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2019 McLaren 720S Spider First Drive Review: A Topless Heat-Seeking Missile With Manners

First Drive / 8 Comments

There’s a point where Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde comparisons give way to “this car can just do it all.” This is that point.

Somebody please go warn McLaren CEO Mike Flewitt because his company has to tread very carefully from here on out. It needs to dial things back a bit. Probably even ditch the Track 25 plan because if McLaren keeps up its current rate of output, it's going to set a precedent that will be impossible to keep up with. Its habit of unveiling fantastic supercars at the rate of machine gun fire didn't start with McLaren's first road-going supercar, the F1. It started with the 12C, its second production car and the one that put Woking back on the map in 2011 after a 13-year hiatus. Unlike the F1, the 12C's greatness didn't transcend generations, but it did mark the beginning of an innovation blitz that's seen McLaren release 16 subsequent models in just eight years.

And McLaren's second supercar still serves a purpose, not just as a collector's item but as a barometer highlighting the progress McLaren makes with each lust machine it churns out. It's progress that's plain to see when threading the 720S Spider through hairpin turns on a wet desert road, soaking up bumps like a Rolls-Royce but gripping pavement like a lion yanking its cub away from a pack of hyenas. We got ourselves into that happy predicament because McLaren flew our lucky lead feet to Arizona and stuck us behind the wheel of its latest drop-top Super Series, probably in attempts to redefine our concept of excellence.

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Exterior Design: McLaren Finds Its Groove

We arrived on a weirdly cold Scottsdale afternoon with ominous clouds muting the light shining on the 720S Spiders sitting outside our hotel, but that didn't stop the floor from collecting jaws. Ours was among them, since the 720S is one of those cars that looks better in person than it does in photos. It's hard to pinpoint just what it is about its arrowhead shape that widens pupils and gets hearts pumping, but the 720S Spider does it better than the Coupe. For that, lend credit to its stylistic nuances, like clear rear buttresses that preserve the rounded aerodynamic shape of the greenhouse and take the place of the rear quarter windows. Or the vertically-mounted rear window that sits between two carbon rollover protection humps, visually separating the engine bay and cockpit, eliminating the awkward bubble of glass that rounds out the Coupe's greenhouse.

Stand over the low-slung Spider and you'll soon spot how the roof is missing borders that usually advertise the 720S Coupe's dihedral doors. The Spider's now-frameless doors still open up and to the side, but they rely on a new hinge and repositioned strut to do so since they're not attached to the roof. And then there's the active rear wing, which still looks the same but has been tuned to account for the aerodynamic differences of an open or closed roof. Aside from that, much of the 720S Coupe's style is preserved in the Spider, which is fantastic news for lovers of the design of this generation's Super Series. McLaren designers have long been criticized for drawing up cars that place business ahead of aesthetics, but the 720S proves to be a merger of both. It still has a lip like a bathtub on the front end, but it gives way to arrowhead headlights that look more focused and aggressive than those on the 650S.

Aerodynamics: Purposely Playful

Moving rear, the 720S picks up a fragmented aesthetic that adds futurism and functional aerodynamic advantages to its natural shape. "Double skinned doors" with inlets between the inner and outer layers reside beside occupants' shoulders and help channel air into the radiators, while a layer that extends from the bottom of each door gives air trapped in the front wheel wells an easy escape to help cool the brakes and reduce front-end lift. Move further back and you'll find that the clear buttresses direct air into the top-mounted engine inlets and towards the active rear wing, which rests snugly against the body until the car's computers determine it needs to rise and use wind resistance to push rear tires into pavement. A profile view of the rear end gives a good idea of what kind of fluid forces the wind exerts on the 720S Spider, made clear by the large rear diffuser resting a couple layers underneath the dual exhaust outlets.

Interior Design: Lightweight Luxury

Unlike the performance-oriented 600LT Spider we drove during the same trip to Arizona, the 720S Spider can be had in three trims: Standard, Luxury, and Performance. Our testers were all Luxury-trimmed 720S', meaning they were fitted with heated power seats covered in Nappa leather and given an optional 12-speaker Bowers and Wilkins sound system to enhance the Spider's ability as a long-distance cruiser.

