It’s a sticky autumn day in West Hollywood, Los Angeles. The mercury is rising and the beautiful people are making the most of it.
Shapely women wearing enormous sunglasses are clacking down Sunset Boulevard in heels worth twice my monthly salary. Men with copper tans and annoyingly defined arms trace their trajectories from the shaded cover of sidewalk bistros. Scything between them, large SUVs with tinted windows transport unseen occupants to important meetings at Capitol Records or Universal Studios. If you’re into people-watching, this is the place to be.
Fortunately I’ve got better things to do. I haven’t flown all this way to try and elicit cheesy Instagram selfies with celebrities. Instead I’ll be spending my morning sampling what is perhaps one of the most hotly anticipated new cars of 2014: the Ford Mustang. Officially unveiled at the end of last year, this sixth iteration of Dearborn’s iconic pony car is a tasty looking machine. It speaks of the future yet, at the same time, acknowledges the past without being indulgently retro.
An aggressive new visage clearly communicates the latest Ford design language. And standout features such as the long swooping bonnet, tri-bar taillights and classic fastback silhouette are an unmistakable homage to the classic first-generation Mustang of the ’60s. The whole car is visibly lower and wider and proportionally more muscular than its now comparatively clumsy forebear.
Especially when you first see it in the metal. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. Yeah, every other pedestrian and road user cruising Hollywood Boulevard is throwing me an enthusiastic grin and/or thumbs-up. More important than styling, however, is actual driving substance. Let’s be brutally honest here — the Mustang (okay, certain Boss and Shelby models aside, of course) has never been particularly known for its corner-slaying ability. Presence? Yes. Personality? Without a doubt. Straight-line speed? You betcha. All-out handling? Hmmm. Not so much. Even the outgoing car felt like something of a disappointment.
There was a strange and disconcerting disconnect between the front and rear axles that didn’t inspire much confidence when it came time to exploring the machine’s limits. Compared with some of its scalpel-sharp European counterparts, the Mustang was something of a blunted battle-axe, a dynamic damp squib that left you feeling rather frustrated every time you stepped out from behind the wheel. So this is why I’m taking the first few corners of the winding Angeles Crest Highway with a fair amount of caution. There’s a rocky cliff face on one side and perilous drop on the other — neither of which I want to get better acquainted with. It turns out this discretionary approach isn’t at all necessary because Ford has finally fettled the Mustang into a fine-handling piece of kit.
From the (at last) independent rear suspension to the optional Performance Pack that bolts in stiffer anti-roll bars and more sports-orientated dampers, my 2.3-litre EcoBoost is ripping through the tight canyon bends with all the dexterity of something European. With hardly any under or oversteer to speak of, it proves to be an incredibly neutral and balanced car, not flustered by enthusiastic changes of direction. It’s also blessed with a serious amount of mechanical grip, thanks to those large 19- inch wheels shod with sticky 255/40 rubber. Pick your line, floor the throttle and the Mustang hunkers down and pulls through the corner with minimum fuss and body roll.
Gripes? Well, the electric power steering, although pleasingly direct when compared to the previous car, could benefit from more feel. Other than that, this pony car is a surprisingly taut package. Strangely enough, I’m also enjoying the controversial new EcoBoost engine. I say controversial because many people think a Mustang should only be powered by raucous V8 — a V6 at the very minimum. Now, I understand where these folk are coming from. I race an eight-cylinder Mustang and know how it lends the car a unique, larger than life personality. But the world is moving along swiftly and the turbocharger, like it or not, is becoming de rigueur in the action plan to balance power with fuel economy and lowered emissions. Especially in road cars.
So, to avoid losing face with switched-on consumers, Ford had to offer an EcoBoost option. Fortunately, it’s really good. With direct injection and a fancy twin scroll turbo, this perky four-cylinder propels the Mustang at a very useful lick. There’s tons of mid-range oomph on tap, too, which means I don’t have to do much downshifting to keep things on the boil — even when exiting some of the canyon’s more poky hairpins. It may lose a few points thanks to the artificial engine note, piped through the speakers à la BMW, but at least it sounds realistic, unlike in the Renault Clio RS that employs a similar system. So, definitely a viable alternative to those who can’t afford, or perhaps afford to run, the rip-snorting, range-topping GT.
Speaking of which. Now armed with a modified cylinder head and upgraded valve train, the venerable 5.0-litre Coyote V8 now thrashes out an impressive 324kW — that’s seven more than the turbocharged BMW M4 and 41 more than the normally aspirated Jaguar XK. There’s no two ways about it, this powerplant transforms the new Mustang into an enormously quick car. Especially when you keep your right foot planted to the firewall and use the upper echelons of the rev range — some- thing that this unit really revels in. Complemented by a generous slug of torque means that Ford had to partner the V8 up to a heavy-duty Getrag manual transmission with six forward ratios. Built for longevity it feels very meaty and takes, a bit like the ’box in the old Chevrolet Lumina, a fair amount of care and dexterity to dispatch smooth shifts, particularly when giving it full beans through the first three ratios.
Weighing nearly 100kg more than the EcoBoost model, the GT doesn’t feel quite as nimble through corners but, in a straight line, it is notably faster. It also offers considerably more pantomime — aural and visual. You see, the V8 version comes equipped, as standard, with a little some- thing called Line Lock. Part of the Ford Track App software suite, it basically locks up the front brakes for a full 15 seconds so that you can drop the clutch and perform the world’s smokiest, most antisocial burnout. I try it out somewhere on Mulholland Highway and consider doing it again on this portion of the Pacific Coast Highway that meanders through Malibu.
Although being flanked by a collection of up-market cocktail bars, trendy restaurants and one or two Highway Patrol cars, well, I just don’t think it’ll go down too well. Instead I take time focus on the interior. The innards of the previous Mustang were comparable to something Chinese — a cheap and comparably cheap feeling cocoon of nasty plastics and substandard ergonomics. However, this new model has been treated to a significant overall. The driving position is spot on and the dashboard and door cards have been swathed in tactile, soft-touch inserts. My car has also been fitted with the optional, leather-trimmed Recaro sports seats that provide a fine mix of support and comfort — definitely worth specifying.
Ford has also kitted the new Mustang out with all the electronic gizmos you could hope for in a car: blind-spot monitoring, satellite navigation, full Bluetooth integration plus a stonking Shaker Pro Audio system. Dig into the Track App system and you’ll also find digital gauges that monitor everything from cylinder head temperature and fuel mixture through to oil pressure and voltage. After leaving Malibu, I slowly syphon into the glutinous LA traffic and meander back towards the Hollywood Hills. It’s been a memorable and exciting drive, one that’s shown me what the hallowed City of Angels is all about. More importantly, it’s proved that the Ford Mustang has finally made that important transition from dim-witted muscle car to cool, calculating sports car. It’s an exciting fusion of European driving sparkle with American street swagger that should really shake things up when the right-hand version arrives in SA by the end of 2015.
Engines: 2,300cc four-cylinder turbo; 4 951cc V8
Power: 231kW at 5 500rpm; 324kW at 6 500rpm
Torque: 433Nm at 2 500rpm; 541Nm at 4 250rpm
Top speed: TBC
Fuel: 9.04l/100km (EcoBoost); 12. 36l/100km (V8 GT)
Price: TBC at launch late next year