One-trick

pony?

It’s the first Mustang developed for the world. But does it offer more than just traditional muscle-car brute force?

by jethro bovingdon
PHOTOGRAPHY by PAUL HARMER

ou’ve heard the news, right? You know, the big news. Nope, not ‘Ludicrous Mode’ or the advances in autonomous driving. Not even anything to do with ‘connectivity’ or ‘mobility solutions’. The BIG news. The Mustang. It’s got independent rear suspension. I know, right? Independent rear suspension. And you can buy it in right-hand drive. For £34,495. Not some watered-down V6 or four-cylinder turbo version. A full-fat 5-litre vee-mutherflippin’-eight Mustang with 410bhp for the price of an M235i. Right in time for crashing petrol prices and the diesel backlash. Did I mention it’s got multi-link rear suspension?

Apologies for the hysteria but there’s something about the Ford Mustang that seems to whip up a storm of excitement, hype and, in its home market at least, amazing loyalty. Ford guys are Ford guys, GM guys are GM guys and never the twain shall meet eye-to-eye. Here in the UK the landscape is rather different. Oh sure, the Mustang has its own vehement following, but it’s miniscule, and although every five or six years there’s a buzz of anticipation in the press as tentative plans to officially offer the Mustang are rumoured, it always comes to nothing. A press car arrives, gets plenty of coverage and then disappears because there’s no real business case for it. But now the Mustang is on sale here officially and in right-hand drive. And it’s arguably the most relevant Mustang there’s ever been for Britain and continental Europe, fitted as it is with that new rear suspension system and tuned to work globally through the ‘One Ford’ philosophy. So we must judge it as a real car, rather than a fun, noisy piece of fluff. On a freezing cold day in January, wind howling and carrying great sheets of rain and sleet, that shouldn’t be a problem.

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Having said that, the Mustang is near-impossible to judge as we might something such as the new and not dissimilarly priced Focus RS. How do you pick a rival? An M235i or 370Z Nismo, perhaps? Or maybe a 435i, RS3 or even an M4? Then again, maybe Focus RS or Golf R buyers might fancy something more unusual but still reliable and vaguely practical? It’s a bit of a minefield. So for now the group test can wait. We want to get to know the Mustang all on its own, on typically bumpy, testing roads, to cut through both the immediate Americana intoxication and the distraction of a Golf R travelling just shy of the speed of sound on a sopping wet road. And besides, Mustang versus B-road is an intriguing battle all on its own. Today we discover if the Mustang is actually any good.

The drive to Pontypridd in south Wales last night confirmed it’s definitely not bad. That might sound incredibly condescending but the last Mustang I drove, a Shelby GT500 (evo 178), felt pretty horrendous in similar conditions: no grip, a shuddering, loose ride quality and a general sense of slightly shambolic engineering and execution. It was thumpingly fast, but on greasy roads in the UK and later in Germany (we tried and failed to do 200mph) the novelty of being in a Mustang soon gave way to disappointment served up with a super-sized portion of fear.

This car is different. It projects the famous pony badge onto the pavement as you approach at night. Silly, but quite cool. You slide in and it feels a bit like Mustangs of old but quality has taken a perceptible leap upwards. It still feels big and brassy, those sharp-edged ridges running along the bonnet adding to the sense that this is something alien, something exciting. This Mustang doesn’t feel huge, though. The last car – dimensionally almost identical – really did feel tall, wide and bulbous. This one is altogether leaner, or at least persuasively gives that impression.

The drivetrain and ride quality felt transformed last night, too. Still very definitely not from around these parts, but with a polish I had hoped to discover but doubted I would. The 5-litre V8 is smooth and torquey, emitting a deep and resonant woofle at low revs but with a clean, hissing delivery as it works through the mid-range and up towards the rev limit. The six-speed manual is also a treat. The throw is short and toothy, requiring just enough muscle to operate and fitting with the tight, energetic delivery of that hypnotic V8. More encouraging still is the much more sophisticated feel to the chassis. The GT still patters at low speeds on rough roads but cruising on the motorway there’s a fluency and control that’s unrecognisable from various Mustangs I’ve tried over the years. So this morning I’m feeling positive, the Mustang a ray of ‘Triple Yellow’ sunshine on an otherwise filthy day.