Performance models mix Nappa leather with Alcantara and additional carbon fiber trim to look more intimidating, but either way you cut it the 720S comes off as a comfortable and luxurious daily driver that just happens to be able to outgun the Batmobile.

The 8.0-inch infotainment screen is easy to read even when confronted with direct sunlight (unlike the 600LT Spider's), and when combined with a 360-degree camera system, gives the 720S Spider a field of view clear enough to navigate tight parking lots without inducing a panic attack.

Thanks to thin A-pillars, the clear rear buttresses, and an electrochromic glass roof that can tint itself or clear up at the touch of a button, the cabin feels bright and airy and is easy to see out of even when the roof is up.

Engine & Performance: Rewriting The Laws Of Physics

Ditching the fixed roof also means losing the glass panel that shows off the 720S' 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8. The noise it makes, however, is greatly enhanced when the roof is down or when the vertical glass panel behind the occupants retracts into the firewall and lets in the sound of air that's been tortured by cylinders, turbochargers, and high-octane fuel. Unless you remove the engine's auditory barriers, the G-force-detecting inner ear is the sense that reaps the greatest benefits from the 710 horsepower and 568 lb-ft of torque the 720S sends to its rear set of Pirelli P-Zeros. They cling to the pavement well, enabling 0-60 mph launches in just 2.8 seconds before hitting a top speed of 212 mph with the roof up or 202 mph for the truly insane who want to keep the top down at at full tilt.

The journey there is enhanced by the tactile feel of carbon fiber paddle shifters, hair triggers that rip through each of the dual-clutch transmission's seven gears when pulled. Though the 720S' engine is based on the 3.8-liter turbocharged V8 from the 650S, with those extra 0.2-liters coming from an increased stroke, 41% of its parts are all-new. That includes lightweight pistons, connecting rods, and a flat-plane crankshaft as well as twice the number of fuel injectors-16 versus the old Super Series' 8. As you'd probably expect, that doesn't exactly make the 720S Spider conservative with its fuel consumption. It delivers mileage figures in line with the Ferrari 488 Spider, returning 15 mpg in the city, 22 on the highway, and 18 mpg combined.

Beneath The Surface: Mastering Mayhem

While the 12C serves as the marker against which McLaren's improvements can be measured, it does have one hallmark feature that needs no tinkering: the way it rides. When it debuted, the 12C shocked everyone by soaking up potholes and road undulations as gracefully as a 7 Series but remaining taut and connected in the corners. That's a characteristic the 720S Spider preserves, and it's no less surprising now than it was eight years ago. The 720S pulls it off with a variable suspension system that can alter ride and feedback depending on whether it's in Normal, Sport, or Track mode. As with all other modern McLarens, the hydraulic suspension system can raise the nose to help it clear speed bumps without scratching its carbon front lip. But amazing suspension is nothing without a rockstar chassis, and you'd be crazy to think the 720S Spider didn't get one of those in the midst of McLaren's Golden Age.

As a variant of the 720S Coupe's Monocage II, the Spider's Monocage II-S maintains rigidity without additional reinforcements despite the fact it loses the spine that connects the front end with the rear half of the 720S Coupe. That allows the Spider to be saddled with a retractable hardtop and rollover protection but still keep curb weight at only 2,937 pounds, just 108 pounds more than the 720S Coupe. It's also 20 pounds lighter than the 650S Spider, not bad considering it's 2.7-inches wider and 1.3-inches longer, totaling 47 inches in height, 85 inches in width, 179 inches in length, and maintains a 105-inch wheelbase. Of course, the 720S' stability control system and Variable Drift Control (which does exactly what its name advertises) has been modified to work with the extra weight and altered aerodynamics, giving drivers of varying skill levels a technological backstop that allows them to take the 720S Spider to their limits before finalizing their wills.

If the fear of death does manage to creep in through the open roof, rest assured that the brake calipers on the 720S Spider's 15.4-inch front and 15-inch rear rotors bite hard and willingly, bringing the howling mass of speed and adrenaline from 124 mph to 0 mph in 400 feet.

