Rome - The McLaren vs Ferrari battle in Formula One is very skewed in the Italians’ favour right now, but in the road car stakes the British sports car brand is firing on all cylinders.

Since the newly-formed McLaren Automotive launched the MP4-12C mid-engined supercar in 2011, the company has stuck to its promise of introducing at least one car per year and the latest is the new 720S, which replaces the 650S as the British firm’s new Ferrari- and Lamborghini-challenging supercar.

Not only is there a lot more power, but the 720S adopts a harder, racier edge that will more appeal to owners who enjoy regular track time.

Where the 650S was a tweaked and reskinned version of the McLaren 12C, the 720S isn’t an evolved 650S but an all-new car which shares only 9 percent of its components with its predecessor. At the heart of it is a turbocharged V8 engine that’s grown by 200cc to 4 litres, hiking outputs to 530kW at 7000rpm and 770Nm of torque at 5500rpm (from 478kW and 678Nm).

That’s moved the performance figures to a 341km/h top speed, 0-100km/h in 2.9 seconds and a quarter mile of 10.3 seconds. More impressively, zero to 200 takes just 7.8 seconds. As before, drive is to the rear wheels through a seven speed automatic Seamless Shift Gearbox, and there’s a launch control system.

Where the 650S had a carbonfibre tub, the whole monocage of the 720S is made of the lightweight motorsport-derived stuff, contributing to a weight loss of 18kg down to a very trim 1283kg.

Twin-hinged dihedral doors make for easier access into the cabin, which has now been smartened up with aluminium switches replacing plastic ones.

A new asymmetrical driver-focussed layout has the touch screen control panel tilted towards the driver.

At the press of a button the driver’s able to adjust the powertrain and suspension settings to Normal, Sport or Track.

In Track mode the suspension’s set to full firmness and the stability control to limited intervention, while in a bit of James Bond-inspired theatrics the instrument panel folds down and displays a minimised digital display with just the basics on show: speed, revs and gear position.

New telemetry with optional front and rear facing cameras allows drivers to analyse their track exploits, a useful tool for improving laptimes.

In terms of design the 12C was somewhat of a shrinking violet by supercar standards, a factor that the reskinned 650S did a lot to improve, but the 720S takes it even further. Borrowing styling cues from McLaren’s ultimate supercar, the P1, the 720S is an outrageously styled machine with arresting visual drama. It isn’t just eye candy; all those sweeps and foils perform aerodynamic functions to give the car more downforce than the 650S.

The 720S is notably wide but the large glass house gives great visibility for a sportscar. Boot space and cabin stowage are also surprisingly roomy for a mid-engined supercar.

McLaren placed much emphasis explaining how the 720’s Proactive Chassis Control suspension has been tuned for a dual purpose role, but this wasn’t very evident on the often scarred and bumpy roads around Italy’s capital city where the car’s international launch was held last week.

The 720S has a firm ride that doesn’t make for happy passengers over an extended trip on uneven surfaces. Hard seats, combined with ceramic brakes that call for quite a firm stomp before they bite, also confirm that this car is no Porsche 911 when it comes to being a master of all trades. Unlike the Porsche’ s civilised, easy to drive nature in the urban environment, this McLaren’s talents are best exploited in the sporting arena, like the gladiators of old in Rome’s Colosseum.

Astounding track manners

When unleashed onto a twisty mountain pass or racetrack, the McLaren 720S makes all sorts of sense. It’s a car that wants to be driven hard and challenged. At the Vallelunga circuit outside Rome, in the heart of Ferrari and Lamborghini land, this mid-engined British supercar was one of the most accomplished track cars I’ve ever driven. It has astonishing acceleration, stability and grip, and communicative steering that puts the driver into the heart of the action.

Vallelunga is a racetrack with a bit of everything: fast, frightening sweeps (nearly as frightening as Rome’s manic city traffic); tight hairpins; and a double-apex turn that hits the sweet spot when you get it just right. Sweet spots were in bountiful supply as McLaren’s new missile raced through those turns like a thoroughbred, displaying a chassis well up to the task of harnessing those kilowatts.

This much power calls for steady throttle inputs through the turns, squeezing rather than attacking the pedal. But when you do boot it, this McLaren shoots forward with lusty, lag-free intensity of a type that makes you want to laugh out loud. It’s not the most acoustically pleasing V8 I’ve heard, but for extra money McLaren offers an optional sports exhaust that opens its lungs a bit.

The cornering g forces this car’s capable of are quite remarkable, but when those sticky Pirellis do eventually break traction way the rear wheel drive car gets squirmy in a balanced mid engined way. The bias is naturally towards oversteer but it’s not a snappy beast.

Electronics help steady the ship, and a drift mode with 12 increments allows drivers to fine-tune the stability control intervention to their preferred power sliding setting – from medium sideways action to completely bonkers depending on your driving ability and testicular fortitude. If you think you’re the next Fernando Alonso, you can disable the stability control altogether and try handling 530kW of angry snake with your bare hands – but beware.

There are ten McLaren 720S units allocated for South Africa later this year and the order books are open, at R5.5-million for the standard version and R5.8-million for either the Luxury or Performance versions.

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