Hearing the big quad-cam V8 fire up only adds to the sense of anticipation. Despite all the improvements we hope to find, I guess it’s still the V8 that defines this car’s appeal and will lure buyers. And why not? The numbers it produces are strong – 410bhp at 6500rpm and 391lb ft at 4250rpm – and it’s full of burly charisma. The GT isn’t a light car, at 1711kg, but it still hustles up to an electronic limiter at 155mph and hits 62mph in 4.8 seconds. Suspension is by MacPherson struts at the front and an aluminium-intensive multi-link setup at the rear and the GT has some tasty hardware in terms of braking, too. Up front are six-piston Brembos with 380mm discs.

‘Quality has taken a leap upwards, yet the Mustang still feels big and brassy’

‘The GT’s inherent balance means you quickly find yourself reaching for the traction control button’

Of course, the GT comes with a Torsen-type limited-slip differential to make the best use of its rear 275/40 R19 P Zeros. Despite three steering modes (Normal, Comfort and Sport) and four driving modes (Snow/Wet, Normal, Sport+ and Track) the Mustang actually uses fixed-rate dampers and never feels like a car that requires decoding before it feels naturally configured. It’s quite an intuitive car right out of the box. Fiddle around and you’ll find that the drive modes alter throttle response, and in Track there’s a more lenient stability-control setting. You can disable traction control and ESC completely in any mode. For a slice of pure American fun, it also has a Line-Lock function, which applies the front brakes but allows the rears to spin freely into a radiant burn-out.

Our chosen route climbs gently out of a village, the road ragged and coarsely surfaced but with only gentle curves. Then it bunches up for a few tighter corners before the incline steepens and there’s a blessed stretch of fresh black tarmac. Turn left at the peak and the surface deteriorates again, the road fast, blind and full of wicked little compressions and treacly rivers of mud and stones washed down the adjoining forestry tracks. Then it opens out and falls down a spectacular ridge – hairpins, Armco and crumbling slate throwing even more surprises into the mix. For me it feels like home. For the Mustang it’s a funny kind of holiday.

As mentioned, the Mustang is an intuitive car and even away from everyday driving that remains the case. It feels natural and balanced with nicely weighted steering and easily measured responses. The big Brembo brakes – part of the Performance Package in the US but standard-fit here – are superb, offering instant and consistent bite and a real sense of how much grip there is. You need to tune into those signals and listen to what your backside is telling you, because the Mustang’s steering has a nice rate of response but there’s very little feedback humming through the big, chunky rim. Sport mode is best avoided as the weight it adds masks what little information you may glean.

Despite not being the last word in feedback, it says much for the Mustang’s inherent balance that you quickly find yourself reaching for the traction-control button. Maybe not disabling ESC altogether but flicking traction control off in order to use this big coupe’s lovely power delivery to help steer you along a road. It’s a pretty well judged mode, letting you bring the tail into play but stepping in curtly should you take too many liberties. Perhaps in the dry the stability control might feel a little too severe when it activates, but on hellishly cold and wet surfaces it at once encourages you to breach the limits but defines just how far you can go with reassuring discipline. Track mode has its own distinct and slightly more refined halfway-house setting, but I find the throttle mapping too jumpy in these tricky conditions.

‘It feels pretty heroic slip-sliding up the ridge, V8 hammering away’

I should say that the P Zeros don’t find much grip at all in the wet. Turn in at what feels like a very reasonable speed and the front starts to glide away from you. Give it a split second and the grip comes back, but now that you’re near the limits, even the tiniest throttle opening yields oversteer. In slower corners it’s easily dealt with by the electronics or a flick of steering correction, but exiting faster corners it’s easy to get a spiteful swat of oversteer that can feel a bit edgy. In reality this is just the Mustang’s way of doing things, so long as you’re ready it’s a very easy car to provoke, control and exploit. It feels pretty heroic slip-sliding up that ridge, the V8 hammering away and the tail gently swinging behind it. Graceful, too.

