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Story by Jack Baruth, photographs by Dave Everest

Reader beware: there won’t be a single reference to “burnouts” in this review. There won’t be any photos of a grinning journalist smokin’ the back tires or throwing up a set of “rock horns”. We won’t talk about 0-60 or quarter-mile times, Woodward Avenue, nineteen-sixty-four, or Steve McQueen. The words “Camaro” and “Challenger” will appear exactly once, and you just saw the one time they’ll appear. Everybody knows what the Mustang can do; let’s talk about what it traditionally can’t do.

I’d had a plan, and the plan was good. We would take the 2010 Mustang to Virginia International Raceway and let it run free against the Porsches, Nissans, and Corvettes which litter VIR’s paddock like a batch of giant Hot Wheels thrown to the ground by an angry god. We’d collect some data and place the 4.6-liter GT squarely where it belongs in the pantheon of mid-priced track rats. Good plan? Heck, it was a great plan, and it’s straight out of the usual Speed:Sport:Life playbook. But you know what happens to the best-laid plans of mice and men. The East Coast fell beneath a sudden blizzard. VIR canceled our two days on-site and sent us back home empty-handed. We knew we’d only have one chance to test this car at speed before it arrived at your local dealership. Time for Plan B. Which is to say, time to make a Plan B.

Ohio’s Hocking Hills area, dubbed the “Hockingheim” years ago by the once-brave souls at Car and Driver, happens to be right in my backyard. During the off-season weekdays, it’s possible to spend hours on the twisty, treacherous hill roads without seeing another driver. I’ve run up the Route 374 hill to Cantwell Cliffs in my Porsche 911 dozens of times, the siren song of a nearly unmuffled flat-six at the top of fourth gear bouncing off the ice-lined rock faces and down the long, sheer dropoffs just inches from the road’s gravel-strewn edge. It would be a great substitute test — for something besides a ‘Stang.

The Hockingheim ain’t ponycar-friendly, you see. Up here, traction trumps torque, visibility is worth more than style, and persistent understeer will send you to an early grave. We brought a C****o here a few years back; it took its thoroughly surprised SCCA-regional-champ driver off the road at a ninety-degree angle. The Hills have little patience for big, flashy Americans of any kind. This is rally-rep territory, plain and simple. And with ambient temperatures hovering at eighteen degrees Fahrenheit, we could expect everything from glare ice around blind corners to two-inch-deep pools of rock salt in the braking zones. We knew our “chase car” — a new-for-2010, all-wheel-drive Fusion Sport V6 — would shine under these conditions, but the Mustang? It was a setup for failure.

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Our first run up the 374 hill confirmed my worst fears. Where there was shade, there was snow and ice; where there wasn’t, there was salt so thick that we had to keep a two-hundred-foot distance between the cars lest we inadvertently pockmark their noses to the point of no respray. At the upper elevations, however, there was some clear, fast road to be had, which meant it was time to open the throttle and let the pony sing a bit.

Let’s get this out of the way: the 24-valve, 4.6-liter V-8 that appeared with the “S197” 2005-model Mustang and continues here in mildly updated form simply doesn’t cut the mustard on paper. 315 horsepower? That’s Hyundai coupe territory now! Two decades ago, the man behind the wheel of a “five-point-oh” 1989 Mustang GT knew that virtually nothing short of a Ferrari Testarossa would run him close in a straight line; today’s Mustang GT driver must either pick and choose his stoplight battles carefully or put in a deposit for a supercharged GT500. The power gap that used to separate the Blue Oval from the Japanese is long gone, yet the actual experience of driving this V-8 is still incomparably superior to something like an Infiniti G37.

The sound… the sound! From idle to redline, the 4.6 delivers a full-bore Daytona Prototype soundtrack that makes aftermarket mufflers irrelevant. It’s not strong from idle and breathless up the tach in the style of a small-block Chevrolet or Ford’s own iconic 302; instead, the pull starts off mild and opens up at 3500 rpm for a pure-adrenaline rush to redline. The restraining hand of the electronic limiter comes as a surprise. The original “mod-motor” 4.6 was simply worthless at high revs, but this 24-valver is splendid. In character and delivery it’s far closer to Audi’s direct-injection V-8 than to the domestic competition. The Blue Oval has taken a lot of stick over the past decade for using an overhead-cam V-8 in the Mustang, but for a generation which grew up on fast-spinning, peaky four-cylinders, it’s just the ticket.

