We steer $378,215 of carbon fiber and aluminum up an ill-maintained mountain road . . .and end up returning the way we came.
California State Route 243 is a bad road. So many great roads are. Eighty-five miles east of Los Angeles, the northern end of this 29-mile asphalt patchwork offers incredible views of the confluence of the San Andreas and San Jacinto faults. Some 3000 feet higher, near the road’s southern terminus, a typical winter dumps 32 inches of snow. The pavement here takes its beatings from above and below, and it shows.
But mostly SR 243 is cracked and buckled from years of neglect. It connects an industrial city of 30,000 with a town of less than 100, and you could drive it in both directions and still you’ll be convinced that it goes nowhere. No surprise, then, that it’s been either forgotten or ignored by the transportation agencies busy triaging SoCal’s major arteries to keep them from clotting.
This road, also known as the Banning-Idyllwild Panoramic Highway, should be a treacherous proposition for a $378,215 car that skims the surface with 4.2 inches of ground clearance and a half-year’s salary’s worth of carbon-fiber aero hanging from the underbody. Driving the rear wheels with a 710-hp V-8, the 720S is a Hellcat as realized by a Formula 1 team. By the chief engineer’s own admission, this new midrange McLaren laps road courses quicker than the $1.2 million P1. So you might assume that it is a brutal and uncompromising thing, so absurdly fast that it all but refuses to be driven down this marginally improved goat path.
Except that it’s not, and it doesn’t. When McLaren reentered the road-car business in 2011, its MP4-12C (later just 12C; and later yet, 650S) challenged the Italian houses with an abundance of carbon fiber and a glut of turbocharged power. The company’s best contribution to supercardom, though, is the chassis advantage it still lords over Ferrari and Lamborghini. With a suspension that draws parallels to a 60-year-old French sedan, the 720S delivers the ride of a Mercedes S-class with the handling of, well, a McLaren.
VEHICLE TYPE: mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 2-passenger, 2-door coupe
PRICE AS TESTED: $378,215 (base price: $288,845)
ENGINE TYPE: twin-turbocharged and intercooled V-8, aluminum block and heads
DISPLACEMENT: 244 cu in, 3994 cc
POWER: 710 hp @ 7500 rpm
TORQUE: 568 lb-ft @ 5500 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic with manual shifting mode
SUSPENSION (F/R): control arms/control arms
BRAKES (F/R): 15.4-in vented disc/15.0-in vented disc
TIRES: Pirelli P Zero Corsa, F: 245/35ZR-19 (93Y) R: 305/30ZR-20 (103Y)
The company’s Proactive Chassis Control II connects the left and right dampers with a network of hydraulic hoses and accumulators so that compression on one side resists extension on the opposite side. This allows the engineers to ratchet up the roll stiffness without compromising the vertical compliance that dictates ride quality. A scarred and technical road such as 243 is the perfect place to test the system’s capabilities.
Our drive starts in Banning, California, an industrial town saddling Interstate 10 that could have been plucked out of central Oklahoma for all its anonymity. Just a mile outside town, SR 243 begins to climb the northern tip of a granite formation that stretches to the Baja peninsula and offers dramatic vistas of a landscape that is uniquely Californian, combining parched desert, verdant mountains, and snowcapped peaks.
The road rises quickly on a series of fast yet pocked on-camber sweepers. A biting late-winter wind works against the 720S’s optional Pirelli P Zero Corsa tires, which want heat in the tread before they’ll latch to the pavement with the full 1.10 g’s of cornering grip we measured at the track. It takes a feverish pace to keep the tires warm and happy—a pace the 720S makes effortless. In corners, the McLaren sticks as if pressed into the pavement by the Hand of God, and yet it feels as light and nimble as a Miata. Few automakers count grams as neurotically as McLaren does, with the Brits even omitting a limited-slip differential in the interest of containing mass. At 3161 pounds, the McLaren crosses the scales 157 pounds lighter than a dual-clutch Porsche 911 GT3.
The 720S’s trick suspension sorts the busy road into a fluid surface, while the fixed-ratio electrohydraulically assisted steering places the car with precision. Despite this competence, there’s a pervasive disconnect in the flat steering effort, which maintains a consistent weight regardless of cornering load. Without that cue, it’s difficult to know exactly where within the sub-limit envelope you are. If you’re expecting steering-effort subtleties to coach you up to the McLaren’s limits, you’ll spend your miles toddling around at extralegal speeds that are still well below the car’s capability.
Instead, the 720S communicates with old-fashioned steering feel. The wheel fidgets and bristles as it points out camber changes and dips and heaves that you would otherwise only notice through body motions or not at all. On SR 243, the McLaren’s steering system talks incessantly, providing a constant stream of feedback that guides your hands to make unthinking corrections. Use your palms to feel the intensity of these signals, and you’ll find exactly where the limits lie. The closer you push the 720S to the edge, the louder the steering speaks.
The McLaren’s capabilities are unimpeachable. Its steering feedback is world-class. But aor a better impart a sense of heroism at any speed. The 720S gives up its reward only if you push deep, and with so much grip available, that takes commitment and a touch of abandon on a public road.
Rising toward 6000 feet, Route 243 briefly uncoils and slices into pine forest. Straight runs such as this offer opportunities to uncork the engine, an update on the old 3.8-liter stroked to 4.0 liters. Unapologetically turbocharged, the M840T produces ridiculous power at the expense of considerable low-end lag, and it fills the cabin with steam-work huff and puff. Whether the eight cylinders bark or howl, we can’t quite say because the 95-dBA racket at wide-open throttle sounds mostly like the dentist hooked his tiny mouth vacuum in your ear.
