McLaren Variable Drift Control: does it work?

Published: 27 August 2020

► CAR tests McLaren’s drift tech
► Variable Drift Control gets you sliding
► Does the system actually work?

Okay, it’s not perfect. For a start, and in a very un-McLaren bout of wanton imprecision, Variable Drift Control, as featured on the 720S Coupe and Spider, isn’t really variable drift control at all: it steps in long before you’re anything like sideways enough to be considered drifting.

And so needlessly complicated is McLaren’s Active Dynamics panel (certainly compared with rival interfaces from the likes of Ferrari and Porsche) that you might never actually find it (see handy guide, right). But the good news is that Variable Drift Control is a brilliant example of technology helping you get more from a car. And with bald numbers like 710bhp, 0-62mph in 2.8sec and 212mph, most of us could use a helping hand in the benchmark modern McLaren.

720S drift

Activating Variable Drift Control is a three-stage process, and you must have the Active Dynamics panel activated and the Handling knob in Sport or Track. (Chances are you will have anyway, given the 720S’s remarkable interlinked suspension is so pliant in Comfort it’s actually too soft for quick road use.) Hit ESC and you’ll be offered ESC Dynamic, which broadens the threshold before intervention, and Variable Drift Control. Opt in and you’ll be presented with the slider graphic to set the degree to which the system will let the car oversteer.

And now? Well, for regular drivers with some skill and experience, you now simply get to enjoy the 720S as intended, but without the heart-in-mouth fear that you might at any point leave the road and give an ancient patch of roadside foliage a really hard time with the McLaren’s delicate nose and very un-delicate carbonfibre monocoque.

The first thing that strikes you is how much more pleasant the car is to drive with the traction control ordered to relax. Where previously the twin-turbo V8 was forever threatening to overwhelm the rear Pirellis, prompting the electronics to constantly and obtrusively strangle the power, ESC Dynamic lets the car behave more organically, flaring into benign wheelspin here and there but always accelerating. And through well-sighted corners you can now accelerate harder, earlier, relaxing the steering lock as you feel the rear axle help rotate the car. It is not drifting. But it is the kind of helpful, very satisfying mild oversteer you needed to be fairly experienced to access only a few years ago.

Happy trails: how it works

Boot it up
Couldn’t be easier. (Okay, it could, but it’s not that hard.) Select Sport or Track Handling modes, and make sure the modes panel is ‘Active’.

Variable drift screen

Let’s get loose
Now prod the ESC button once for Dynamic mode. A prompt will offer Variable Drift mode – prod to activate.

Variable drift screen 2

Angle of dangle
You’ll be presented with a visual of a 720S in the middle of a racetrack corner. A slider lets you increase or decrease the angle of oversteer.

Variable Drift Control: does it work?

The name is a little disingenuous. Drifting – to us at least – suggests armfuls of lock and some punchy modulation of the loud pedal. Variable Drift Control is more about safe, accessible and very enjoyable mild oversteer. And it delivers that.

By Ben Miller

The editor of CAR magazine, story-teller, average wheel count of three