There’s a memorable episode of Alan Partridge where the eponymous radio show host becomes increasingly exasperated by a Liverpudlian named Tex (Terry) who gets his Dr Pepper from the cooler, manworships John Wayne and calls his lone pick-up truck ‘Convoy’.
For the past half a century, buying a Ford Mustang in this country has come with the same Route 66 ‘he likes American things’ whiff. Most people, I’m sure, will have filed the distant icon into the same ambivalent head space that includes baseball, bull riding and pumpkin pie.
For much of that time, Ford did little to counter the sentiment. Almost immediately, the original ‘pony’ car concept (an American descriptive fraught with peril) was reborn as the Capri – a significant success in its own right. The Mustang itself remained a million miles away, its status an apparent quirk of Hollywood, longevity and mountainous sales volumes.
The model’s limited re-emergence in recent years has hardly softened the ground, either. The previous generation, as decent as it was, hardly dispelled the notion that it remained too big, too thirsty and, yes, too unsophisticated for an Anglo-Saxon sensibility set permanently to wry. Its ‘over there’ reputation has hardly been enhanced by the repeat experience of good-naturedly climbing into one only to find the pedals mounted ‘over there’ in the passenger’s footwell.
Fixing that, of course, like staging an NFL game at Wembley, is representative of the sixth generation’s first mighty stride into wider buyer affection. The Mustang is global now, Limey – and it’s got the independent rear suspension to prove it.
Precisely what that means is the reason why, in a fog so sumptuously thick that even air traffic control has bent to its will, we’ve congregated on the eastern tip of the Peak District.
Above the blanket of ashen cloud, the day gleams bright. Ford could hardly have laid on a better setting; like a herd of bison, the Mustang is best viewed in proper Panavision, and England’s countryside doesn’t get any more cinematic than this.
Even blemished by a German plate, the cherry red GT – a cabrio is coming, too – is a large personality to fit into a small gravel car park. Think Quentin Tarantino sitting at your nan’s kitchen table.
In the US, the fastback style is the blue-collar special – a coupé cheaply born of larger saloons. In Europe, its position is naturally occupied by hot hatches, so for direct rivals you have to get a little imaginative. Having banged our heads against the desk, the BMW M235i is the contender that fell out, a dinky, darling hatchback spin-off that stashes a stonking turbo-laced straight six beneath an unassuming two-door body as though it were a tea shop waitress serving methylated spirits.
Predictably, it’s a good foot shorter than the Ford and almost half a foot slimmer – a size difference that doesn’t prevent it from being at least £2500 more expensive than the Mustang, should you choose the eight-speed auto version tested here. Despite its 322bhp, the BMW is down on power, too, giving away almost 100bhp to the Ford. That’s because this early, southpaw example comes with its last unicorn powertrain installed: a naturally aspirated big-capacity V8 popriveted to a very manual six-speed ’box.
The 5.0-litre ‘Coyote’ unit gets Ford’s Twin Independent Variable Cam Timing tech (Ti-VCT) and was originally intended to stick it to the equivalent Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Charger in the US. In the UK, its 410bhp is easily the most power you can have for less than £40k. Getting almost as much grunt as you would in an Aston Martin V8 Vantage for way less than half the price is, unequivocally, a good reason for Thanksgiving.
However, a premeet sojourn in the M235i shows just how much car such a sum buys these days. The 2 Series may not cover the square footage like the Mustang, but from the driver’s seat, that’s like complaining that your jeans fit too well. The snugness, the smell, the nourishing thickness under finger and the workmanship of a modern BMW are all present and correct, yet pleasantly understated by the lack of scale or show. Mostly, it’s matt black plastic – and mostly, it’s about as well finished as such a material could be.
It has taken nearly four hours to get from Surrey to the Burbage Bridge – slow death on the M25, followed by a bum-numbing trudge up the M1. That’s more than enough time for the M235i to ooze big engine/little car charm all over my trainers. What a unit the N55 motor is: smooth and sonorous, delivering every ounce of the burly shove expected of a twinscroll blower yet, mechanically, hardly feeling inhibited at all by its presence, revving to 7000rpm with free-throated and blurry finesse whenever the yellow thicket of average speed cameras permits.
