Driving Japan’s Kirifuri Road in the McLaren 720S Spider

Ken Saito
McLaren 720S Spider review front doors open

Photo: Ken Saito

When McLaren Automotive Japan gave me the new 720S Spider to drive, I just knew exactly which road to take it to: the brilliant Kirifuri road in Tochigi Prefecture.  Just two hours north of Tokyo, it seemed like a promising place to drive Woking’s flagship Spider.

McLaren 720S Spider review front angle1

Photo: Ken Saito

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Photo: Ken Saito

This was towards the end of summer, just as it was transitioning into spring.  Temperatures were dropping and the humidity was going away, which was perfect for drop top driving.  Even the forecast hinted at it being ideal conditions for driving.  I was excited.  I’d finally get to experience this road to its full potential with a car that I knew was more than capable of conquering this mountain road.

McLaren 720S Spider review rear wing

Photo: Ken Saito

The drive towards the road in the Nikko area two hours north of Tokyo was uneventful.  It’s a smooth and easy drive, if not especially comfortable in the low-slung, mid-engine McLaren.  The roof was well and truly up for the 75 mile drive north towards the base of the road.

But before ascending up the mountain, I had to make a quick stop at the 7-Eleven at the bottom of the road.  It was also the perfect opportunity to get that cliche Japanese shot of a car parked outside a convenience store.

McLaren 720S Spider review 7-Eleven

Photo: Ken Saito

With supplies in hand (a bottle of green tea and a couple of onigiris), I was now ready to experience this road to its full potential and see if the 720S has lost any of its capability without the fixed roof.  Things didn’t get off to a good start.  Even though it was the quiet period of the tourist season in Nikko on a rather grey Saturday afternoon, there was a slow senior driver in a kei-car.  It wasn’t a one-off occurrence; generally in the Japanese countryside, if it’s not tourists, it’s old locals slowing you down.

Luckily she was kind enough to pull over and let me pass.  It was now time to open up the McLaren; in every sense of the word.

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Photo: Ken Saito

McLaren 720S Spider review Kirifuri road

Photo: Ken Saito

The roof can be operated at speeds of up to 30 mph.  Roof down, a little dab of the throttle and the car was flying up the mountain road in no time.

I’ll never get over how much power McLaren is able to get out of these V8 turbo engines, 710hp and 568 lb-ft of torque.  That’s enough to get this $300,000+ supercar from 0-60 mph in just 2.8 seconds and on to a top speed of 212 mph.  Not too bad for a car that isn’t even McLaren’s flagship.

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Photo: Ken Saito

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Photo: Ken Saito

Certainly going up the first half of the Kirifuri road, the 720S always felt planted and composed.  The road surface was a tad on the damp side, not what I would’ve preferred whilst driving a 700+ horsepower rear-wheel drive car that wasn’t mine, but it was better than snow.

McLaren 720S Spider review side mirror

Photo: Ken Saito

McLaren 720S Spider review rear1

Photo: Ken Saito

Despite the road conditions, the McLaren never felt like it was going to step out of line.  The electronics do a wonderful job behind the scenes at keeping everything in check for even the worst of drivers.

I can’t deny the incredible grip and handling of the McLaren.  It eats corners like nothing else on the road, and that engine can seemingly find power when you think there certainly can’t be any more power left to give.  But, it all felt too cold and robotic.

McLaren 720S Spider review cockpit

Photo: Ken Saito

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Photo: Ken Saito

Driving any other sort of sporty car up here would’ve been more fun despite it not having the Mac’s firepower.  You wouldn’t be going nearly as fast as I did in the 720S, but you’d at least be somewhat in control of the driving experience.

If you want a capable tool of speed, the 720S is perfect for you but an emotional experience it is not.

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Photo: Ken Saito

It turned the Kirifuri road into what felt like another level on a video game I needed to complete.  I’m not going to say it wasn’t fun, because driving a mid-engine supercar up a Japanese mountain road with fog surrounding you is never going to be not fun, but it wasn’t as exhilarating as I was expecting it to be.

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Photo: Ken Saito

It wasn’t all the car’s fault, the conditions weren’t exactly 100%.  Sure, no snow on the road was an improvement but that was replaced by fog the higher up the mountain we went.  I’m not quite sure what’s worse – not having visibility or not having grip.  Either way, the further up the road I went, the less inclined I was to push the 720S.  Back into Comfort mode it went.

At the bottom of the road on the other side of the mountain, while taking a break I noticed a promising looking squiggly bit on the map not too far from where I already was.  Hoping for the fog to clear up and kill some time I decided to explore this road.

