Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: August 19, 2019
When we drove the McLaren 720S Coupe last year, we were smitten not only by its otherworldly performance, but by how it expertly blended everyday civility with an exploitable powertrain. Sightlines out its cavernous interior were impressive, road comfort was spectacular for such a low-slung supercar, and even in the absence of a scintillating exhaust note, this McLaren’s face-melting straight line speed and stupendous corner-exit acceleration were enough to convince us that sound isn’t everything.
New to the McLaren lineup is the 720S Spider, a roadster version of their solo Super Series vehicle. Retaining its mid-engine, rear-wheel drive, and carbon fibre monocoque setup, the topless 720S aims to deliver an exposed, unfiltered, and organic driving experience, now with an extra dose of fresh air.
Converting a coupe to a convertible is never an easy task, at least from an engineering perspective. Open-top vehicles used to be showered with compromise: the loss of rigidity, added weight, higher cost, and compromised trunk and cabin space due to the extra room required to stow the top. Track performance was undoubtedly hampered, and most enthusiasts that cared about track times would steer clear from a convertible, or even a glass sunroof for that matter. But with modern solutions and decades of Formula 1 experience with building stiff carbon fibre tubs, McLaren has managed to mitigate most of those penalties, if not all of them.
Here are some factoids to rattle your brain: McLaren says that right from the get-go, the 720S was designed to be both a Coupe and a Spider. As such, the Spider only weighs 49 kg more than the fixed-roof Coupe, yet it still achieves the same 0-100 km/h time of 2.9 seconds. When the Spider has the roof up, the top speed remains the same at 341 km/h (212 mph) as well thanks to its rigid structure and clever active rear spoiler, though that figure dips to 202 mph with the roof down - still eye-openingly effective.
The 720S Spider is lighter than the outgoing 650S Spider and even the Ferrari 488 Spider, and like the 570S Spider, chopping the roof off the 720S Coupe did not require any extra bracing or materials to maintain structural rigidity. That means the weight difference can all be attributed to the new rollover protection system and folding roof mechanism with its paraphernalia. Even the impressively slim windscreen A-pillars from the Coupe remain unchanged. In addition, the carbon fibre hard top is electrically actuated and can be utilized up to 50 km/h. That, and it only takes 11 seconds to complete its job, just enough time to seal the gap between sun and rain.
Road presence and sex appeal haven’t been lost in the roof decapitation either. Rather, I think the 720S looks better topless, and gathers even more attention when the driver is exposed to the elements. Form follows function, and this McLaren appears to have been born from the womb of a wind tunnel with its sculpted shoulder lines and deeply recessed eye sockets, all carefully designed to streamline air to the active rear wing for added downforce. Some say the Coupe appears sleeker and more cohesive with its sloping roofline but alas, looks are bound to be subjectively criticized. Hard to argue against this beautiful shade of Papaya Spark though, a nod to McLaren’s signature orange that dons their Formula 1 cars.
Our time with the 720S Spider was limited to street driving but you don’t need a racetrack to get a glimpse of its nuclear capabilities. Find a straight and empty back road, mat the throttle, and after a brief delay from the twin turbochargers, the 720S will launch at warp speed, relentlessly slicing through the air like a hot knife on butter. Now, I’ve launched a Nissan GT-R, a Lamborghini Huracan Performante, and even an Acura NSX before, all famed for their straight line speeds, but none of them feel as violent or as potent as the 720S. Not only that but it’s laughably effortless to get up to speed, to get in trouble, and to trigger a smile from the driver, passenger, and bystander.
The output from the mid-mounted 4.0-litre twin-turbocharged V8 remains unchanged at 710 hp and 568 lb-ft. Power peaks around 7,000 rpm but it redlines past 8,000 rpm, an area worth exploring for the sake of the vocals. But it’s not just the forward propulsion that bewilders. Yank the 720S through a corner at speed and there’s no drama, no wheelspin, and no chirping of the rear tires. It flows through easier than water out of an inverted cup, and it’s not intimidating. Sainz and Norris sure are spoiled. The electro-hydraulic steering relays an inordinate amount of grip information to your fingertips, allowing you to trust the car and its movements. It may weigh more than an all-electric rack that every other manufacturer is using, but the payoff with road tactility and driver involvement is worth the sacrifice. It’s as refreshing as dunking your head into ice water on a hot summer day. There are no wasted angles of steering wheel rotation, every millimetre of turn translates into decisive motion, and the front wheels feel like an organic extension of your arms.
