“What you keep calling ‘drift mode’ isn’t a magic button to make you a hero driver,” pro pilot Jamie Wall’s English accent crackled through my headset as we tossed the 710 horsepower McLaren 720S into a corner. “It’s a progressive system designed to help—” the car’s twin-turbo V8 drowned him out with a huge gulp of air, followed immediately by exhaust flames.

I fed it full throttle, sawed the steering wheel like a lunatic and put the car straight into the grass. “Sorry, chief. Thought I heard somebody say dooooriftoooo!”

Thankfully, it was fine. The good news was that this car isn’t about driving like an idiot. In fact, driving it is quite an education.

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(Full disclosure: McLaren flew me from Los Angeles to Rome, put me up in a hotel that looked like an art museum and cut me loose with the 720S on the road and on a race track for a day so I could tell you about it.)

McLaren is a small, independent automaker out of England carrying the name of legendary Formula 1 racer, engineer and all-around OG Bruce McLaren. That little swoosh logo is actually an artfully rendered kiwi bird from his home country of New Zealand. (At least that’s what the company reps say. Apparently, it’s also a derivative of the Marlboro logo.)

Mr. McLaren himself oversaw the conception and production of the first McLaren race cars, which were grinding it out with the likes of Ferrari and Porsche as early as the 1960s. He died young, and legend has it he’d always dreamed of a road car, but the company didn’t get much further than a drivable prototype in his day.

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It wasn’t until the 1990s that McLaren took another crack at making a street-legal machine, but its patience paid off as the three-seated “F1” is still revered as one of the greatest things to wear license plates ever — a quarter-century after it was introduced.

But McLaren still isn’t a household name to most people, not the way Ferrari or Lamborghini are. It wasn’t a bona fide series-production automaker until just a few years ago when it introduced the 12C and later, a convertible variant. Today, McLaren has three distinct model lines, which it refers to as the “Sport Series,” “Super Series” and “Ultimate Series,” basically in order of hardcore hotness.

Don’t worry, just because McLaren’s gone a little “mainstream” than the bonkers F1 doesn’t mean its vehicles have lost their wild performance... or distinctive charms. I went to Europe to test the 720S, successor to the superb 650S, and the latest entry in its Super Series.

Spoiler alert: it was good.

What Is It? 

The McLaren 720S is a carbon fiber monocage structure build around a new 4.0-liter twin turbo V8 with a staggering 710 horsepower (or 720 metric horsepower, hence the name) and 568 lb-ft of torque. Power goes to the rear wheels through a super quick seven-speed dual clutch transmission.

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McLaren claims the vehicle weighs 3,128 pounds ready-to-drive, and that all those numbers translate to a 0 to 60 time of 2.8 seconds and a downright silly top speed of 212 mph. All I can confirm is that, in the hands of a professional pilot, it’s almost quick enough to make me carsick. I never get carsick. I survived a stunt plane without puking. The 720S was a different animal.

But you don’t always have to drive it as hard as Bruce would have. Like other late McLarens, the 720S has “Comfort,” “Sport” and “Track” modes for its powertrain and suspension, activated by a lethal-looking set of switches just right of the steering wheel.

“Comfort” is less hyperbole than you might think, too. And “Track Mode,” well, we’ll get to that later.

While McLaren’s Sport Series makes up the poverty-spec basic models starting at a mere $200,000 for a gentle 562-horsepower grocery getter, the Ultimate Series is no-holds-barred, space-worthy wizardry. That included the recently-discontinued P1 hybrid hypercar; as for its replacement, McLaren won’t talk details yet.

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But the 720S belongs to the Super Series, right in the middle, or wherever you’d call the space between “mildly extreme” and “extremely extreme.”

As such the car is billed as an absurdly quick, race-track ready weapon, yet one that’s also comfortable enough to use every day and loaded up with enough guidance-assisting technology to make anybody look like they belong behind the wheel of such a machine.

More specifically, the 720S is supposed to fall between the outgoing 650S sports car and 675LT bone-shaker in terms of luxury and performance, and the “cheapest” spec starts at $284,745. The options list pushes the price into the 300s and beyond since McLaren Special Operations will perform (almost) any customization you desire.

The Coolest Stuff 

The 720S is a rolling sculpture of aerodynamics straight out of a Hot Wheels designer’s fever dream. And a stopwatch corroborates there’s plenty of speed to substantiate the style.

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But what makes this machine most distinctive among supercars is its ability to teach you how to drive it like a champion. Or at least, leave a car show parking lot without Mustang-ing your way onto the local news, or this website.

The system at work here is called Variable Drift Control, and as McLaren pro driver Jamie Wall explained to me while we took hot laps around Italy’s Autodromo Vallelunga, it’s not an “instant tire smoke button” like you might expect from the increasingly popular Drift Mode seen in other cars.

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VDC is really more like a volume knob for the car’s traction control. You literally move a slider on the center-mounted touchscreen that adjusts an avatar of a little McLaren with its ass hanging out progressively further on a turn.

Keep the system low and the computer will optimize wheelslip, throttle response, steering and braking for maximum stability. Flip the slider all the way out and the 720S will let you step its rear wheels out a whole lot further.

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Practically speaking, the car feels impossible to crash with all the safety systems in place. As you start to dial them off, it’s remarkable how pronounced the “limit” of traction control feels. With VDC dialed about halfway out you feel the rear tires go just wide enough to harden the hairs on your neck, then—snap—the car reels itself in.

It’s like playing a driving game, really. But an easy arcade one like Need For Speed, none of that technical and complicated Gran Turismo nonsense.

