A cold raindrop splattered against the back of my neck and immediately soaked into the collar of my hoodie. I shivered. “Should we put the top up?” my driving partner asked, but I shook my head. “Hell no! We’re here to drive a damn convertible.” Overhead, the chalky Arizona sky darkened more ominously as the rare rains whipped down toward the rust-colored earth. To keep ourselves dry, we just went faster.
The overarching opinion on supercars like the 2020 McLaren 720S Spider, as I have gathered from writing for this site, is that they are silly and expensive toys exclusively for rich people. They don’t exist in the realm of possibility except for a very few, so why even bother with them at all?
These are extremely correct and valid opinions to have. I perfectly agree on most days.
But I also won’t deny that supercars are what drew me to cars in the first place. Without knowing a lick about cars or what they were about, it was easy to appreciate a supercar. As a small child, you don’t need to know anything about the history or engine or cultural significance to be captivated by a car like the McLaren 720S Spider. The supercars of my own childhood just looked cool and that was enough for me.
(Full disclosure: McLaren wanted us to drive the 720S Spider so badly that it flew me out to Arizona, put me up in a very nice hotel, fed me a lot of food and let me loose on the roads with a car for the whole day.)
I’m a semi-functional adult now, with bills to pay and cynicism gumming my waking thoughts together like tar, but at least that much about me still hasn’t changed. I still love supercars for what they are—lofty, no-limits aspiration machines—and I was delighted to have the opportunity to finally, finally be able to drive one for the first time in my life.
Just a Little Rain
The McLaren folks were all smiles and cheer while they hosted us, but it was clear that they were very upset about the weather. Rain in Arizona, for crying out loud.
Personally, I didn’t see what the problem was. I’ve watched desert storms such as these blow by after a couple of hours and, in fact, here was a real-world convertible test ready to go. Any casual character can drive with the top down when it’s sunny out. Only those committed to the cause do it when it’s pouring rain. I wasn’t about to let some water ruin my day.
For me, the more dramatic the supercar is, the better. Lower it, cut holes all over its body for aero, lift its exhaust pipes, give it swoopy doors and big, spidery wheels. Make everything sleek, lines that were blown onto the frame by a wind tunnel. The 720S Spider checks all of these boxes. The sills are low so climbing in and out of it are a breeze (for me), while the dihedral doors rise above you, impassive and waiting.
Settle inside and buckle yourself into an interior straight from science fiction. In addition to the flipping instrument cluster, there’s also the minimalist, driver-oriented console and a thin, carbon-fiber inlaid wheel. The interior lines do not adhere to any familiar shapes; rather, everything mimics the organic, flowing and curving lines of the alien-craft exterior.
Obviously, the first leg of the morning was wet. Relief only came when we figured out that you had to go at least 84 mph in order to keep the cabin dry the from the rain. From the wing mirrors, we could see just see the hazy spray of a rooster tail arcing gracefully from the end of the car’s rear wing. With the heat on full blast and the seat heaters cranked up, it was actually quite cozy in the cabin despite the absence of a roof.
Eventually, though, we were forced to stop and grudgingly put the roof up—the interior was getting more soaked than we would have liked and the car didn’t belong to us.
It Feels Like Flying
The 720S Spider has a soaring quality to its ride feel. It lacks the turbulence usually associated with performance cars, even though you’re still seated quite low to the ground. This, I suspect, has everything to do with McLaren’s Proactive Chassis Control II hydraulic suspension system. It still communicates road quality, but somehow also simultaneously smooths out the unimportant imperfections and bumps. It feels like coasting in a fighter jet more than a road-going car has any right to.
The 4.0-liter, twin-turbocharged V8 powers up like a pair of thrusters. It makes 720 metric horsepower, hence the car’s name, but the Brits also advertise 710 brake horsepower and 568 lb-ft of torque. On paper, these figures mean nothing to me. On the road, they had me believing I could catch a comet.
The way this power translates is very, very different than the 707 HP that you’d find from a Hellcat, which is fast but in a heavy, hammer-like way. The McLaren is lighter and has a dual-clutch transmission, making its actions far more instantaneous.