Twinned with the quick-witted £1685 eight-speed auto, the model’s default operating speed is an effortless sort of brisk. And thanks to the £515 adaptive M Sport suspension beneath, it requires little obvious compromise in comfort, either, riding with a reassuring, Mustang is fun and more physical; M235i feels agile and crisper business-like composure that belies the short length of its wheelbase.
Alongside the Mustang, in the sunlight, the body retracts almost to the point of stubbiness, the bodywork somehow conspiring to reduce its 18in alloy wheels to roller-skate wheels. Subjectively, however, the Ford is not vastly bigger inside. Nor does it fill out its price tag quite so well, with some of the switches – most noticeably the drive mode select toggles – perilously close to the standard expected of a half-decent bread maker.
The prevalent theme, though, is unmistakable: the doublebarrelled dashboard, the dominant centre stack and prominent vents, the upright, overbearing stance of the thing – as if its Mustang lineage alone were strong enough to pull at a baby boomer’s heart strings from 50 paces.
That notion hardens like animal fat in the arteries upon driving. Although its evolutionary improvements are notable, they’re ultimately as game changing as a slightly more upward gait in a Neanderthal’s stride. It remains a bearable, big-skinned and bulldozing thing, entirely idiosyncratic and roguishly charming. Compared with the M235i, you sit high, and if you remain still, you’ll still feel the very gentle jostle of the big lump turning. That probably wouldn’t feel right in the BMW, but the faraway tingle of oscillation is utterly becoming in Ford’s throwback.
Even in a wide open space as expansive as moorland, there’s still a tendency to tease the Mustang about as though it were an irascible shire horse. Partly this is a product of its size, its tendency to pitch and dive heightening an appreciation of that. Partly it is indicative of the low-speed ride, which, on roads repeatedly subjected to weather much worse than visible moisture, has the jiggly consistency of a cheap mattress. Mercifully, mostly thanks to the new integral link beavering away more consistently and cleverly at the back and a fat wedge of extra rigidity all over, there’s no longer the flagrant rise and fall of apparently unchecked suspension travel.
So although the Mustang isn’t exactly smooth, it doesn’t seem unrefined or rudimentary. Certainly, it cannot ape the dexterity of the M235i, but at speed the Ford has a way of distancing itself from the road surface – both physically, in the sense that the ground clearance seems adequate to see you to the other side of a football field, and philosophically, as if paying too much mind to your own contentment would be unmanly and pointless.
Quite probably, this latter effect has less to do with the new springs and dampers and much more to do with the palpitating aftershock of physical connection to the quad-cam motor through the gearlever and pedals. This analogue coupling of limb and crankshaft is an association lost on the auto-wand BMW, which piles its short ratios unnaturally close together in a disappointing manual mode – although, frankly, anything short of a three-pedal Aston Martin falters against the working memory of Ford’s ebullient V8.
Happily – essentially, even – the V8 is everything you could want it to be: quick to rev, casually bountiful low down and throatily gung-ho near its own 7000rpm limit. Compared with BMW’s blown straight six or even Audi’s comparable naturally aspirated eight-pot, the Ford unit has many more rougher edges, yet this often feels like the bristly gristle of character rather than a functional deficiency.
It hardly hurts, either, that clutch and gearlever are both ponderously heavy to operate, upshifts thus becoming a full-body workout that starts at the face, cheeks contorted into that special expression of joy that men typically reserve for lusty combustion engines and long guitar solos. The engine’s unbroken residency in the spotlight is often balanced with the backstage behaviour of the rear axle, which, should you allow yourself to become undisciplined with the wah-wah pedal in the wet, comes with a congenital unruliness bordering on the slapstick.