Like the Coupe, the ride quality in the Spider is sophisticated and sublime. Even without a roof, I could not detect any tremors in the windshield or mirrors when dancing over potholes and bumps. And yes, I drove over the broken roads in front of the Royal Ontario Museum too, just to accentuate the effect. Thank goodness for a front axle lift system - who knows how much a front nose repair for that carbon fibre splitter would cost. The Spider does exhibit slightly more tire and wind noise than the Coupe, more notably at triple-digit highway speeds, but its compliant ride does make it incredibly usable on a daily basis. It’s no Bentley Continental GT or Mercedes S-Class Coupe, but it’s damn close to being as comfortable as the Acura NSX.
Where it falls behind against its direct rivals is in auditory theatrics. Even with the Spider’s unhindered front row seats to the exhaust out back, the V8 doesn’t shrill or summon the same kind of goosebumps that you would get from an Aventador or 488. Rather, the McLaren sounds more purposeful, emitting its own signature raspy noise that sounds a bit like the Formula 1 cars of today. It lacks crescendo and isn’t the most captivating, but it feels like it was sonically tuned with only one thing in mind: performance. Good thing then, that the 7-speed dual clutch shifts with lightning quick accuracy, and triggers a visceral blip every time you flick the paddle.
If the exhaust symphony isn’t up your alley, swing up the flashy dihedral gullwing doors and you will be treated to a charming interior, if you can get in. Doors that swing upwards aren’t the most ergonomic for ingress and egress, and the McLaren’s wide door sill makes it a bit of a chore for those less than flexible. In fact, most of my passengers have opted to just fall into the seats rather than trying to gracefully choreograph their torsos. Once you’re inside and have snuggled into the seats, you’re welcomed into an atmosphere that prides itself on functionality rather than visual party tricks.
Unlike many others in this rarified air, ergonomics are not an afterthought with the 720S. It may not exhibit the same kind of flair and quirkiness but it's no less serious. There’s a cupholder (you would be surprised how few supercars offer a proper center-mounted one (see: Huracan, NSX, LFA), a slinky center glovebox, and even a sliver of storage behind the 8.0-inch touchscreen, which by the way is large by supercar standards. While not the smoothest of units, the button prompts are large, the menus are easy to follow, and its simplicity should not go unpraised. The Bowers and Wilkins sound system isn’t bad but who needs the radio when you have the sound of internal combustion and nature’s elements above you? Turn that Billie Ellish nonsense off.
As with the Coupe, the 720S Spider boasts remarkable outward visibility. The seating position is excellent, and the 720S sits low to the ground - you could literally swing open the doors and high five the ground without taking off your seat belt - yet because of the wide and tall windshield, thin A-pillars, and sloping front hood, you feel higher up than it really is, adding to its friendly driving appeal. Over the shoulder visibility takes a hit with the roofless Spider, with just a small retractable window instead of an expansive enveloping glass windshield in the Coupe. Blind spots are slightly harder to see as well, with the rear windows replaced by the tonneau cover. Buyers can choose between a full carbon fibre roof, or a glass roof that uses variable-opacity electrochromatic technology that can switch between a blue-tinted and fully transparent state. Despite the minor weight gain, I’d opt for the former as it floods the cabin with natural light and makes a difference to the feeling of spaciousness.
With an exceeding amount of rigidity from its carbon fibre tub, amputating the top off the 720S Spider does not seem to have any substantial impact on the way it drives. Compromise is not a word in the McLaren dictionary - they threw that word out the window a long time ago. Employing a masterstroke of engineering to ensure any detriments to speed or performance are nullified, the result is a spectacular open-top experience flowing with unfiltered exhaust noises and a golden tan to accompany it. With spaceship looks, spellbinding performance, and unflappable poise, this McLaren sans the roof is one of the most complete, uncompromising, and captivating cars we have ever driven.
Model: 2020 McLaren 720S Spider Performance
Paint Type: Papaya Spark
Price as Tested: $456,610
Length/Width/Height (mm): 4,545 / 1,930 / 1,196
Curb weight (kg): 2,670
Engine: 4.0-litre twin-turbocharged V8
Horsepower: 710 hp @ 7,500 rpm
Torque: 568 lb-ft @ 5,500-6,500 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Engine & Drive Configuration: Mid-engine, RWD
Observed Fuel Consumption (L/100km): 20.4
Tires: Pirelli P Zero Corsa