First Drive in the Impossibly Fast and Sleek McLaren 720S

Rome's cobbled streets aren’t the ideal place to test a low-slung supercar, but the McLaren 720S manages to hold its own as I maneuver through these ancient, traffic-clogged avenues. The Italian debut seems to contradict the brand’s buttoned-down roots, but the message is clear: the bella macchina is being presented in this inspiring environment to shift the brand’s reputation from über rational to left-brained and emotional. Thanks to its sinewy sheet metal and howling engine, the $284,745 720S makes a compelling case for itself.

Finessing McLaren’s First Follow-Up

The newly curvaceous 720S is McLaren’s first-ever follow-up model, a sequel to the 650S (which was originally, and rather robotically, dubbed the MP4-12C). Boasting 91 percent new parts, the 720S marks a significant mechanical departure from its predecessor. It also happens to claim an outrageous engine output of 720 (metric) horsepower from its twin-turbocharged V8, and a lighter weight that further boosts its performance.

The 720S takes a different tack from the model it replaces by gaining sexy curves, sleek scoops, and a striking face that incorporates two massive intakes around its LED headlamps. Think, less British, more Italian — exactly the sort of styling that adds intrigue to brands like Ferrari and Lamborghini.

By adding 12 sensors and completely reprogramming the hydraulic suspension and stability control systems, the 720S is designed to react more effectively to changing dynamic conditions. A new variable drift mode encourages drivers to gradually explore the limits of their cars on the racetrack, while the suspension’s increased variability promises more breadth — making it capable of soaking up city potholes when necessary and handling a track’s tight turns at will.

The 720S’s newfound sensuality also comes with an element of practicality. Open the diagonally lifting door — “dihedral" in McLaren Speak — and the wider opening makes it easier to climb into the cockpit. The monocoque’s carbon fiber construction has been optimized to maximize visibility; unlike countless supercars with a disconcertingly compromised view through the rear, the 720S features more glass and narrower pillars, which makes it easier to see surrounding traffic.

The True Test: Track and Road

Climb into the McLaren 720S’s cabin and a decidedly more charismatic space presents itself. The interior has been reworked into a more driver-centric theme, with sculpted surfaces that frame the gauges and controls around the pilot’s seat. Reinforcing the theme is a trick instrument panel that can flip over itself and transform into a narrow, focused ledge that only features key info: a tachometer, a gear indicator, and a speedometer.

The improbably bumpy roads surrounding Rome’s ancient city center couldn't be more taxing to a supercar, but in its softest setting, the 720S articulates its sticky rubber surprisingly well over these stretches. But once the local traffic parts and the road opens up, the new McLaren shows its true spirit: the turbo V8 spools up impossibly quickly, propelling the sleek two-seater ahead with breathtaking speed. The sensation is stirring — the 720S can hit 62 mph in a mere 2.9 seconds and reach 212 mph — and the effect is wickedly addictive.

At ACI Vallelunga Circuit, a 2.5-mile test track north of Rome, the 720S reveals even more of its phenomenal capabilities by delving deeper into a seemingly inexhaustible skill-set. Though the sticky rubber at the rear wheels is easily spun by the outrageous amounts of torque, the 720S manages to contain its composure surprisingly well, serving up loads of lateral grip, confidence-inspiring high corner entry speeds, and reassuring chassis stability. The carbon-ceramic brakes work particularly well at scrubbing off speed, which is especially important since the 720S is so good at building momentum. But despite that speed, the corners are dispatched with ease, revealing an unflappable chassis that’s aided by McLaren’s brake vectoring system that slows the inside wheels in order to help the car rotate. Combined with the V8’s seemingly endless power, the 720S proves itself more than ready for anything the track can hurtle its way.

Measure of Success

At the end of the long Roman day, the 720S wins you over because it successfully combines the two personality traits McLaren has long struggled to reconcile: precise performance and emotional charisma. The net effect is a potent supercar that can just as easily whip you around a track like a racecar yet tackle a bumpy back road with a surprising amount of comfort and speed. It’s a rare combination, one that proves McLaren is ready to push their road-going car business to a new level. If these charms can triumph in a place like Rome, they can certainly succeed in your ‘hood.