SEARS POINT, Calif. — Troll the parking lots of Google and Apple and there’s a good bet you’ll spot the latest high-tech talisman on four wheels: the 2018 McLaren 720S.
Where most auto companies strive to inject a dollop of tech in their automobiles, racing-steeped McLaren arguably is a tech company that makes cars. No surprise then that a McLaren plays a starring role in HBO’s comedy Silicon Valley as an exceedingly obnoxious venture capitalist’s ride of choice.
Between an abundant use of carbon fiber (lighter, stronger and pricier than steel), a slavish devotion to engineering (a six-year Cambridge PhD project resulted in a chassis that reacts to road data) and design aesthetics that scream cutting-edge cool (consider the car’s winged doors that open up and out), the Surrey, England-based automaker consistently creates machines that are basically grounded fighter jets.
Most folks have heard of Ferrari or Porsche, but maybe not McLaren. It’s named after Bruce McLaren, a onetime racer who turned his passion for precision into an automotive enterprise. In the 1990s, McLaren debuted with a road car dubbed the F1. At close to $1 million, it seemed ludicrous. Now that car easily goes for ten times as much.
Excluding the exclusive $1 million-plus McLaren P1 hypercar, the latest and greatest McLaren up until this point was the rakish 650S. But much like the new $999 Apple iPhone X is to the iPhone 7, McLaren’s engineers pulled out their calculators and managed to improve on their design in almost every way.
For example, the 720S has hidden air channels that improved cooling by 15%. Aerodynamic efficiency has doubled thanks in part to a new rear wing profile. Dry weight even decreased to 2,828 lbs. despite added equipment. And a tweaked swivel angle for the doors that ensures you won’t hit nearby cars on opening.
So what’s it like to drive?
The car we tested at Sonoma Raceway under the watchful guidance of the track’s Simraceway Performance Driving Center instructors stickered at an outrageous $374,000 (including $90,000 in tech and carbon options). Crazy? Yes. But what’s crazier still is that you can buy 10 of these automotive rockets for the price of just one Bugatti Chiron. Advantage McLaren.
Steering on this car is precise to the point of being intuitive if not downright anticipatory. You feel less like someone driving a car and more like a surgeon wielding a scalpel. Driving even the nicest of performance cars afterwards feels a bit like steering a bus.
The 4-liter, twin-turbo V-8 creates 720 horsepower, but delivers the fury in progressive doses so that the transition between full-throttle acceleration to lift-off-the-pedal engine braking to stomping on the brakes quickly becomes a seamless dance after mere minutes in the vehicle.
The best is last. In a nod to the 1950s and ’60s when cars were truly race-on-Sunday, drive-to-work on Monday transportation, the 720s can switch at the flick of a few settings from a raging track monster to a fairly tractable street car.
All this said, there is an element of wonderful if impractical ridiculousness to this car.
For starters, McLaren points out that the redesigned carbon fiber tub — the cocoon that cradles the driver and passenger in quiet and safety — resulted in a much smaller door sill than the outgoing 650S model. That may be so, but getting in and out of the 720S remains comical for all but the most nimble among us. Check your ego at the scissor door.
The 720S has a stereo, but there’s no need. Hit the start button and the engine screams to life in a way that will scare animals and small children. And apparently our car’s exhaust could be beefed up. Can’t imagine.
In fact, that I-am-McLaren, hear-me-roar attitude persists throughout the drive, which means that you need to be prepared for a range of reactions. Let’s just say you’ll see some thumbs-up gestures, and maybe some fingers-up ones.
The car is polarizing yet thrilling. Demanding yet intuitive. Technological yet minimalist. Sounds like a lot of people we know in Silicon Valley.
WHAT STANDS OUT
Performance: From road to track, the car dominates the scene
Visibility: Staggeringly good for a supercar
Getting in and out: Be prepared to hit the yoga studio first
2018 MCLAREN 720S
What? The company’s top-of-the-line two-seater
When? Available now
Where? Made in Surrey, England
What makes it go? A 4-liter twin-turbo V-8 that produces 720 horsepower
How thirsty? 15 city, 22 highway, 18 combined
How big? 15 feet long, 6 feet wide
How much? Starts at $284,000 (about $100,000 more than the entry-level 570 series); but as tested $374,000 due to a slew of track-focused tech options and acres of pricey carbon fiber
Overall: The ultimate technology statement
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