McLaren 720S Spider review curvy road

Photo: Ken Saito

Originally I had only planned on driving on the Kirifuri road but when an opportunity like this presents itself and a McLaren to drive, why wouldn’t you?  Compared to Kirifuri this road was a lot more technical and tighter. It didn’t have a name but rather is just known as “Route 249 which went around the Nikko National Park,”

Most of the road was one and a half lanes in width, making it awkward when the occasional car did come by the other way.  It wasn’t the ideal road for a McLaren if I’m being perfectly honest; but at the time, I had no idea it’d be that narrow for two-thirds of the way through.

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Photo: Ken Saito

The first half which dissected through thick forest was picturesque in a spooky sort of way.  There were few other cars using this road and rightfully so as it literally goes nowhere.

There were no other noises other than the few insects deep in the forest.  For this moment in time on this road, the blue 720S was the loudest and brightest thing there.

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Photo: Ken Saito

Perhaps in a smaller and less expensive car, I could’ve had fun on this road with no one around.  But instead, I was concerned about the low ground clearance of the Mac, stray branches on the ground, uneven road surface, and the risk of oncoming traffic around every blind corner.

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Photo: Ken Saito

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Photo: Ken Saito

Thankfully the road eventually opened up and I was able to drive the McLaren a bit faster.  Say what you will about these cars, their ability to cover ground at the speed they do is incredible.  The balance between handling, grip, and ride comfort is also truly impressive.  If I were to do this drive in a 911 GT2RS or a Huracan Performante, my entire body would’ve been sore before I finished the loop around the National Park.

Out of the spooky woods and into an eerie village, Japan is full of abandoned surprises.  One was what appeared to be an abandoned school or town hall.

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Photo: Ken Saito

McLaren 720S Spider review profile

Photo: Ken Saito

The vibe of the whole place just seemed like something or someone was haunting it.  In fact, the whole village seemed like something out of a Japanese horror film.  It was cool but I didn’t want to spend any more time than I needed to there.  The best part was I didn’t see another person in that village.

McLaren 720S Spider review in the fog2

Photo: Ken Saito

That’s the thing with exploring the Japanese countryside, you go there for one thing and you’ll find so much more than what you bargained for.

By the time I had looped around Route 249, of which took far longer than I thought it would because of the, shall we say, careful driving, in the first two-thirds of the road, the light was slowly fading and the fog on Kirifuri wasn’t budging.

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Photo: Ken Saito

At this point, it was time to call it quits and just have one last blast down the mountain in the 720S.  It’s an excellent car but far too capable for its own good.  Give me something more engaging please.

Regardless, snow or fog, the Kirifuri road is still an exceptional place to drive in a stunning part of Japan.  Nikko is a popular tourist destination in the fall for its orange and yellow leaves, perhaps that’d be a good time to check the Kirifuri road out for yourself.  Hopefully you’ll have better luck with the weather conditions than I did.


Counterpoint by ThomasM

I’m very conflicted about the 720S – my mind and the speed freak in me is impressed by both the raw performance potential and the value proposition therein – the 720S is probably the best performance bang for the buck in the world today – performance including handling and the ability to hold a line and do it in a confidence inspiring way (rumors have it the new mid-engine Corvette C8 makes a serious challenge for this crown.)

Yet I, like Ken and many others, also feel the 720S lacks something; and despite the adrenaline pumping acceleration and top speed potential (at first; the body and mind acclimates and attenuates very quickly) soon find the car ultimately…boring.

It just misses the “feel” that a true old fashioned drivers car like the F40 or even the Alfa 4C delivers in spades.

McLaren 720S Spider review rear2

Photo: Ken Saito

Some of this might be attributable to all the electronic nannies that allow many newbie drivers to think they are better drivers than they really are, not aware that the electronic safety net, not their superman reflexes and skills, is constantly saving them from themselves.  Complacency and a false sense of talent and control can be a dangerous thing – after a recent flash flood, with roads still slightly moist, I punched the accelerator with nanny controls set to minimum and we unexpectedly set the tail wagging a couple cycles.  In surrounding traffic.  And I didn’t even floor the throttle.  I caught it, of course; but the base point of complacency and false security, as well the underlying twitchiness of the power on tap vs mechanical grip beneath the safety net, definitely came into question.  I think my first time passenger might have had to change his underwear sooner than he planned…

What exactly makes up the gap between drivers car feel and measurable performance specs?

Food for thought for another day and feature article…

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Photo: Ken Saito


Author’s Biography

Ken Saito is a Guest Writer specializing in Automobiles who resides in Japan. With a B.A. majoring in Media Studies with minors in Asian Studies and History from Victoria University in New Zealand, Ken has contributed to motoring websites like DriveLive New Zealand, CarsOfTokyo (Japan), Jalopnik (USA) and Petrolicious (USA), as well as magazines like Lords Magazine (France) and Automobile (USA).

Ken may be one of the few people to have been ‘canyon carving’ in a Cadillac SUV against a Ferrari F40…

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