McLaren 720S Spider vs. the McLaren Senna

Editor’s Note: The following article was written by my brother, the Wine Collector (his high security well armored wine cellar is probably worth more than my garage), after our annual Thanksgiving gathering.  Every year our families get together, and when we are hosting it, the festivities always include a number of drives.  The Wine Collector is a bit of a car enthusiast himself and he has owned a Ferrari 430 Spider for many years.

Siblings have hobbies. Some collect stamps. Others collect wine, or even worse, vinyl. I am fortunate that my brother, the Secret Supercar Owner (yes, that is his given name) is a car enthusiast, and he likes to share. Over the Thanksgiving holiday we enjoyed a number of drives on windy country roads and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend time in the McLaren 720S Spider as well as the Senna, and my impressions of these cars follows.

First, let’s start with the720S Spider, which makes sense given that the Senna evolved from the 720S platform. With a twin-turbo 4.0 liter v8 engine that delivers 710 horsepower and 568 pound-feet of torque, the 720S Spider has more than enough oomph to get you there, wherever that there may be. In fact, if “there” just happens to be 60 mph, it will get you there in 2.8 seconds. Its 7 gears are accessible through a smooth-as-silk and lightning fast dual clutch transmission. In fact, you will cycle up and down through the gears without reason just to feel how fast and smooth they are. The transmission is a masterpiece. And the brakes? Big. These carbon ceramic bad boys are big and bitey, just like you want them to be. As a driver, your sight lines are full and generous, the heated seats welcoming (especially on the cold November days I drove it), and I love that the face that McLaren has always separated transmission responsiveness from suspension responsiveness through separate controls so that you can dial in the perfect combination for your drive. While driving, the ambient light moon roof glazed in a lovely blue makes you feel like you stole an alien space ship and are driving it around earth on “blend in with humans” mode. And yes, there is carbon fiber everywhere, which is what you expect with all McLarens.

And driving the 720S Spider is a blast. Stomp on the gas and you feel the car quickly rev to about 4500 rpm and then launch as it hits the sweet spot of the engine’s power. At this point you involuntarily bark out words of excitement, joy, and trepidation as you now know what it feels like to be a fighter pilot. “Holy sh!t,” Top Gun baby. While the engine gives you the ride of your life, the suspension provides a beautiful balance of road feel and smoothness that makes you feel that you are master of the asphalt. New England’s blacktop surface variations are ironed out just enough by the suspension’s Comfort setting that you can really focus on driving. It enters turns beautifully and balanced between front and rear axles even after a short pump on the brakes. The 720S Spider is fun as hell to drive, but easy to drive at the same time. It excites, but not exhausts.

If I were to nitpick the car, I would say that the digital dashboard, which is angled away from the driver, requires an additional lens for those of us who wear bifocals as the control displays are just out of reading range but too close for far-away vision. Who cares? Well, I’m guessing most folks who can afford this car are not in their 20s and likely utilize some vision assistance. But as a counterpoint, forget about the dashboard because this car has cyborg mode straight out of Battlestar Galactica. I’m sure that’s not what they call it, but I’m not one to read the manual. However I’m sure this name is better than whatever they came up with. Hit the cyborg button to the left of the dash and the whole dash pivots on a 90 degree axis to present you with what you really need—speed, tach, and little else. And it’s readable! Cyborg mode is what this car’s all about.

Another nitpick would be that it’s almost a travesty that the 720S Spider has an automatic mode. In fact, the first thing you should do when entering the car is hit the Active button and switch the gearbox to manual. The first time driving the car I couldn’t get the car into manual mode and called my brother in a panic. The car had me in 5th gear at 30 mph and it was about to make me cry. This car wants to be at 4500 rpm, and you’ll want it there too. After all, you’ll still have 3000 rpm to go have fun with. Also, why did they ever make a coupe version of this car? This Spider is everything you want in a car, and McLaren’s carbon fiber tubs give you all the rigidity needed, with nothing but the sky above to boot. Perhaps McLaren’s thing should be to make only Spiders.

Despite its power and performance, the 720S Spider would make a wonderful daily driver. An expensive one, but a wonderful one at that. Its performance exhilarates, but its refined nature does not scream, “take me to the track where I can punish you.” That’s what the Senna is for.

The McLaren Senna, with its modified version of the 720s’s engine, produces 789 horsepower and 590 pound-feet of torque. It also has 7 gears with a beautiful dual-clutch transmission, but this is where the similarities end. Whereas the 720S Spider is a beautiful car to drive in a whole variety of conditions (and thus is a candidate for the daily driver), the Senna is a cat on meth.

As to first impressions, the front windshield provides ample views of your surroundings. The side windows only open with the bottom 1/3rd, letting you know that this car is not really a road car. It is a racecar draped in carbon fiber with a license plate attached. Tinted glass covering the bottom half of the doors graciously shows you how fast you are going at street level, and what the road rash would feel like. The rearview mirror provides a tunnel vision of what’s going on behind you, with the engine cover being the most prominent feature you see when you look behind. It’s McLaren’s way of saying, “why are you looking behind when you can pass everything on the road? And why are you on a road anyway?” The harness fastener tucked into the center of the carbon fiber seat reads, “for track use only,” but perhaps instead the standard seatbelt should display the warning, “only for use when on a road.”

Driving the Senna is different. Speed metal vs. hard rock different. The taught steering of the Senna leaves you feeling every part of the road, and this high-strung attitude delivers the feeling that minor swales in the New England roadscape could fling you off road. Yes, the downforce of this beast leaves you confident that this won’t happen, but the driving experience of the Senna is the most visceral experience you will have on the road. Ever. Punch through 4500 rpm and all hell breaks loose. You feel the tires bite into the road and every pebble kicked into the wheel wells sounds like you’re taking on fire. The Senna is a track car, plain and simple, and it begs to be there with every rev of its engine. I loved my time behind the wheel of this car but driving the Senna on a road is merely aspirational and will never let you experience what this car truly is about. For that you need a racetrack. It demands to be let loose and scream like a Banshee as it hurtles down the blacktop.

Can you compare the 720S Spider and the Senna? Even though they are close cousins, I would say no. One went to Eaton, the other to gladiator school, and both graduated top of their class. I would happily drive the 720S Spider every day and relish in its outlandish yet balanced performance, and wish I had a track in my back yard to let off steam with the wild-child Senna when I got home from work. They are both masters of their respective domains.

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December 2019

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