At The Wheel: Because Why Be Anywhere Else?

Problem is, numbers like these don't matter to "real" enthusiasts, the ones who like to say, "money can't buy taste," and who hate on convertible supercars because they blaze through the finish line a couple tenths of a second after their coupe counterparts. It's a bane of Spider existence, to be accused of being purchased with ego and a need for attention rather than the sheer love of speed. Fortunately, McLaren has done a wonderful job eliminating the woes of going topless and enhancing the experience of open air speeding. Heading out of our hotel and onto Scottsdale roads after being warned that a jail cell awaited those of us caught doing six-figure speeds on public roads, we quickly found ourselves swearing to never let the throttle kiss the floor mats. Every time it did, like when we tried to pass a slow-moving dump truck, the turbos raised their pitch a couple octaves before the McLaren turned itself into a laser beam and shot our skulls towards the horizon.

Maybe it's the 720S Spider's luxury car waft, but events like that don't strike fear in the heart until you think about the impending loss of your driver's license. Except for the aerodynamically minimized sound of wind flying past the open cabin, there's nothing but the speedometer and blurring scenery to let you know you're going too fast. Cactus-flanked roads cracked by earth that's chasing a subsiding groundwater supply impact the chassis like Mike Tyson trying to punch you through a pair of mattresses. You feel the road, you know it's imperfect, it just fails to jostle you out of focus. Every second, control is in your hands-even the digital gauge cluster folds down to display only speed and revs and no uselessly distracting information. Crank the wheel to get the nose back in its lane and the steering gets you there just right.

Not too much weight, not too little, not darting too eagerly nor taking its sweet time, all along feeling as composed as a grand tourer despite the freakish speeds it happens to be traveling at. What started out as an exciting drive north to Payson, Arizona became an exercise of willpower after we passed the first McLaren on the side of the road with an Interceptor Utility flashing blue and red behind it. And then after a few dozen miles of coasting comfortably and re-confirming the 720S' prowess as a luxury cruiser, the clouds gave birth to a rare storm that started with rain, grew to hail, and then threatened a region accustomed to 110-degree summers with the prospect of snowfall. That's when McLaren's hardtop gets a turn to shine. All it takes is 11 seconds at no more than 31 mph and the precious Nappa leather and your goosebump-riddled skin are safe from discomforting elements.

Price and Trims

With the 720S Spider, it's encountering the unexpected and finding that McLaren has a solution for that, as well as excelling at the expected, that makes it difficult to find anything wrong with this supercar. We can't really knock how quiet the engine sounds given that natural aspiration is being regulated out of existence and the fact the 720S puts up hugely impressive numbers with the displacement it's got. We also can't say its grand touring abilities hurt it on the track because we never got to drive it on one and besides, it felt wonderful-agile and hungry for play-when we finally found a curvy back road without a determined trooper patrolling it. The only real complaint we have is that we can't afford one. The "regular" 720S Spider starts at $315,000 before factoring in taxes and destination, while both the Luxury and Performance trims start at $327,130 before you get nutty with the options.

For those with wallets thicker than three-day-old oatmeal, McLaren's MSO department can trick your 720S Spider out however you'd like provided your accountant isn't prone to fainting.

Verdict: Ruler Of Multiple Domains

If you happen to fit that profile, then our best recommendation is to get behind the wheel immediately. Psychologists have coined the term "hot hand fallacy" to describe the misconception that any person, basketball player, or company on a hot streak is bound to keep making their three-point shots. The "fallacy" part of the term highlights how their luck will soon run out. Whether that's in the cards for McLaren or not, it doesn't appear to be happening anytime soon because like the Super Series Spiders before it, the 720S Spider is an absolute masterpiece. It does everything a supercar must do and ranks as one of the most livable McLarens to date.

You might think a Rosso Corsa Red Ferrari 488 Spider is prettier, but that's because you haven't seen a 720S Spider painted Belize Blue in real life yet. You might think the 720S' grand touring abilities make it too restrained, but if that's you then be aware that John Hennessey sells the Venom F5. You might think that money can't buy happiness, but the fact the 720S Spider delivers lots of it, more than the coupe, is proof it can.