Welcome to the 700 Club.
Requirement for membership: 700 horsepower. It’s an elite group of production vehicles including supercars, Bentleys and Hellcats. I’ve flogged a few. For 2018 the directory gets two new members: the McLaren 720S and Corvette ZR1, and they reflect the club’s diversity.
Not straight-line drag racers like the 707-horse Dodge Challenger Hellcat or 840-horse Demon, these remarkable athletes can harness their power for any discipline from the race track to Woodward stoplights, yet they are very different species raised in different worlds to achieve the same purpose: delivering face-flattening speed in tush-flattering comfort.
The 720S is the road-going manifestation of McLaren's racing success.
With multiple Formula One titles under its belt, McLaren began distilling race technology into production cars with the MP4 super car in 1984. It now churns out models for three supercar “segments” that it calls Sport, Super and Ultimate. All are built on essentially the same mid-engine, rear-wheel drive, carbon-fiber platform.
My $331,335 tester fills the mid-level Super segment — slotting between the $210,000 570GT that I tested in this space last summer, and the insane, $1 million-plus P1 and Senna Ultimate-class track hellions. They’re all insane, really: carbon-fiber race cars made street legal.
The Corvette ZR1, by contrast is, well, a Chevy — though any relationship to mainstream Chevrolets is a stretch. Yes, it uses the same 6.2-liter pushrod V-8 technology found in a Silverado. Its 4G WiFi-capable touchscreen infotainment system is yanked right out of a Malibu sedan. And its supercar price tag is a Chevy-like bargain at $137,000, meaning you could buy two ZR1s for the price of one 720S and have money left over for a Camaro SS.
But like its predecessors, the seventh-generation C7 Corvette is built on a bespoke rear-wheel drive aluminum chassis with otherworldly capabilities. Then Corvette’s team of mad scientists took a page from McLaren’s book. The C7 was co-developed with GM’s Pratt and Miller race team to prep it for race use.
As the most capable Corvette in the stable, the ZR1 builds on the already-ferocious 650-horse Z06 by adding a bigger supercharger and even more downforce punctuated by a high-wing nailed to the frame out back.
The result is a 'Vette on 'roids, like Hulk bursting from Bannerman’s too-small clothes. The supercharger bulges from the hood, carbon-fiber dive-planes sprout from the nose, the bat wing looms like something out of DC Comics.
The McLaren looks like it came from the future.
Squeeze the door sill and scissor-doors glide upward. “Eye socket” headlight ducts suck air into twin radiators. A wing emerges on hydraulic struts when an Active aero button is engaged.
The sinewy bod is even more beautiful than the 570GT. Gone are the side air-intakes, replaced by more subtle channels along the greenhouse. The alien-like insectoid taillights remain, but toasty dual-exhaust pipes split them at hip height (watch those hands, kids!).
Get this thing a starring role in the next “Blade Runner” movie.
Bury the throttle out of M1 Concourse’s hairpin and the sci-fi experience goes into hyper-drive. The engine momentarily hesitates as the turbos spool up inside the 4.0-liter V-8. Then, Alice, it’s to the moon.
The same engine with 562 ponies in the 570S was the best mill I have ever driven.
Add another 148 horses for the 720S, and it's OMG. Around town the acceleration is electric. With a turbo hiss, traffic vanishes in the rear-view mirror. On track the punch is relentless and linear, the torque curve never leveling off.
I hit 130 mph on M1’s back straight before carbon-ceramic brakes brought the rocket back to earth. Veteran M1 instructor Aaron Bambach says that’s faster than anything he’s seen on track shy of the $900,000, 887-horsepower (800 Club anyone?) Porsche 918 hybrid.
The seven-speed tranny fires off quick shifts, the turbos hiss, the engine howls. And then the twisties rush into view. Coping with the mad rush of a 700-plus horsepower — more than an IndyCar — in a 3,100-pound car is an intense experience. But throw it into a corner and the McLaren shrinks to an oversized go-kart.
The electro-hydraulic steering is intuitive, the chassis balanced, the carbon frame flat as a board. I could place the car on a dime around M1.
The McLaren is digital, the Corvette analog.
Of course, electronics is key to the 700 Club. Weapons like these would have been unthinkable 20 years ago without today’s electronic-stability controls, brainiac on-board computers and quick-shifting transmissions.
But as Belle Isle pace-car driver Mark Reuss will be the first to tell you, the ‘Vette can get away from you in a hurry. Pounding downhill through Road Atlanta’s fast esses, the throttle must be treated with care lest 378 cubic inches of piston thrust — 750 pound-feet of torque! — overwhelm the 12-inch rear tires.
Where the McLaren’s rocket builds momentum, the ZR1 comes off the launch pad like the Space Shuttle. The ground shakes. Birds scatter. Car alarms explode. The ZR1 will hit 170 mph on Road Atlanta’s back straight before 15.5-inch-saucers the size of Captain America’s shield haul it into a tight chicane. Unlike the carbon-fiber 720S, you can feel the aluminum 'Vette flexing, the car moving under you like King Kong unleashed.
But you can feel the 1,000 pounds of downforce — much of it generated by the high wing — pushing down on Kong all the time like a net, keeping him from rampaging off into the forest.
The McLaren computer game is reinforced inside with a digital display that flips over into a narrow, race car-like rpm/mph readout when you choose Track from the console mode selector. A separate knob controls the suspension with Comfort-Sport-Track settings. It’s unique and works instantly to match your needs. The slow infotainment system takes a back seat to the drive dynamics.
The Corvette, by contrast, benefits from its corporate lineage by sporting the brand’s tried-and-true mass-market infotainment system with gadgets like Apple Car Play, head-up display and performance data recorder. Being a Chevy has its benefits.
Both steeds deserve their 700 Club supercar status. The McLaren is simply the best athlete I have driven. The Corvette, dollar-per-pound, is the fastest car ever conceived. What could possibly rival this pair?
I hear the 1,479-horsepower Koenigsegg Regera and 1,479-horse Bugatti Veyreon are starting a 1,000 Club ...
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.
2018 McLaren 720S Coupe
Vehicle type: Rear-engine, rear-wheel drive, two-passenger supercar
Price: $288,845 base ($331,355 as tested)
Powerplant: 4.0-liter twin-turbocharged V-8
Power: 710 horsepower, 568 pound-feet torque
Transmission: 7-speed automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph, 2.8 seconds (mfr.); top speed: 212 mph
Weight: 3,128 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 15 city/22 highway/18 combined (Car and Driver)
Highs: Supermodel looks; turbo V-8 from the gods
Lows: Slow infotainment system
Overall: 4 stars
2019 Chevy Corvette ZR1
Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, two-passenger supercar
Price: $119,995 base ($136,815 as tested)
Powerplant: 6.2-liter, supercharged V-8
Power: 755 horsepower, 715 pound-feet torque
Transmission: 7-speed manual; 8-speed automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph, 2.85 seconds (mfr); top speed: 212 mph
Weight: 3,524 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 13 city/19 highway/15 combined (manual); 12 city/20 highway/15 combined (automatic)
Highs: Comfy daily driver; Herculean torque
Lows: Oily interior odor; poor visibility
Overall: 4 stars