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At least, until you switch over to the completely unassisted “Track Mode.” The idea behind VDC is to let you incrementally release the training wheels one notch at a time while you get a feel for just how hard 710 horsepower can be to handle. If you want to drift drift, with the tire smoke and the opposite-lock action you’ve seen on Top Gear, you’re going to want all this stuff off all the way. And you’re definitely going to want to know what you’re doing. Which is why I happily let the 720S’ electronic nannies hold my hand all the way around the track and... still managed an unplanned parking job in the weeds.

So the system is good, not infallible, okay? But that’s what a real driver should want.

While VDC is keeping you on the track, the 720S’ telemetry equipment is recording your braking, acceleration, g-forces and steering angles along with an in-car video so you can review your manners with the steering wheel after a few laps.

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It will even feed you split times once your track’s map has been stored in the system, which you can see if you’re brave enough to glance down at the dashboard at race pace.

Unrelated cool features of the 720S include clear-class rear pillars, for exceptional rear visibility, doors with roofs and the best gauge pod I’ve ever seen on a road car.

When you plop into the driver’s seat you’re greeted by a large, clear digital display in front of the steering wheel depicts a prominent tachometer, speedometer, fuel gauge, gear position, GPS and other numbers indicating the car’s condition. Nice, but pretty standard supercar stuff.

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But push a button just left of the steering wheel, and the entire thing disappears into the dashboard, leaving only a subtle digital speedometer and a horizontal bar reporting engine speed.

If you were to design a car from my dream journal, it would have one gauge: a solitary light that comes on when you’ve got a single gallon of gas left. The McLaren 720S has the next best thing.

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Driving this car free of nonsensical distractions like those little needles dancing around is so joyous, so pure... and we haven’t even started talking about really standing on the gas pedal yet.

Driving it: The Highlights

The 720S does not need to be on a race track to be appreciated. I was pleasantly surprised by the suspension’s compliance over the cobblestone streets of Rome, and 360-degree parking cameras make it mercifully easy to get around a gas station. We have remarked before about how livable some of these McLarens are, almost like big mid-engined Lexuses in their most dialed-down and comfortable settings. Same story here.

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But every sweat-pouring second I spent backing that beautiful beast out of parking lots and scooting around Vespas I was actually fantasizing about the moment, the clear stretch, the empty back road where I could put the pedal down and do something dumb.

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Oh, that road came, alright. But the 720S was well prepared to compensate for my lunacy.

I rolled into the throttle and the car didn’t surge, it time-traveled. Remember how the stars stretch to streaks when Han Solo hits the hyperdrive on the Millennium Falcon? That’s what the trees lining the road look like from the cockpit of a 720S under a full sprint.

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Everything blurs out from the vanishing point on the horizon and all other objects in motion stand still while the McLaren enters its own dimension.

“Are we going faster or did the rest of the world just slow down?”, I asked myself.

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Hard to say, when everyone else on the road is in a clapped-out Fiat Panda, harder still when the 720S’ speed is so sneakily eclipsed by its rather gentlemanly composure.

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Throughout this ascendance into light speed, the McLaren stayed as calm and flat as if it were just coasting out of the valet line.

Through country road corners, the steering was so sharp and the grip so assertive that I could feel the car looking back and laughing at me for being such a coward. You’d have to leave your sense of self-preservation well behind you to approach this vehicle’s limits on the road, and even then, I got the feeling the car would still take over and make up for a lot of lost talent.

Weak Spots

Yes, it has some.

The switches to move the 720S’ power seats might be one of the worst elements of Human Machine Interface I’ve ever encountered. Down is up, up is back, and the fact that a full day of driving wasn’t long enough for me to master something as mundane as the seat control means it must not be set up intuitively.

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At least you can program and save a seating position, so you don’t have to rage out every time you get the car back from a valet.

So I could get over some annoying interface issues, but the wind noise in the 720S at highway speed is not as easy to overcome.

This vehicle is billed as a balance between luxury and performance. That means you should be able to talk to your passenger at a normal conversation volume at 65 mph, but that wasn’t possible in the 720S I drove with Motor1’s Seyth Miersma.

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(Update: McLaren’s people informed me there was a “bad seal” in this car that was fixed after I drove it. Since other journalists did not have my complaint about interior noise, it’s possible that there was indeed something amiss with my particular car.)

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Unable to find cracked windows or half-open doors, I have to conclude that the cabin in this thing is pretty noisy at long-range cruising speed. The seats are comfortable enough for a 500-mile haul, but your ears would be exhausted afterward.

What We Want To See More Of

Speaking of 500-mile hauls, that’s exactly what I’d like to put the 720S through if I get my hands on one again. I’d also like to see just how much VDC could teach me if I worked my way through its settings, instead of just flipping it from full-on razor-cornering to full-off tire-screeching followed by me parking in the grass.

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And you’ll think I’m kidding, but I wish I’d paid closer attention to what kind of fuel economy I turned out.

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While we’re looking at gauges I really want to see that slim “tucked-mode” cluster at night. Or not see it, more like, and just watch the 720S ravenously eat asphalt.

Early Verdict

The McLaren 720S is a showcase of exceptional engineering and unique design. It’s powerful but extremely well disciplined. So much so that the car’s character borders on clinical, but you better believe the 720S will challenge you to become a better driver and take you to school as you take it to the limit. Hell, turn the telemetry on and the car even gives you homework. More practical than a car this extreme has a right to be, and stupid fast, but smart about it.

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If you want to rip donuts and terrify everyone around you at traffic lights, slap a supercharger on a Corvette or get a Dodge Challenger Demon. If you want to spend all day at speed without spilling your drink, climb into an Aston Martin DB11.

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But if you appreciate precision, organization and exceptionally executed details, and obscene speed, start saving up for a 720S.

(Specs per McLaren)