The Mustang, of course, is sold with multi-mode traction control andchas it turned on by default, but its management of the V8’s torque surplus is permissive to say the least. This, it seems to me, is a good thing, though. Who wants a Mustang with a completely tacked-down back end? Leaving junctions and roundabouts askew is all part of the fun, and although the GT attains attitude quickly, it generally doesn’t do so without a sense of progressiveness.
All of this only amplifies the car’s engaging, ‘hands on’ dynamic identity. Up to around two-thirds of its potential, all the effort seems like a labour of love, the nonchalant hack of the BMW replaced with a flinty, thick-skinned hoariness – the balled up spiritual composite of a cast-iron griddle, a bearskin, a Black & Decker Workmate, a blasting cap and a well-used thunder machine.
Gamely try to get this hotchpotch moving at terminal velocity, though, and the Mustang’s 1720kg kerb weight, occasional ungainliness and touchyfeely steering come back to haunt it. The M235i has its own modest issues with body movement over B-roads, but the bedraggled Ford renders them barely noticeable, making the BMW seem elfin, tenacious, crisply rear-driven and highly meticulous, its sinewy steering and superior lateral grip offering the potency that tends to go missing in the Mustang when you’re doing your damnedest.
As I chew over this shortfall, the sun’s spectacular slow arc into the lingering mist causes a logjam on the Peaks’ normally quiet roads. It is a light show worthy of the Rapture, not a car shoot, and although we parade up and down in front of it at photographer Luc’s request, we soon give up and join the iPhone-toting masses on the brow of the nearest hill to marvel at the finale.
As it has done all day, the dramatic backdrop plays entirely into the Mustang’s wheelarches. It’s impossible under these conditions to imagine driving the more subtle M235i into the denouement. Only the big Ford – imperfect, unsubtle, unapologetic and absorbing – would ever make the right exit. Detached from a big, pretty sky and national park reverie, however, the car makes manifestly less sense; the running costs would make an oil-field heiress wince and it straddles most British driveways like a killer whale stranded on a toilet cistern. But, in a similar vein to taco hats, cherry bombs and Super Big Gulp, the Mustang has an uncomplicated and admirable way of keeping the fun front and centre.
So although it makes for a much less rounded offering than the M235i, it complements something like an electric BMW i3 almost perfectly. And what could be more gratifyingly American than both having your cake and eating it?
Ford Mustang 5.0 V8 GT
Price £33,995 0-62mph 4.8sec Top speed 155mph (limited) Economy 20.9mpg (combined) CO2 emissions 299g/km Kerb weight 1720kg Engine layout V8, 4951cc, petrol Installation Front, longitudinal, RWD Power 410bhp at 6500rpm Torque 391lb ft at 4250rpm Power to weight 238bhp per tonne Specific output 84bhp per litre Compression ratio 11.0:1 Gearbox 6-spd manual Length 4784mm Width 1916mm Height 1381mm Wheelbase 2720mm Fuel tank 61 litres Range 280 miles Boot 408 litres Front suspension MacPherson struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar Rear suspension Integral-link, coil springs, anti-roll bar Brakes 380mm ventilated discs (f), 330mm discs (r) Wheels 19in Tyres 255/40 R19 (f), 275/40 R19 (r)
BMW M235i auto
Price £35,505 0-62mph 4.8sec Top speed 155mph (limited) Economy 37.2mpg (combined) CO2 emissions 176g/km Kerb weight 1545kg Engine layout 6 cyls in line, 2979cc, turbo, petrol Installation Front, longitudinal, RWD Power 322bhp at 5800rpm Torque 332lb ft at 1300-4500rpm Power to weight 208bhp per tonne Specific output 108bhp per litre Compression ratio 10.2:1 Gearbox 8-spd automatic Length 4454mm Width 1774mm Height 1408mm Wheelbase 2690mm Fuel tank 52 litres Range 426 miles Boot 390 litres Front suspension MacPherson struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar Rear suspension Multi-link, coil springs, anti-roll bar Brakes Ventilated discs (f&r) Wheels 18in Tyres 225/40 R18 (f), 245/35 R18 (r)