First DriveIndependent dealer and tuning company Clive Sutton has tuned the 5.0 V8 Mustang again, this time with an epic 813bhp. Is it too much?
First DriveFord has tried to turn the Mustang into a track machine by putting it on a diet and giving it a new engine. Has it worked?
Even now I haven’t adjusted. You’d think that fourteen months on this side of the Atlantic would be enough time for me to feel at home, but the little things still catch me out. Red-amber-green traffic light sequences, roundabouts and – this kills me – motorway lane discipline. What is that? Today I’m relaxed, though, because I’m driving a new Mustang GT Convertible. We want to know if the most American of modern-day muscle cars can cope on the ‘wrong’ side of the road and if its charm and lineage will have British buyers humming the Star-Spangled Banner as they roar along.
The Mustang trades heavily on its history, so we shouldn’t ignore it. In the US, the name instantly evokes images of an era defined by good times and free spirits. But most of us aren’t aware of the car’s tempestuous upbringing. Forty-one years ago, Lee Iacocca’s brainchild hit production and the result was miraculous. In the summer of 1964, Americans salivated over a lean, muscular, pure sports car that was affordable and desirable. Eighteen months later, brand-new Mustangs sat on more than a million driveways. But the 1970s brought an oil crisis, vastly higher fuel prices and safety campaigner Ralph Nader – a man hell-bent on sanitising our four-wheeled obsession to the point of banality. Their efforts stripped the Mustang of its soul, and an oil-spewing, octane-chugging bad-ass muscle car became an overfed, limp-wristed shell of its former self. With every brake horsepower taken from the tally, a small chunk of its spirit burrowed into the sand and refused to emerge until a proper output could be resurrected. Developing only 120bhp from a 5.0-litre V8, it was no longer a car that Americans were proud of – which is precisely why they stopped signing on the dotted line.
Hope returned in the 1980s. The Mustang regained some of its hot-rod roots. It went on a diet, restoring some of its original taut proportions. And a new 5.0-litre pushrod V8 meant burnouts became possible once again. When the more curvaceous and progressively styled SN95 model arrived in 1994, the new Mustang almost achieved the acclaim of the original. But a live rear axle and an interior built on a budget never brought it close to its more expensive (and more technologically advanced) European rivals. A BMW M3 of the same era wouldn’t just walk all over the Mustang, it would stomp it into the dust with impunity.
Which brings us to the present. Last year a much-anticipated new Mustang arrived. It has a modern platform that it shares with the Jaguar S-type and Lincoln LS. The live rear axle still exists, as does the old-tech V8 engine, but the stunning new retro looks give it the kind of road presence that causes accidents. It’ll widen more eyes than anything this side of an Italian supercar. With this reincarnation, Ford is trying to remind us of the good old days. And judging by the lack of cheesiness in the details, this Mustang does retro in all the right ways.
It’s instantly recognisable, too. As photographer Mackie is feverishly snapping detail shots, a truck driver is taking an interest. Despite the Mustang being a rarity on our roads, he never asks what it is. He just knows. And he’s excited. Not once did this car get anything approaching a negative response from onlookers. It seems the UK is taking to the Mustang in the same way as America – very enthusiastically.
Ford hasn’t decided whether it will officially bring in the new model, but with a surprising amount of grey imports available it would seem silly for it to miss out on the action. Coupés are going for about £26k; the convertible should be about three grand more. Or you can buy one from a Stateside dealer – where GT Convertibles are selling for $29,995 (£18k) – independently import and SVA it for a few grand more. If you can live with left-hand drive, you’ve got yourself a topless, V8-powered sports car icon for Mini Cooper S Works money.
