There is a strong whiff of irony in the fact the McLaren 720S is the new poster child of the video gaming world.
With headline appearances in Forza and Project Cars 2, the 720S is considered the idol of the gaming generation; a new wave of enthusiast that fantasises over the British juggernaut on their PlayStation and Xbox in the same way generations before them did so with a simple poster (an F40 or Diablo in our house) on the bedroom wall.
Unlocking the McLaren’s layers of complexity and capability – from the basic ‘beginner’ mode on the street through to the unwieldy ‘advanced’ mode on track – is done via the simple press of a button on its main menu, so to speak.
Doing so immediately transforms the car’s behaviour and outright appeal, just as it would in the virtual space.
In the space of a four-day loan of the 720S, covering inner-city, rural and highway journeys, along with a lash at Goulburn’s Wakefield Park circuit, this incredible machine challenged our perception of speed, dynamics and, most convincingly, of McLaren itself. It’s that good.
Nuts and bolts
First, some of the important stuff. The 720S is the latest offering within McLaren’s Super Series, and essentially replaces the 650S in the line-up.
The two are 91 per cent different, according to McLaren, thanks to development of the engine, carbon-fibre tub and roof structure, new suspension configuration and some added tech wizardry.
The improvements have eked exponential statistical gains over the 650S. The said carbon-fibre tub and lid reduces weight by 18kg, power is up to 527kW (or 720 horsepower) and torque to 770Nm, and performance figures are out of this world: 0-100km/h in 2.9 seconds, 0-200km/h in 7.8 seconds, and a top speed of 341km/h.
As for the standing quarter-mile dash? Just 10.3 seconds.
Behind the figures are new technologies including hydraulically-controlled dampers in the place of traditional anti- roll bars, the use of the brakes instead of a traditional limited-slip differential to apportion torque in low- and high-speed scenarios, and a slick-shifting seven-speed automatic and stability control suite that ties the entire package together.
The car’s svelte carbon-fibre clad exterior is matched by lashings of Alcantara and carbon materials inside, a half-decent sound system and large centre touch-screen that talks to a fully digital instrument cluster. Noted: our car did feature $180,000 worth of options.
The instrument cluster conveys a lot of the key infotainment and performance displays, along with the reversing camera, but its biggest party trick happens when you set the car to Track mode. The screen automatically folds away and reverts to a smaller display conveying streamlined functions such as revs, speed and gear.
There are bugbears typical of any supercar – dihedral doors that are a tad clunky in daily conveyance and a thick-set sill to clamber over, for instance – but on the whole the 720S is more user-friendly than most, with a few hidey holes inside matched by a generous ‘frunk’ up front.
In addition, the lightweight carbon roof structure affords excellent vision front and rear, and there are no obvious blind spots in traffic.
Doddling out of McLaren’s Sydney dealership and onto busy O’Riordan Street in Alexandria, the 720S is less supercar and more A-to-B transporter – such is its ease of use.
Noted, there are obvious limitations with the car’s low ride height – even withstanding the hydraulic lift kit — but there is no typical binding of the engine and gearbox at low speed, and throttle calibration is quite user friendly.
Ditto the hydraulically-controlled dampers, which iron out bumps supremely without upsetting the car’s balance on the road. It is easy to forget the 720S rides on big wheels (19-inch up front, 20-inch at the rear).
Pottering along in sixth gear at 50km/h, with the tacho needle barely above idle, the 720S appears at odds with its superlative credentials.
If anything, the most obvious sign you’re in a $700,000 supercar is the carbon-ceramic brake package, which requires quite a bit of pressure to stop the car rolling forward.
You might argue the sound is another giveaway, though the 720S arguably doesn’t wield the bark to match its convincing bite, with a muted and subdued note at everyday speeds.
With the handling and powertrain dials set to Comfort, the McLaren makes light work of the run towards the M5 motorway, turning heads en masse in the process.
It is in these cruising and highway situations that you’ll get closest to the 10.7/100km fuel claim, and we did. But that soon changes once you open the taps.
Taking an early exit in order to get away from ubiquitous highway, the temptation is to switch the 720S to Track mode and go for a no-holds-barred fang.
However, the car’s ferocious turn of speed quickly demonstrates the price for failure is too high on public roads, both in terms of life and limb and demerit points.
With our enthusiasm slightly tempered, we leave the car in Sport and see what happens.
First, the steering. Hydraulically-assisted steering is typically hit and miss in sports cars, but McLaren has managed to cultivate the perfect mix of organic feel and feedback, accuracy and weighting, and low speed lightness.
The steering becomes better with speed on the road, smaller mid-corner imperfections simply nibbling at the wheel, bringing the car to life.
Next, the dampers, which retain strong comfort qualities with an added sporty bent in the corners. The 720S turns in accurately and without hesitation, rewarding smooth inputs by linking the corners together seamlessly.
Grip is phenomenal along craggy, undulating country roads. The underlying mechanics and overall front/rear balance plays a part here, as does the sticky Pirelli P Zero rubber.
Finally, there is scope to sink the boot in as we take an entry ramp to the highway and reach the posted 110km/h limit. The inexorable rush towards the 8000rpm redline (and the speed limit) is difficult to describe, but it is swift, brutal, violent and yet quite casual all at once.
But the best is yet to come. Goulburn’s Wakefield Park awaits.
This is where the 720S shines. It was born for the track, and Wakefield Park’s varying layout illustrates why.
We set the car to Track mode to unleash another as-yet unseen layer to the McLaren. It quickly elicits greater response from the engine and transmission, stiffer chassis dynamics and a deeper, rortier (but still subdued) sound track from the dual exhaust outlets.
The turn of speed is most explosive in this setting, the track signage and flag marshalling points turning into a chorus of blurred colours and distorted images.
Acceleration is instant and unapologetically swift. Everything about the rush to redline is thrilling, except perhaps the noise. A moot point, you might argue.
Before long the McLaren is dancing around the circuit, neatly sashaying between mild levels of understeer and controllable oversteer.
Coming into the circuit’s famous ‘Fishhook’, the McLaren whips off chunks of blistering speed with a controllable wiggle, hardly raising a sweat before skewering in towards the apex. The only real exertion comes from the driver’s leg trying to stand on said brakes.
The 720S does frightening things without ever intimidating. An example: if you can imagine a race car driver having to make minor inputs mid-corner to keep a car perfectly in check, that’s how the 720S drives at full pace.
It is alive, intimidatingly alive; the way a good supercar should be. But it is all against a backdrop of a stealthy and clever stability control system ready to catch you.
Then, once the confidence levels are up, you peel the McLaren back to its penultimate layer, and one tempting step away from everything being turned off: Track mode with Variable Drift Control engaged.
In this setting, VDC (as McLaren calls it) allows the driver to set the parameters for how far they’re willing to let the car slide. Here, the lateral movements become more pronounced and the driver enjoyment enhanced yet again.
Sure, it won’t hold a slide on throttle in VDC mode, but the 720S will let you dance with the outer limits of adhesion before reigning everything back in. The experience is mesmerising.
McLaren is barely 10 years into this latest road car caper, but already it is proving its mettle among the world’s best.
The 720S only improves the British car-maker’s standing. It takes the stuff of virtual reality – blinding speed, incandescent handling – and makes it real.
Ferrari and Lamborghini, the challenge has been set.
2018 McLaren 720S Performance pricing and specifications:
Price: $515,080 (plus on-road costs)
Engine: 4.0-litre twin-turbo petrol V8
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic
Fuel: 11.7L/100km (ADR Combined)
CO2: 249g/km (ADR Combined)
Safety rating: TBC