MALIBU, CA – Out on a nice, empty straightaway, we select “Drag Strip” mode in the ’18 Ford Mustang, punch the accelerator to the floor and blast away from a standing start, noggin slapping the headrest with each upshift as the powertrain rips through the first four gears.
And that’s just the 4-cyl. – albeit a turbocharged 2.3L that shares some internal parts and attributes with the critically acclaimed Focus RS powertrain that earned a 2017 Wards 10 Best Engines trophy.
The V-8-powered Mustang GT, meanwhile, features a heavily reworked 5.0L, now hitched to either an all-new 10-speed automatic transmission or a carryover 6-speed manual fitted with a twin-clutch to better manage the V-8’s increased torque.
At a media drive here on tight canyon routes as well as boulevard cruising on the Pacific Coast Highway, we get a chance to sample the 2.3L and 5.0L Mustangs and find both offer compelling reasons for ownership.
The 2.3L paired with the automatic transmission is the practical choice, delivering 310 hp and 350 lb.-ft. (475 Nm) of torque, more than enough to hustle the 3,532-lb. (1,602-kg) fastback to illegal velocity in short order, while sipping just a gallon of fuel for every 25 miles (40 km) of combined city and highway driving. The car feels light and tractable through the twisty two-lane roads and recovers easily from driver-induced oversteer.
Big changes for ’18 include an engine overboost function, borrowed from the Focus RS, allowing the engine to deliver the listed torque, up from 320 lb.-ft. (434 Nm), along with a beefier manual-transmission clutch and larger half-shafts to handle the extra twist.
But the GT is the enthusiast’s pick and features several engineering highlights that combine to produce 460 hp and 420 lb.-ft. (569 Nm) of torque, rocketing this 3,705-lb. (1,681-kg) coupe to 60 mph (97 km/h) in less than 4.0 seconds – and making all the appropriately outrageous noises in the process.
The 5.0L gains 25 hp and 20 lb.-ft. (27 Nm) of torque, along with a 500-rpm bump in redline and a compression ratio increase from 11:1 to 12:1. Direct injection joins carryover port injection to give the Mustang better fuel economy and reduced emissions without sacrificing low-end torque or high-end power.
Spray-in cylinder liners, a technology Ford perfected in-house on the 5.2L GT350 engine – a 2016 Wards 10 Best Engines winner – now come to the high-volume 5.0L, saving weight while slightly increasing cylinder bore to 93 mm (from 92.2 mm). The net effect is a small but true increase in displacement from 4.95L to 5.04L. A composite oil pan saves another 2.2 lbs. (1 kg).
“It’s all designed to push the engine to the max,” says Tom Barnes, vehicle engineering manager.
Gunning The GT
We sample the GT with both available transmissions, the standard 6-speed manual and the optional 10-speed automatic. While the manual trans might seem like the natural fit for a car like this, the automatic is the clear choice for anyone with a traffic-clogged commute. The automatic still provides plenty of enjoyment, thanks to a range of driving modes and adapting algorithms that help wring every bit of performance from the big V-8.
We’ll admit to moments of pure exhilaration in the manual-equipped Mustang GT, downshifting to keep the revs and aural accompaniment at peak while guiding the nimble handler around canyon corners and ripping through exhaust-echoing tunnels. The muscular shifter is short and precise, while clutch effort is heavy enough to remind us we’re driving a serious performance machine.
Our testers are fitted with Performance Pack Level 1 upgrades such as MagneRide adaptive shock absorbers and Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S summer tires that combine to give the GT a sure level of grip and suspension control.
But even base Mustangs come equipped with standard parts borrowed from the previous edition’s Performance Pack, including monotube rear shocks, a stiffer front stabilizer bar and cross-axis joints. All Mustangs are enabled to select from five modes, Normal, Snow/Wet, Sport Plus, Track or Drag Strip, as well as a personalized setting dubbed My Mode.
The options affect shift points, throttle mapping, downshifts, steering effort, exhaust sound and suspension stiffness (in MagneRide-equipped models). Separately, the GT’s active exhaust system offers four modes: Normal, Sport, Track and time-of-day-configurable Quiet Start.