You might imagine that I’m pretty happy in my Mustang, then? Pretty. But there are some issues. Independent rear suspension or not, the Mustang doesn’t like rapid-fire bumps and the dampers can’t cope with bigger lumps, either. There’s one particular right-hander that drops away just after you turn-in. It doesn’t look like much but it exposes all of the Mustang’s weaknesses in one moment of panic…

So you turn and the outside front wheel immediately falls away into the dip. The car feels light, floating above its dampers, which don’t want to grab hold of its weight. You instantly realise that the car will soon hit the bottom of the compression and that you then need to brake slightly and turn in the opposite direction for the adjoining left. Will it grip? You can’t tell: the car is in a state of flux, completely disconnected from what the road is doing. Before you can so much as yelp, the wheel reaches the bottom of the compression, thwacks back up at the body rapidly and sends a shuddering hit through the chassis. It grips, just, but the suspension is still struggling to find equilibrium and now you’ve got to brake and turn left. The front pushes into understeer then the lightest touch on the throttle gives a flash of oversteer, all the time the body heaving around uncomfortably. We make it through but both of us need a breather.

Of course, you don’t get a breather up here and for every corner that the Mustang drives through cleanly and balanced on the throttle, there are four of five moments where the body control just disappears. For me this is a deal-breaker because I hate that sensation of a car’s body and suspension running

out of sync, the car unable to respond to your commands precisely. A sports car needs an inner steel and on these roads the Mustang can’t summon the composure that sets apart the really great cars. In fact the body control is far too lazy to use all of the performance. That’s frustrating because beneath the limited body control is a predictable, entertaining balance.

I can’t help reflecting how the Mustang might have fared should we have brought rivals along. Of course, it wouldn’t run with a Golf R or any of the best hatchbacks for more than about 30 seconds before their blunt rear ends disappeared out of sight. I suspect an M235i would generate more grip and certainly exhibit better body control, but the BMW has its own issues: poor traction and a jagged, sharp-edged gait that feels fighty rather than fluid. A 370Z Nismo? Perhaps that’s the closest in spirit to the Mustang and it feels smaller and lighter than the Ford, but the Mustang’s voluptuous V8 is so much more appealing than the Zed’s coarse V6. The required £35,000 or thereabouts buys you some truly great cars, then, but there’s not a dynamically unimpeachable coupe short of the Cayman, which costs from £39,694. So in the context of appealing, fast, capable but slightly compromised competition, does the Mustang stack up?

That rather depends. You see, the Mustang simply isn’t good enough when you’re driving just for driving’s sake on the sorts of roads we love. It feels too heavy, the body control is compromised too easily and despite so many promising ingredients, in the end it still feels like a fish out of water in the UK. That’s a killer blow. And yet I can understand why somebody might forego locked-down, muscular dynamics on roads like these in order to have access to that drivetrain, those evocative looks and a taste of something entirely different every single day. Despite my reservations, there’s a really good car lurking within the Mustang. The GT350 version, which has a 5.2-litre flat-plane-crank V8 with 526bhp and a more aggressive chassis setup, should be quite a car. Can we have it in right-hand-drive, please?

Ford Mustang 5.0 V8 GT

Engine V8, 4951cc
CO2 184g/km
Power 345bhp @ 6500rpm
Torque 310lb ft @ 1900-4500rpm
Transmission Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive, limited-slip differential, Torque Vectoring (option)
Front suspension
MacPherson struts, coil springs, dampers, anti-roll bar
Rear suspension Multi-link, coil springs, damp ers, anti-roll bar
Brakes Ventilated discs, 380mm front, 330mm rear, ABS, EBD
Wheels
9 x 19in front, 9.5 x 19in rear
R19 front, 275/40 R19 rear

Weight 1711kg
Power-to-weight 243bhp/ton
0-62mph 4.8sec (claimed)
Top speed 155mph (limited)
Basic price RM598,888
On sale Now