Mountain Wheels: Exploring real supercar territory in McLaren’s fearsome 720S Spider |

Mountain Wheels: Exploring real supercar territory in McLaren’s fearsome 720S Spider

McLaren’s high-horsepower 720S Spider is a hand-built, hard-topped convertible with race car DNA and looks to spare.
Photo by Andy Stonehouse / Mountain Wheels

My contention, over many years of doing automobile reviews, is that most cars are really very much the same. They still have four tires and a steering wheel, and I have yet to drive anything that flies or is capable of traveling through time.

That opinion changed last weekend when I was very fortunate to get an unsupervised, 72-hour stretch with a 2021 McLaren 720S Spider. That meant outings in an actual supercar, a world-class automobile whose rarity, extreme design and appearance made it one of my most memorable driving experiences — ever.

McLaren — as I discovered last year during a similarly memorable weekend with the impressive 570S Spider, the $200,000 “entry-level” member of the family — has expanded its very active racing program into a low-volume, high-visibility civilian automotive business. But every McLaren incorporates the real-life racing DNA, capability and full carbon-fiber underpinnings found in their track-dedicated stuff.

That is absolutely the case for the $315,000 720S Spider, a futuristic, mid-engined, hardtop convertible that drifted close to $363,000 when a litany of options were added. I know that number seems impossible to fathom, but consider that the average single-family home price in Summit County hit $1.7 million in May. So we are not in Kansas anymore.

You could, conceivably, reach the Kansas border from Silverthorne in about an hour and 15 minutes in the 720S, as it tops out at 212 mph and will still do 202 mph with the one-piece roof down.

That thrust is the result of an all-aluminum, 4.0-liter twin-turbocharged V-8 that is absolutely racetrack engineered and capable of 710 horsepower. The torque alone, 568 pound-feet, is about the same figure as the horsepower of last year’s 570S. Plus, the car only weighs 2,937 pounds thanks to all that carbon fiber.

As seen from its front view, the 720S’s construction is entirely dedicated to balance, aerodynamics and the racetrack necessity of sucking F-15-worthy amounts of oxygen into the engine and brakes to feed and cool that action. The up-and-out-opening dihedral doors contain gigantic channels feeding straight back to the rear; the front LED headlamps and headlights are actually open channels to low-temperature radiators, cooling the seven-speed transmission and the charge air coolers for the turbos.

These are all critical factors here as zero to 60 mph can happen in 2.8 seconds using launch control. If you simply hit the “active” button and turn two chassis and drivetrain control knobs to 11, giving it about three-quarters throttle is still enough to loosen all the vertebrae in your upper neck.

Supercar, however, means that if you keep it nailed, preferably on a racetrack, it will hit 124 mph in 7.9 seconds. That is physics-defying, Neil deGrasse Tyson territory, and it’s the closest thing to flying or time travel you’re going to find while (mostly) stuck to the ground.

It was a cyclist-heavy Father’s Day weekend on my drives, so I instead concentrated on the 720S’s sublime cornering, braking and absolutely peerless handling, doing so at somewhat conservative speeds. Unbelievably, the owner’s manual has advice for winter driving — provided you sell another property to get snow-rated, 305-size 20-inch tires for the spiderweb-thin wheels in the back.

The ultra-high performance summer tires I had kept all of that lightweight, high-power madness rather comfortably glued to the tarmac, and the gigantic paddle shifters behind a for-real carbon-fiber race wheel create a near-mystical experience. I’d advise keeping it in manual, as you will become addicted to the backfire pops of exhaust and the otherworldly noises as you gun it coming out of corners. Even the ghost whispering noises of the turbos are awe inspiring.

In terms of passenger comfort, it’s surprisingly accommodating, to a degree. I again opted for a backward scuba-diving entry into the very stiff sport seats (track masochists can order manual seats or full-on, fixed carbon-fiber racing seats). Without Piloti race boots, I found that driving shoeless might be the easiest strategy, as the foot space tapers quickly and the gas and brake are literally less than an inch apart.

Displays and the infotainment system are a big upgrade from the “bargain basement” 570S: an integrated color touchscreen and a bank of transmission controls, but hardly anything else to bother you. There is a super-cool, Alcantara suede-covered digital instrument panel that folds and transforms into a simplified tachometer/speed data portal. I used a half tank of gas in about 40 minutes on one drive, so you may need to pop that up to check that you’re exceeding the 13-something mpg I got.

Andy Stonehouse

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