Our runs in the automatic-trans GT prove equally enjoyable, but for different reasons. When dialed up to Sport Plus mode, the gearbox does an admirable job of keeping the engine on edge, quickly responding to a punch on the accelerator or a paddle-induced downshift. Left to its own algorithms, the automatic adjusts to one’s driving style, performs rev-matched, throttle-lift downshifts and doesn’t hesitate when jumping from 10th gear to fourth in an instant.
Then there’s the aforementioned Drag Strip mode, taken to a whole different level with the V-8. On what seems like nothing short of a rocket-propelled launch, the GT in Drag Strip mode accelerates to its now-7,500-rpm redline, slams into second gear with authority and pushes toward triple digits long before third gear takes over and sanity – let alone speed limits – require lifting. Drag Strip mode doesn’t truncate torque between shifts so all the high engine-speed inertia transfers directly to the wheels, Barnes says.
Trick Technologies (with video)
There’s one more trick in the ’18 Mustang’s chassis-control bag: electronic line lock. Like the car’s Track and Drag Strip modes, Ford says line lock is intended “for off-road use only.” The system holds the front brakes while allowing the rear tires to spin, helping warm the rubber for better drag strip traction.
Inside, the spinning, smoking tire is depicted in real-time on the all-new 12.4-in. (31.5-cm) instrument cluster, just one of the many gems packed into the full-color digital display.
“It’s not an artificial spinning tire – it’s actually tied to the action,” says Craig Sandvig, Ford design manager-digital experience. “We didn’t want to cheat the customer by just running a video. We wanted it to be interactive.”
The instrument cluster is the most notable interior upgrade, providing a reconfigurable view of everything going on with the engine, auxiliary systems and handling, different views for Normal, Sport and Track driving and 26 color options.
Unique characteristics include a digital speedometer needle that brightens numerals as it sweeps past and leaves an active “comet tail” trail that lengthens and shortens with the accelerator.
“You can select what you want,” Sandvig says. “Part of the beauty of Mustang is the reconfiguration and making it personal.”
Besides the new cluster, interior changes are subtle, mostly involving color and stitching options, while exterior restyling is equally restrained but noticeable for giving the sports car a lower, wider appearance. The car also gets an array of Mustang-first driver-assistance technologies.
Finally, for enthusiasts – including Barnes and his boss, chief engineer Carl Widmann, and the Mustang team – Ford will offer an even higher level of factory-ready capability when the Performance Pack Level 2 debuts next spring.
The $6,500 package includes MagneRide suspension, stiffer rollbars and springs, functional aero effects designed to add downforce at speed, a lowered stance and Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires on 19-in. aluminum wheels.
The high-performance Mustang isn’t for everyone – Ford expects just 1,500 Performance Pack Level 2 orders out of the annual 100,000-plus Mustang sales.
“We wanted to go to that Performance Pack Level 2 more for a person who’s really into the driving experience,” says Barnes, noting many Mustang buyers will be more than happy with either the EcoBoost or standard GT. “We’re trying to keep a broad range.”
[email protected] @bobgritzinger
'18 Ford Mustang GT Specifications
|Vehicle type||4-passenger, 2-door sports car|
|Engine||5.0L all-aluminum DOHC port- and direct-injected V-8|
|Power (SAE net)||460 hp @ 7,000 rpm|
|Torque||420 lb.-ft. (569 Nm) @ 4,600 rpm|
|Bore x stroke (mm)||93.0 x 92.7|
|Wheelbase||107.1 ins. (2,720 mm)|
|Overall length||188.5 ins. (4,788 mm)|
|Overall width||75.4 ins. (1,915 mm)|
|Overall height||54.3 ins. (1,379 mm)|
|Curb weight||3,705 lbs. (1,681 kg)|
|Base price||$35,095 (GT, not including $900 destination and handling charge)|
|Fuel economy||16/25/19 mpg (14.7/9.4/12.4 L/100 km) city/highway/combined|
|Competition||Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge Challenger|
|Significant V-8 updates||Have hi-po V-6s made big V-8s irrelevant?|
|Killer new digital instrument cluster||Minor interior updates otherwise|
|10-speed automatic saves fuel||Enthusiasts still cling to manual shifter|