That’s not bad given the Mustang’s generous specification, which includes CD, air conditioning, dual front airbags and electric windows, mirrors and roof mechanism. And the piece de resistance: 4.6 litres (that’s 281 cubic inches in authentic muscle-car speak) of Detroit’s finest. You can slam the engine for lack of sophistication and a specific output of only 64bhp per litre, which is poor next to a Nissan 350Z Roadster’s 80bhp per litre and downright shameful given a Honda S2000’s 120bhp per litre. But if your first stab of the throttle doesn’t raise a smile, then you ain’t interested in cars. For five minutes I sat backed into the corner of the office car park, the Mustang’s dual chromed pipes facing the brick wall, the roof down. I was revving the beast to 3000rpm just to hear the delicious burble.
And it was addictive. Sitting at a red light? Rev the engine. Ambling down a crowded high street? Let’s hear the engine. Driving by a classroom of students sitting GCSEs? Give it the full can. To anyone out there horribly offended by the reverberating exhaust rip of a candy-apple-red Mustang GT Convertible, I say I was expressing my right to freedom of speech.
But is the Mustang all bark and no bite? Well, it won’t reposition your facial features quite like a Lotus Elise, but its 296bhp will relegate 350Z Roadster or S2000 drivers to the distance. From a standing start, the Mustang hustles to 60mph in only 5.6sec, compared to 6.1 for the Nissan and 6.3 for the Honda. At 100mph the Ford is still in the lead, if only by eight tenths of a second in the case of the 350Z. The awesome straight-line performance is down to two things: torque (all 320lb ft at 4500rpm) and the ability of the 235/55 ZR 17 Pirellis to ‘hook up’, as drag racers would describe it. The soft-compound DC tyres give the Mustang an attachment to Tarmac that previous generations couldn’t even dream of.
Drag racing is a Mustang pastime, so astonishing straight-line speed is no surprise. The solid rear axle introduces a bit of axle tramp, but the bullet-proof design should easily withstand as many violent standing starts as you can throw at it. Luckily for Ford’s book-keepers, a live rear axle keeps their customers happy. Unfortunately, these customers are Americans that do big miles on big roads in a straight line. Britain’s more ‘advanced’ backroads might expose a chink in the Mustang’s armour.
Not far out of the car park, a thought springs to mind: if Steve McQueen had been driving one of these in the film Bullitt instead of his Highland Green ’68 GT390, it would’ve been the shortest car chase ever. This new Mustang inspires confidence, staying neutral in fast bends with almost none of nervous feeling you got from the rear of Mustangs past. McQueen would have vanished into the distance. But breach the borders of grip and it reacts with an unpleasant amount of understeer. Even with traction control disengaged, it takes a kamikaze effort to get the tail out. And long before the slide starts, the Mustang has understeered into the oncoming lane. It doesn’t offer the intimacy or communication of the more agile Z, either. It’s not a great driver’s car.
One American legacy is an advantage, though: the comfortable ride. It glides over bumps and ridges that would have an S2000 bouncing. Even so, the structural integrity is wanting. I owned a previous-generation Mustang Convertible and the dashboard used to shake like Shakira’s backside with little provocation. The new Convertible’s scuttle shakes far less thanks to a body that Ford claims is twice as stiff as before, but it still lacks the solidity of the 350Z.
I’d rather sit in the Mustang than the Nissan, though. You’re not ensconced deep in a sport bucket as in the Nissan – but the thin-rimmed steering wheel, short-throw five-speed gearbox and twin-pod dash give the cabin a wonderful ambience. Some of the controls lack the precision and tactility that the European controls have, but the interior is well built and stylish. You can change the backlighting colour in the fuel-gauge pod to suit your mood, but if you want historical accuracy keep it green.
Will Britain accept something as bullishly Yankee as the Mustang? Judging by the constant stream of thumbs up the Mustang gets everywhere it goes, I’d say so. It lacks the athleticism of favourite driver’s cars here, but the Mustang’s character transcends its one-dimensional road manners. This car exists to inspire in the way it looks and sounds. It has more presence at five miles an hour than many Ferraris have at a 150mph. So you can expect to see a few brand new Mustangs on roads near you. And I can expect to feel more at home.