Along came three Spiders
& / #2019-McLaren-720S-Spider-S
by Mark Dixon
Spider or Spyder? Both versions of the word have long been used by the motor industry to describe an open-top roadster: Audi calls its new soft-top R8 a Spyder (as reviewed by Matthew Hayward on) whereas McLaren prefers Spider with an ‘i’. Best guess for the origin of the term is that it was a 19th Century coachbuilder’s coinage for a lightweight, high-wheeled carriage that was thought to have spidery qualities of lightness and agility. Which makes it particularly appropriate to McLaren.
A recent opportunity to test the new 600LT and 720S Spiders in Arizona also seemed a good excuse to revisit its first attempt at the genre, the 12C Spider that made its debut in late 2012. The example pictured left is a 50th Anniversary limited edition from 2013, which was available in just three colours: black, silver or orange.
I was lucky enough to attend the original 12C’s launch and, like many hacks back then, I expressed some doubts about the car’s styling. It seemed too supercar-generic, we thought, too lacking in adventure. Well, guess what? We were wrong. Its sultry curves now look better than ever, and its distinctive rear end appears almost understated compared with the aero-dictated complexity of more recent models.
A Spider version of the 12C was planned right from the start, so the open version involved no structural compromises later. The hinged hardtop is electrically powered and folds away in 17sec; clambering over the high sills is a lot easier with the top stowed, especially if anyone has had the temerity to park too close alongside – those dihedral doors need a lot of space.
Once you are in, the 12C feels almost old-school in its simplicity, with a pleasingly large central revcounter and a digital read-out for mph. The twin-turbo, 3.8-litre #V8
has never been the most soulful of units – it was arguably the 12C’s greatest weakness against its Italian competition; supercars are about emotion as much as technical ability – but the Spider has a slightly louder exhaust than the Coupé and, of course, having the roof down allows you to savour it a lot more. It sounds gruffer, more bassy than the Coupé’s, and there’s an appealingly anthropomorphic breathiness from the intake system as the turbos spool-up.
The 12C Coupé set new standards as an all-rounder for its combination of comfort, handling and performance; the Spider offers the same – plus more of the visceral stuff, roof down. With 616bhp propelling a 1475kg kerb-weight, it’s still ballistically fast, but on a more prosaic level there’s also a decent amount of storage space under the front lid. Those doors would drive you mad in urban spaces (or rather, lack of them), but otherwise the 12C Spider makes a surprisingly good fist of being a real-world regular drive. And now we have two further variations on the Spider theme.
The new 720S and 600LT Spiders are from McLaren’s Sports and Super Series respectively, the latter car being rather more track-focused – henced the ‘LT’ suffix for Long Tail, its rear end extended 47mm over the 570’s for increased downforce. The 720S starts at £237,000 whereas the 600LT’s base price is £201,500.
The 720S feels closest to its 12C ancestor in spirit, although it has a character all its own. The V8 engine has been upped from 3.8 to 4.0 litres, with 41% new parts content, and it makes a very different sound: there’s a breathy V8 burble as you pull away, which transmutes to a crisp braaaap as you pile the revs on. Even with the roof lowered this is a genuine 200mph car yet, despite the big power and performance increases, McLaren’s relentless pursuit to pare weight means that the 720S Spider weighs about the same as the 12C Spider. It’s also even more livable with, thanks to glazed panels in the rear flying buttresses that make a huge difference to over-the-shoulder vision, although top-down it feels a lot less claustrophobic, as you’d expect. McLaren’s chief test driver, Indy winner Kenny Bräck, told Octane that he would definitely choose a Spider over the Coupé for just this reason and, indeed, the sales split is forecast to be 75:25 in favour of the open car.
Curiously, while the Spider is claimed to give nothing away in terms of structural stiffness, both this reviewer and our sister mag evo’s tester – driving different cars – noted mild steering column shimmy and windscreen shake on less well-surfaced stretches of the very road pictured left, although it wasn’t dramatic. It clearly doesn’t bother Kenny, anyway.
But if extracting the last nth of on-the-limit handling ability is vital to you, the 600LT Spider is probably more your bag anyway. McLaren says simply: ‘We asked ourselves, what’s the absolute lightest we can make a roadgoing car?’ And they’ve really pulled out the stops, to the extent that even the windscreen glass is thinner. The correlation of this stripped-out approach is that the 600LT feels conceptually older than the 720S – even its sat-nav looks a bit dated. But it’s more obviously a driver’s car, with a simpler console layout and manually adjustable race seats. Its exhaust note is different again – buzzier than the 720S’s, like an angry wasp – and its V8 is a 3.8, not the 720S’s 4.0-litre.
The 600LT really comes alive on a circuit, where you can fully appreciate its incredible brakes and neck-snapping acceleration. Selecting ‘Track’ mode and keeping the steering wheel as straight as possible at all times minimises driver-aid interference, so drifting round corners is the fastest way to proceed. As if you needed any excuse…
Clockwise from left 12C Spider was launched in 2012 but is ageing well; 12C interior is refreshingly uncluttered; new 720S Spider is faster and more powerful, but weighs the same as the 12C.
From top 720S Spider will pull 200mph with the roof down; 600LT has a slightly smaller engine, a little less power, but has been optimised for the track.