Torque peaks at 568 pound-feet at 5500 rpm and only starts to hit hard above 3500 rpm, so you drive the 720S as if it’s packing a high-strung naturally aspirated engine, keeping the revs up, carrying momentum, and cursing yourself anytime you try to yank the thing out of a corner on low-end torque. Driven this way, the engine is spectacular, spinning with an intensity that carries past 8000 rpm.
And the transmission is paddle-shifted magic in its manual mode. The gearbox is as graceful as it is quick; shifts practically disappear. But McLaren engineers also included a bit of programming brilliance wherein high-rpm upshifts in Track mode finish with a satisfying thwack. Called Inertia Push, this feature slams shut the clutch for the next cog with the engine spinning faster than the transmission input shaft. The resulting sucker-punch shift uses the inertia of the rotating engine components to deliver a torque pulse to the wheels that, per McLaren, improves acceleration.
For the full effect of the 720S’s thrust, stab the Launch button placed with the radio, climate, and navigation controls. With both pedals squeezed, the digital tach needle quivers around 3200 rpm for four full seconds before the digital instrument cluster reports “Boost Ready.” The McLaren doesn’t slingshot out of the hole as an all-wheel-drive sports car does. Launching the rear-drive 720S is similar to lighting a rocket. You ride a wave of surging acceleration as the car’s road speed catches up with the faster-spinning rear tires. The squeeze in your chest grips hardest as the tach nears the top of first gear. Sixty miles per hour flashes past in 2.7 seconds after liftoff. The McLaren’s pull is relentless.
With the P Zero Corsas hooked up, the 720S wins back time on less powerful all-wheel-drive rivals that surpass it off the line. At 5.3 seconds to 100 mph, the 720S just nips the Lamborghini Huracán Performante. A 10.2-second quarter-mile puts the McLaren almost half a second ahead of a 911 Turbo S. At 180 mph, it keeps pulling, as if it’s trying to outrun comparisons with any other car. It is the quickest rear-wheel-drive car we’ve ever tested.
To haul the McLaren back to earth, the brake pedal requires a significant single-leg press before the standard carbon-ceramic brakes bite. The initial travel is dull and only marginally productive, after which the braking force begins to respond to pedal pressure. This is how we like it—a pressure-sensitive pedal rather than a travel-dependent setup. Yet the required effort is unreasonably high, and asking for more deceleration requires an exponentially harder kick. Considering the 720S’s weight, sticky tires, and standard carbon-ceramic hardware, we also expected a shorter stop from 70 mph than the 149 feet we recorded.
Both the stiff brake pedal and the flat steering grow more familiar with miles and a conscious recalibration of your expectations. As 243 wraps into some of its tightest turns, we find a fast, satisfying flow before slowing for the town of Idyllwild. On the weekends, the quaint mountain hamlet draws enough city dwellers that traffic interrupts a quick run every few miles. Yet even rolling at Prius pace for a short stretch can’t ruin this road. While Californians treat the freeways with ambivalence, drivers on two-lane roads consistently pitch their cars into gravel pullouts to yield for a faster car—or at least for a Paris Blue McLaren.
The 720S attracts enthusiastic upturned thumbs and outstretched cellphones, even if people still have to ask what it is. So otherworldly is its design that one admirer asks, “Is it electric?” as we pump 91 octane through its rear fender. Its organic lines understate just how much air management this machine needs—to make such obscene power, to keep a catastrophic meltdown at bay, and to stop the whole thing from taking flight near its claimed 212-mph top speed. The vents and intakes are there, but you’ll have to look closely to spot them. The sunken sockets housing the headlights flow air above and below the running lights and into the front-mounted radiators. Most mid-engined cars use the cooling ducts aft of the rear doors as a dominant styling element (see theor Ferrari 488 or ). The 720S visually stretches its wheelbase by moving these air intakes from the sides to the top of the car. Air follows sculpted channels along the shoulders and around the canopy before falling into the body sides to feed the intercoolers. The rear spoiler disappears into the bodywork until it deploys to increase downforce or stands on its front edge to act as an airbrake.
The interior is artfully simple. Ferrari and Lamborghini, with their button–specked steering wheels, could take a cue from the beautiful Alcantara-and-carbon–fiber component that does just two things: changes the direction of the car and tells others to get out of the way.
Compared with the 650S, it’s easier to drop into the 720S’s cabin thanks to narrower sills and top-hinged doors that take a portion of the roof with them when they open. It remains a struggle to hoist yourself up and over the sill on exit, then extricate your legs with any grace. But the Touring-spec buckets are reasonably wide and as comfortable as fixed-back seats come. And visibility is excellent in every direction due to slender carbon-fiber pillars and that rarest of luxuries in mid-engined supercars: rear quarter-windows.
Leaving Idyllwild in our mirrors, 243 continues its impression of the moon’s surface for five miles. The road ends in Mountain Center—a gas station, a café, and an animal feed shop—where it tees into State Route 74.
Left or right, 74 leads to more mountain passes, including some properly smooth pavement. But traffic is heavier and long chains of slow-moving cars form blockades. Instead, we turn around and return the way we came. The great roads are the bad roads are the empty roads, and they get that way because they’re poorly maintained and draped over unforgiving terrain. McLaren builds a ground-hugging supercar that can run on crumbling pavement as if it were a freshly laid road course. It’s a supercar that never needs to pass up a great road, no matter how bad it is.