When it comes to the relationship between perceived fun and a car’s actual performance capability, I would say I’m a medium-car-fast sort of person. Slow-car-fast is boring (sorry, Peter) and I have never really had the access to fast-car-fast. Spending a little time in a 2020 McLaren 720S changed that, though. Just a few fast miles in that thing gave me a whole new perspective on driving.
This car was many firsts for me. This was my first 700-plus horsepower car, and McLarens are known for making quite a bit more than advertised. This was my first true supercar driving experience as I consider a 911 a very good sports car, not a supercar. This was also my first car with unconventional doors. As I walked towards the Amethyst Black Spider, I marveled at how completely unremarkable the key was. Once we drew level, I squeezed the door handle (within an air intake) and tried to pull towards me.
I had a whole series of epiphanies over the next few minutes.
Epiphany 1: Car Doors Are A Class Indicator
After I switched my brain from proletariat to bourgeoise, I successfully pulled the door upwards and toward the sun, carbon fiber sinews glinting in my eyes. Never have I felt such status or class in my life, even if wasn’t mine to possess. My mind wandered back to the stories of El Salvador my dad would tell me with reticence, times of strife, of actual civil war. 35 years later, I’m at the precipice of something unimaginable to my first-generation brain: driving a car worth about as much as my family’s house.
The wide sills of the Big Mac are unobtrusive, billionaire doors assisting my smooth entrance into the fearsome mid-engined supercar. With my butt firmly parked in the deep bucket seats, I searched for a start button and pushed it.
My first impression of the 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8 was being a bit taken aback but how present the engine was at idle. The flat-plane engine spoke through the seat, the wheel, and settled into a frantic but dignified lope with a pitter-patter that resonated through the whole car. A touch of valvetrain rattle faded away as oil-filled and pressurized the maze of passages within the so-called M840T.
Just as I was getting acquainted with the remarkably alive car, a warning chime sounded and an alert flashed onto the gauge cluster: “SUSPENSION FAULT!”
Epiphany 2: Do not, under any circumstance, mess a McLaren up.
I happened to have a co-driver in the form of my new friend Derek. Our eyes locked on the frankly alarming message on the dashboard, then onto each other for a brief moment with the understanding that we were ignoring this problem.
“I’m sure it’s fine,” I said as I twisted some knobs and pushed a button or two. “Misha said track, track, active right?”
With both of the McLaren’s chassis and stability control knobs turned to the position with a small “T” and the “Active” button engaged, I set off. I didn’t register the strange brake feel until then, and the car did not creep forward without some encouragement from the floor-mounted throttle pedal. With only the lightest, gentlest application of less than a quarter throttle in second gear, I found wheelspin and a touch of countersteer in a straight line with a quick snap back to straight after an instinctual lift and intervention from the car.
Epiphany 3: I have a lot to learn about driving cars with this much power.
The goal of my short drive shifted with lightning speed from “feel the car out” to “live to see another day”. In the moments that the car was slowed down, I turned the knobs from “T” for track to “S” for sport, which increased the intervention of the traction and stability control programs and softened the hydraulically cross-linked dampers. I’m not about to test myself against a car that is clearly beyond the envelope of street driving. I needed all the help I can get. Allowing the car to relax its muscles a bit, I cruised it up to fourth gear and momentum drove it for a few corners.
Not only did the car feel bored, I knew exactly how checked-out of class the car was. This was like a perfect-score SAT student taking a freshman health class. The hydraulically-linked suspension that uses accumulators, special dampers, and a myriad of fluid lines to do the job of a sway bar without the ride-quality comprise, feels unnatural. The ride quality is that of a 5,400-pound Rolls Royce but the turn-in is that of a 2,200 pound Mazda Miata with rebar for sway bars. It defies weightlessness into a new category of anti-matter, into behaviors that don’t make sense.
So-called momentum driving the car exposes this clearly. Without a reference for weight transfer or tire load, ultimate grip (or anything approaching it) is hard to discover on the street, even with the old-school hydraulic steering. The sensation I was left with was one of pure tire deflection, a glide over the coarse pavement of Angeles Crest Highway. The car told me pertinent information through the steering wheel – shocking for this kind of car. As I poured more courage into my right leg, it even began fighting my hands like manual steering.
The experience is anachronistic. Nothing about the car is organic except for the steering. I found that the car simulating every possibility before I ever thought about making an input disconcerting more than helpful, with phrases like McLaren’s Optimal Control Theory (its onboard dynamics simulation and stability system) meandering through my busy mind as another apex was carelessly clipped. It could have been child’s play if I were brave enough.
If the movements of the car made little sense, the power made even less sense. Misha, the owner of the car, says there is turbo lag. I didn’t feel an ounce, The response and ferocity of the power could have made my ears ring. Upshifts from the seven-speed dual-clutch transaxle were seamless and downshifts dragged with heavy engine braking and minimal rev matching. That weightlessness comes back at 5,000 RPM charging to 8,000 RPM, where the engine is spinning so rapidly that resonance and vibration are imperceptible. Of course, the speed is obscene. Too much.
It’s everything Matt Farah of The Smoking Tire prophesied. People can just buy this? With nothing more than money? Anybody should be required to do dozens of full-throttle passes on a runway before they could buy this. All owners should have a mandatory track safety course to familiarize themselves with the language of this car. I don’t entirely understand how I don’t see a 720S in every shrub from Newcomb’s Ranch to La Cañada. The speed, capability, and dynamic talent of the car exist at an interesting intersection. To feel this car for what it is would require street driving that is outright antisocial or a wide-open track.
The lizard-brain un-developed pre-frontal cortex of my brain adored this car. The things it could provide me. The danger, the speed, the endless personal best lap times at any track of my choice. But, reality doesn’t exist in the dumb peanut brains of men. At least, not for non-rich folks. It’s a machine that resists any convention of what a sports or supercar should be. It reframes speed and character as we know it. It’s utterly original and unique as a driving experience and nothing else could ever come close, even on paper.
My friend Misha threw all of that out of the window and is acquiring something even faster: the 765LT Spider. I am happy and terrified to report that I will be driving that car as well. For now, I’m going to reconsider every choice I made and try to get rich. Those doors are to die for.
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