I hit the gas pedal and with a mechanized roar, the engine nestled behind my back rocketed us forward so hard that I left my own coherent thoughts behind. Unyielding, relentless, breathless and furious, the crushing forward acceleration never backed off as I smashed up through the revs like they were only the briefest of ideas before flying through to the next gear. Numbly, in my G-force addled brain, I noted the distinctly rear-drive feel of the speed, more push rather than pull.
No wiggle from the rear tires. Never a scent of uncertainty. No complaint from the steering wheel. I half-expected to see reality flicker at the corners of my vision as we gathered speed to make the leap through space-time. The 720S Spider is one of those rare cars that distorts the line between fact and fiction; you’re left genuinely wondering if you’ve sprouted wings to go knocking on the sky. I swallowed and felt my ears pop from the change in pressure from having the top down.
Disbelieving laughter filled the cabin after we descended back down into the realm of mortals. “This thing MOBS!” my driving partner hooted.
The car was made for going fast. And it is so, so brilliant at it. When hammering on the throttle, the transmission loads the gears blindingly quickly and the car races towards its top speed so quickly and seamlessly, it almost feels like it has no gears at all.
That top speed, by the way, is 202 miles per hour with the top down. If you close the cabin, 212. At pretty much any speed, the air rushing over the McLaren—and indeed, through it—anchors it to the ground and it feels as if almost no force on Earth could separate the two.
The rest of the afternoon was spent as a leisurely drive back to the hotel. Even the seats were comfortable. The car hummed along in seventh gear, equally happy as a people-mover as it was a reality-ripping missile.
Because that’s you can do when you drive the 720S Spider: you can cheat your own reality. You can sit back and literally feel like you are outrunning it, leaving it behind to be dealt with later.
It’s sometimes hard to focus on purely one thing at a time because that little rectangle of a phone in your pocket keeps you tied to everything else in your life, buzzing and trilling shrilly when ignored for too long. But spending half a day in the driver’s seat of a McLaren 720S Spider is a welcome distraction from all the chatter. You won’t think about anything else while that skinny wheel is in your hand because you won’t want to.
My reality won’t be completely outrun, though, and came back as a hard slap when I found out that the Spider costs $315,000. That’s the price of a house in much of the United States. And it is the perennial, ugly keeper to the pearly McLaren gates.
I’m not justifying the price, but I can see why the 720S Spider costs what it does. The engine is a masterpiece. The all carbon-fiber Monocage II-S chassis maintains torsional rigidity and reduces weight, all the while being very safe. The suspension is definitely crafted by magic. The exterior aerodynamics are integrated beautifully into the body. It sounds great. It looks stunning.
Even little things, like the see-through flying buttresses, belie a sense of sheer, unmitigated thoughtfulness usually absent from “normal” cars.
Of course, for the people who are actually buying the car, the price is irrelevant. This is the other reality in which the 720S Spider exists.
‘Super’ Isn’t Complicated
To be considered “super,” a car must be multi-faceted in its superlatives. The price is only one part of it. Performance, design, technology are other factors. And the last piece is the most subjective and elusive one of all: how it makes you feel. Before the words even form in your head, you need to already have a sense of awe when you first lay eyes on it.
Cars are just going to keep getting more and more expensive. But even armed with that knowledge, I still get a little giddy every time I clap eyes on a supercar like this McLaren. For once, the skepticism can fall away, resentment over its price isn’t so acute and I can enjoy just looking at it. Be happy that it exists in the first place. And as for the opportunity to drive it? Even better than I thought it would be.
In the case of supercars like the 720S Spider, the expectation is abstract. I’ll never own one, so the practical details just don’t matter as much. I just want to be wowed. I want to be excited. It’s a simple emotion, one that sticks around no matter how old you are. For this purpose, a supercar will always deliver.
Towards the late afternoon, I found that I’d guessed right: the clouds did shift, carrying their stormy turbulence with them. Long, slanting rays of the setting afternoon sun trailed up the McLaren’s flanks, which were splattered with water, dust and road grime from a day richly spent.