Mustang Drifts Japan: America’s performance mainstay is an ambassador abroad.

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Tokyo’s Grand Hyatt garage was the site of a telling diplomatic summit. As flashy ex-pats shuttled out of pricey European and Japanese metal, a red 2010 Ford Mustang found itself in cosmopolitan company. I figured that, among caches of cachet, the muscle-bound Mustang would fidget. However, in a singular moment, the Mustang demonstrated capability without the arrogance of a neighboring Ferrari, individualism without the pretense of a Bentley, and accessibility without the apology of an anonymous Toyota. I could have cried.

You see, this Michigan-fresh Mustang had a stock American head unit, not calibrated to receive Japanese FM frequencies. I left my auxiliary input cable at home in an attempt to force myself to sample native beats, but the Mustang’s dial was dead. I would have been out of luck for the 300-km drive to Ebisu Circuit in Fukushima — but I had a thumb drive loaded with awkward indie-rock, and this Mustang was SYNCed. A USB oasis. Who wouldn’t well with pride?

Over the next few days, I witnessed the potency of Mustang diplomacy. Though it may spell the death of well-fed travel writers, what I discovered was cultural sameness. At least some familiarity could be attributed to residents’ casual near-mastery of the English language, with the balance comprised of authentic courtesy and friendliness. Most vehicles on the tolled highway to Ebisu could fit the description of “greige, boxy and conformist,” and yet, rare enclaves of car culture were certainly present. One jobber at a Shell station certainly understood.

Upon arrival at Ebisu, the mission’s success didn’t rest solely on the shoulders of one Mustang. Guinness-setting drifter Vaughn Gittin Jr. piloted a Ford Racing-prepped cognate, meeting D1 Grand Prix drivers on their own turf and tossing them the keys. D1GP driver Yoshinori Koguchi and series champ Daigo Saito worked the Mustang over separate tracks at Ebisu. Both conveyed their amazement at its driftability — and attainability.

During taped interviews for Japanese press, Gittin’s energetic X-Games-style was punctuated with genuine temperances of “I love Japan” and “I’m honored to be here.” Internationally diplomatic, Gittin’s message must reach a much closer demographic: American millennials who would otherwise write off the Mustang entirely. At home or abroad, “Captain Clutch Kick” speaks to a burgeoning generation raised to love imported sports cars that are now largely out of production. Of the three D1 cars to meet Gittin’s Mustang, only one — a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution — is available to increasingly drift-conscious buyers in the United States.

Gittin, who still owns his first Nissan 240SX drift machine, understands the demographic on a personal level. “I never gave a Mustang a chance,” Gittin said in a Speed:Sport:Life exclusive interview. “The new [2005] Mustang was so beautiful. The first time I drove it, I was hooked.”

Though the S197 won Gittin over, an assortment of asterisks kept the previous-generation Mustang from competing on the world stage as a bona fide grand tourer. The last Mustang’s interior was rich in thematic design, but rendered in broke-status monotone plastics. This time, the twin-brow dash is stitched with soft padding that shades a mock-alloy center stack. Ecology-conscious soy foam seats are swathed in declarative red-and-white leather, a truly opulent color scheme among competitors who are too meek to offer anything beyond “safe” greige swatches.

As the drift team crossed Japan, the GT earned its badge. The S197’s intense brake dive has been moderated. The small-diameter deep-dish steering wheel transmits weight and road feel instead of harshness. Road noise is muffled by acoustic piping that routes rich V8 sound into the cabin at all speeds. While cruising, the note is present, but not bassy enough to drone; additional revs reveal a technical, multi-dimensional soundtrack that evokes images of a speeding valvetrain instead of a loping cam. During a photo shoot, the Mustang’s backseat proved easier to endure than the 2010 Camaro’s rear seats – and an optional glass roof should be healthy for children, too.

The package is wrapped in a refined evolution of the S197’s “retrofuturist” sheetmetal. This time, designers starched the Mustang’s clothing at more severe angles to present the illusion of a shortened hood and decklid. Engineers ensured shrunken shutlines and consistent panel fits that the previous Mustang sometimes craved. Intricate headlamp assemblies and standard sequential rear turn signals lend a level of sophistication that might convince enthusiasts to leave their Fox Body clichés at home.

The challenge, Gittin says, is to get hesitant drivers behind the wheel. “I always tell everyone, ‘it is Ford’s motto, but really, you don’t understand a Mustang until you drive one,’” Gittin said.

In that sense, the Mustang’s journey meant more than gratuitous tire torture. The transcontinental trip signified the Mustang’s readiness to take on all comers, from all countries, in all areas. Only abroad could the Mustang’s world-class strengths – raw power backed by workable handling dynamics, emotive design, and a cutting edge infotainment suite – be so apparent.

In a Tokyo garage, the SYNCed Shaker sound system pounded that point.

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Adam Barrera

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