The man before us in this crowded Los Angeles garage, Mustang head honcho Dave Pericak, is about to burst. He knows what the press is about to learn: that there are two muscular rabbits in his hat, and he’s going to pull them out with an absolute maximum of hyperactive enthusiasm. We all know the numbers: 305 horsepower for a revitalized V-6 and 412 ponies in the five-liter. 31 miles per gallon for the automatic six, 26 mpg for the stick-shift V-8.
What we don’t know, or perhaps haven’t considered, is the significance — the context — of these numbers. There’s a Honda Accord sulking outside this garage. Why? It seems Mr. Pericak wishes to make a particular point. Honda is synonymous with fuel efficiency in the minds of the American public, but the Accord V-6 coupe is rated at just 28mpg. As an automatic. As a stick-shift, it gets 25. Take a moment to think about that. A front-wheel-drive Honda coupe can’t match the mileage of a rear-wheel-drive ponycar. The antiquated, low-tech, “oxcart-axle” Mustang may be faster and more powerful than the Accord, but we all expected that. Did we expect that it would be more fuel-efficient as well?
By the time the relatively rapid press briefing is over, we all understand what’s happened here. While Chevrolet was aiming its Camaro at the Mustang, Ford was aiming elsewhere. The V-6 Mustang is a two-fisted blow to the throat of competitors as diverse as the aforementioned Accord and the Hyundai Genesis Coupe. The five-liter takes the core values of that revamped car and adds enough pace to walk away from some very rapid automobiles. And both cars are priced to cause heartburn everywhere from the RenCen to Ingolstadt.
Enough numbers. Let’s drive.
What’s a V-6 Mustang? It’s a joke, it’s a rental, it’s a present for teenaged girls. It’s certainly not an enthusiast’s car. The Mustang has been on the road for more than forty-five years, and the six-pot has never been the model of choice. Hell, the four-cylinder Mustang SVO had more credibility with the fanbase than any of them. Fast-forward to 2010, however, and there is a whole group of customers for whom a V-8 Mustang is simply not an option. Living in high-insurance states like California makes owning a GT impossible for a lot of young drivers. There was an opportunity here, and some bright bulb decided to take advantage of it.
My personal definition of “fast car” falls right across the performance of my personal Audi S5. Any car that is faster than an S5 is a “fast car” to me. The V-6 ‘Stang doesn’t quite cut that particular mustard, but it really isn’t far off. The new six-speed is precise enough and it feeds all 7000 rpm to a limited-slip differential. The V-6 we tested was not the new Performance Pack, but I was able to push it well beyond reasonable velocities through the infamous L.A. canyons. With the Performance Pack, which includes the brake pads from last year’s GT “Track Pack” and a full suite of suspension enhancements, I suspect the V-6 Mustang will stick very close to that 2010 GT in most conditions. As it was, it took severe pavement waves in the middle of eighty-mile-per-hour corners to expose the Achilles heel of the V-6: lack of body control at the rear. That oxcart axle actually handles all but the worst corners just fine, but a little more rebound damping is necessary to keep the weight on the rear wheels. Remember, a Mustang is fundamentally a front-weighted car, so we need to keep the back bumper sniffing along the ground as much as possible. When that bumper soars too high, the rear wheels find themselves a bit short on contact patch and the world goes sideways in a hurry. Keep in mind, however, that this behavior occurs at a pace that a Camaro RS — or Accord Coupe — simply don’t have the power-to-weight ratio necessary to achieve.
Oh yes, power-to-weight. While the manual-transmission Mustang 3.7 weighs just 3,453 pounds, the Camaro RS is closer to 3800. Even the BMW M3 weighs 3700, and it has a tricky carbon-fiber roof that every Jersey boy in America immediately no-cost-deletes in favor of a glass panel. Three hundred-plus pounds is a big deal. On the faux-autocross course set up by Ford to demonstrate the Mustang’s handling superiority, every single pound of the difference between it and the Camaro was readily apparent. The two cars aren’t really in the same league here, as the Camaro feels like a chop-top Pontiac G8 when it’s time to chase cones and the previous Mustang was already dominant in SCCA F-Stock autocross.
