift through Comfort and Sport into Track mode, where the exhaust goes potty and the dashboard flips into a minimalist letterbox view.
The 720S is almost an old supercar now. On sale since 2017, we’ve had the hard-top, the coupe, the hardcore coupe, the hardcore spider, and several ‘special editions’ with posh paint or dubious liveries.
But the luxury saloon-ish ride continues to amaze. The performance is still vicious. Not once did I wish I was in a Ferrari SF90, with a similarly potent V8 but with a heap of e-motors and batteries filling in the gaps (and boot space). And I still adore the looks. The ‘skull socket’ headlight/intakes, the hidden side intakes and teardrop plan view are still stunning for me.
It’s not perfect. There’s still no DAB radio signal whatsoever, if you do need the nose-lift it’s really slow and only works when the steering is pointing straight ahead, and the keyless entry was laggier than the engine. Now and again it likes to drop the passenger side window, for fun. 14 miles per gallon is a bit strong too.
And if you temporarily lob they key on the passenger seat as you’re getting settled in, the car will then insist for the rest of the journey that there’s an unbelted passenger aboard. So I went everywhere with the passenger seatbelt fastened.
Cars like this need sharing. My landlord used to race at Goodwood in the 1960s, so he knows his British sports cars. He came for a poke around. The feature he was most impressed by? The auto-dipping side mirror when you’re reverse parking. Why? “Because you can use that bit. Where the devil are you supposed to use seven hundred horsepower?” Quite.
Last year McLaren Automotive itself turned 11 years old, and marked a decade since the launch of its first car, the MP4-12C. A car lauded for technical nous but derided for lacking some indefinable character – and having the cruel misfortune to share the world stage with something called a Ferrari 458 Italia.
What a decade in car-making that’s been for McLaren. What a learning curve. But for me, it’s not the P1 plug-in hybrid or the soulfully savage 675LT or the bargain 570S that’s been the true high point so far. It’s this thing. The 720S is the definitively rounded modern supercar, even when you can only crack open a quarter of its monumental performance.
Brand new, this is a £220,000 car. Buy a 10,000-mile used one and you can slice £100,000 off that. That’s a frightening amount of car for the money.
Depreciation woes are likely something to do with McLaren’s perennial problem of making lots of similar cars. Everything since 2011 has had a carbon tub, a bi-turbo V8, flappy paddles and rear-wheel drive.
Which brings me to a final thought. Since the 720S landed in early 2017, McLaren Automotive has launched the 600LT, the GT, the Senna, the 620R, the Speedtail, and the Elva. The hybrid Artura is imminent. Among that torrent of new products, the 720S has almost been forgotten. And it doesn’t deserve to be. It’s way, way too good a car to be overlooked.