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The McLaren 720S will never slip past unnoticed.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Nothing attracts attention on the road like a McLaren – nothing. On the highway, other passengers and drivers pull out their cellphones to snap a photo; in parking lots, groups gather quickly; at home, the neighbours from several streets over stop by to say hello.

This isn’t always a good thing. Just ask the hapless driver of the McLaren 720S in Toronto this spring who gave a joyride to a passerby at Polson Pier; he floored the throttle to show off the car’s 710 horsepower and it swung out of control when the cold tires failed to grip the pavement, smashing itself against a parked Audi R8. Video posted to YouTube showed the owner’s unlicensed, 19-year-old brother crashing the vehicle and then running away.

It’s impossible to be discreet with a car like the 720S. It will never slip past unnoticed.

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The 720S is not even an all-wheel-drive vehicle, putting all its mid-engined power through the 305-mm rear tires, but that just serves to boost the sensation of being kicked from behind when the throttle is pressed in earnest. Claimed acceleration from zero to 100 km/h is 2.8 seconds, though that’s less time than it takes to read that statement; more relevant is probably the zero-to-200 km/h of 7.1 seconds.

This is remarkable, but most other performance cars in this $350,000 price bracket are about the same. The McLaren’s true forte is in its handling, which will take on relatively bumpy or off-cambered roads with barely a shrug of its Proactive Chassis Control II system. This isolates the two sides of the car with a combination of hydraulic hoses and accumulators, so the one side can have its shocks compressed while the other has them stretched, and everything is monitored and adjusted to keep the ride smooth and flat and stiff.

Despite its exotic appearance, the McLaren is still a driver’s car.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Do you really need this? No, not for regular driving at legal speeds. And do you really need the Variable Drift Control that allows you to dial in exactly how much torque vectoring is applied to the wheels, for more or less oversteer? No, of course not. But life’s a lot more fun with it.

The McLaren’s party trick for passengers is its swivelling instrument panel, which can either show a full array of digital gauges or be rotated 90 degrees to show just a flat tachometer light display and the barest of information. This is for track use, but we know it’s mostly to look good. And it does look good.

The beauty of the McLaren is that for all its exotic looks, its fancy scissor doors and its absurdly powerful 4.0-litre V-8 engine, it’s still a driver’s car if you should ever have a chance to wring it out. Just don’t do it at Polson Pier – somebody’s bound to be filming you.

Tech specs

  • Base price/as tested: $324,980/$439,350
  • Engine: 4.0-litre twin-turbocharged V-8
  • Transmission/drive: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): N/A
  • Alternatives: Lamborghini Huracan Performante, Mercedes-AMG GT R, Porsche 911 Turbo S, Audi R8 V10 Plus

Looks

When the doors swing up on their top-mounted hinges, they take half the roof with them.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Low, wide and sleek, the 720S looks like the supercar it is. The entire cabin is formed from one single carbon-fibre tub, which means it’s both light and strong. It also means repairs are going to be costly and time-consuming. When the doors swing up on their top-mounted hinges, they take half the roof with them, but that only makes it look all the more impressive.

Interior

The newly refined McLaren is surprisingly comfortable and roomy for two.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Surprisingly comfortable and roomy for two, the McLaren has grown more refined with each new model. It restarted production in 2010 with the MP4-12C sports coupe, which had a carbon-fibre composite chassis but difficult-to-see gauges and a quick-to-turn-shabby suede-feel interior. Now, the large central display screen (and vertical, like Tesla) is clear and instinctive to use. Switches are in odd places, probably just to be quirky: The buttons to adjust the seats are behind your knee, and the mirror adjustment is to the right of the steering wheel, which itself has no buttons. The seven-speed automatic transmission is a series of vertically mounted switches on the centre console, with paddles on the wheel, but the layout makes sense once you get used to it.

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Performance

The McLaren boasts an absurdly powerful 4.0-litre V-8 engine.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Exemplary. You have to drive it to believe it, but if you know what you’re doing, no other car on the road is going to show you up. It deals with rough and twisting pavement as easily as smooth track, and its power and handling can be adjusted separately through a couple of dials on the console. Even better, it’s comfortable to drive at legal speeds, though a waste of money to do so. If that’s what you want, buy a Camry.

Technology

McLaren may be a small company, but it has put significant investment into its technology during the development of the 12C, then the 650S and 675LT, which all used a 3.8-litre V-8. It also developed a less-expensive line (the 570) and the million-dollar P1 hybrid. This all means that the best of everything has worked its way into the 720S, specifically for improved performance. The carbon-fibre cabin weighs 18 kilograms less than the 650S, and the aerodynamics press the car even more forcefully against the ground at speed, with more clean and cool air passing over the vehicle than dirty air passing underneath. There are no fancy driver’s aids, though: no blind-spot monitor (which it could really use) or active cruise control.

Cargo

The deep front trunk has 368 litres of space, good for a couple of carry-ons.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

There’s enough space in the deep front trunk for a couple of carry-ons – officially, 368 litres – and a ledge behind the seats that can actually carry a briefcase. It’ll block your rear vision, so just forget it, but on a car like this, any space at all for luggage is a bonus.

The verdict: 9.0

An exceptional car that does exactly what it’s designed to do: It goes very fast if you want it to while being relatively simple to control, and it impresses everyone who appreciates a beautiful vehicle. Just don’t try to show off if you don’t know what you’re doing, because everyone on YouTube wants you to fail.

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