The big-cube V-6, as an engine type, is rarely very special-feeling on the move, and this variable-valve-timed 3.7 is no exception. With that said, it has at least as much character as any of the competitive set, including the crowd-favorite Nissan VQ. It likes to rev and rewards holding lower gears all the way out to the next corner, bouncing against the limiter with a reasonably cultured growl. When necessary, it will also torque its way up a hill. My co-driver, Michelle “Miss Motormouth” Naranjo, repeatedly idled up some relatively steep hills in fourth gear without so much as a hiccup. I’m not certain if that is more, or less, mechanically sympathetic than holding seven thousand revs for a few hundred feet before the braking zone.
I finished my day in the 3.7 convinced that it could hold its own against any car in its price range on a racetrack or fast road. Ford would probably like me to mention that the 2011 Mustang V-6 is the first car in history to deliver both 305 horsepower and 31 miles per gallon, so I’ve done so in this sentence. I’m more impressed by the fact that it costs $22,995 and will probably run a flat fourteen-second quarter.
As good as the V-6 is, and it’s really quite good, those of us with a little more cash to spare, or residence in a Midwestern state where it’s still possible to insure V-8 ponycars, will still prefer the 5.0. I could write sonnets for this engine. From the moment the soft-start electronics bring it to life, the four-cam mill immediately begins seducing everyone within hearing range. It simply sounds terrific throughout the rev range, from the basso profundo at idle to the NASCAR wail at seven thousand. Down Topanga Canyon Road, I repeatedly snicked the six-speed into third gear and flashed past traffic with all the slingshot madness of an aircooled Porsche Turbo. Make no mistake: this is a fast car. My S5 wouldn’t stand a chance in hell in a straight line.
Nor would corners offer any chance for the Audi to make up ground. Ford’s made the Brembo brakes from the 2010 GT500 optional, and while they still aren’t enough brake to suit my taste, they will provide much better service than the indifferent sliding-calipers that come standard. Keep in mind that this car is as fast over a winding road as a GT500, perhaps slightly faster when the curves come particularly thick and fast. A racetrack would be required to understand the full range of the five-liter’s capabilities, and no doubt we will arrange to run one around VIR or Mid-Ohio as soon as practicable.
About a year ago, I found that the 2010 GT was rather quick on the back roads, but this 2011 is far faster. Ford had a demonstration set up for us at Camarillo Airport: the auto-tranny 5.0 versus the auto-tranny Camaro SS. It was a “set up” in the truest sense of the term, as the self-shifting Camaro is twenty-six horses down on the six-speed, but the results left no room for interpretation. I was personally .6 seconds faster through the eighth-mile in the Mustang than I was in the Camaro. It seems reasonable to assume that both automatic and manual V-8 Mustangs will run very low twelve-second quarters. The 2011 GT500 will have to be very quick indeed to have a useful performance gap over this car, but our early information indicates that this will be the case.
A skilled driver should be able to glue this ponycar to the bumper of an E92 M3 on many road courses, and since the M3 is considered excellent value at a typical transaction price of sixty-five grand, the fact that a 2011 Mustang 5.0 can be acquired for half that makes it an even better one. I personally dislike sounding like what is commonly called an “advocate” in the world of automotive media, but in this case it’s difficult to construct an alternate approach. The 2011 Mustang V-6 is a damned good car, and it’s important for a number of reasons. The five-liter, on the other hand, is better than damned good. Unless your shopping list starts at Gallardo money, it should include a Mustang 5.0, preferably with the Brembo brakes and with the full SYNC/nav system.
I ran into Dave Pericak at the end of my Mustang day. He still looked like a man who had personally pulled a few rabbits out of his hat. I don’t blame him. I’d like to take one of those rabbits and pull it all the way to my garage.