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Of course, with each indulgent spin of the tach, the next corner comes closer. It’s never been easy to heel-and-toe the modern Mustang, and this car’s no exception. The secret is to literally turn one’s foot and do it Japanese-style. The brakes are easily up to fast-road running, but serious track rats should take a look at the GT500’s Brembo arrangement or one of the many aftermarket options. We never recommend trail-braking for public roads, which means that the traditional front-heavy Mustang understeer is your immediate companion upon turn-in. Don’t rush it. Get your speed correct and let the surprisingly communicative steering wheel tell you what’s going on. Ford’s squared away the damping on the 2010 model; there’s no “dig-and-set” on corner entry. Instead, the steering loads predictably and tracks you straight to the clipping point, ready for the big V-8 to return to work.

This wouldn’t be “automotive journalism” if we didn’t take a minute to complain about the live axle. The only problem is that there isn’t much to complain about. On wavy-pavement corner exits, it’s necessary to pay close attention to throttle level, but that’s more a function of the power on tap and the weight distribution than an indictment of the suspension layout. In the midcorner phase, the most it requires of the driver is a slight unwind of the wheel. Perhaps it’s the years I’ve spent running these roads in rear-and-mid-engined Porsches, which are no broken-pavement superstars themselves, but I’m never particularly worried about what the big pony will do next, and I’m never surprised by what does happen.

By lunchtime, the snow is melting from all but the darkest corners up and down the big Route 374 hill, and a couple of driver changes have let us compare notes. The first impression: it’s come a long way from the Fox-body 1979 car which set the template for modern Mustangs. The uprated interior, first-class NVH, letter-perfect fit and finish, and painstakingly matched control weights all combine to create the impression, not of a boulevard racer updated for the “change” era, but of a classic European Gran Turismo. More and more, it reminds me of my own Audi S5, with little dashes of plus-size Maserati or Aston thrown in. This is a big, bold, unashamed vehicle that sits conceptually halfway between a “Fox”Mustang and a Lincoln Mark VIII. In fact, it would probably be possible to build a hell of a Lincoln Mark using this platform. The rattle-free assembly and twist-free chassis are up to the standards of even the most ardent BMW fanatic.

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The downside of this Europhilic construction and execution is size. Switching back and forth between the Mustang and our accompanying Fusion drives home the point. It’s a big car, with a long hood and limited field of vision. Around a stack of marked 15-mph hairpins, with a rock wall on one side and a long fall to the forest floor on the other, claustrophobia sets in early and has an almost unconscious relaxing effect on my throttle foot. We run the same set of hills again and again, but the salt is shifting with the wind and what seems like a tame corner entry in one run can become a full-opposite-lock panic buzzer the next time ’round. Some of our crew members are stating their outright preference for the Fusion! “It’s easier to drive fast, easier to see out of, has more traction all the way through the corner, doesn’t squirm under power.” And so on. Kids.

The pro-Fusion murmurs continue long after the lunch break, and I start to think that, despite the big pony’s charm, despite the character of the engine, despite the sheer magic of piloting something this thoroughly single-minded and well-executed… the Mustang is just out of place. The traditionalists and “buff books” are right. This is a straight-line car. Great on the boulevard, even great on a road course, but out of its depth in a slippery, off-camber, horribly narrow environment like the Hockingheim. There’s only one way to really find out.

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“Last run. Give me the keys. Don’t try to stay in visual contact.” Turn the key, relax my hands, look all the way ahead, far up the hill. Rolling start and here we go. Full throttle. Through second gear, I hear a stereo screech as the rear wheels alternately spin on the salt. The Mustang’s rear bumper wags but the nose is straight and true. There’s enough grip. Up through third gear and here’s the first major slow corner. Drop the nose, make the shift, turn my head first and let the steering wheel follow. There’s that scratch of salt as the steering resistance drops to zero. The entry was too hot. Unwind the wheel, feed the throttle, and the inches to my side feel like miles. The input was hurried, but the response is honest as the ‘Stang straightens out and rockets away.

Next turn to the left. Still in second. The entry is clear and the hood darts sharply. Early power, clip and clear. The sound of the V-8. Time for a shift up and a shift down. A crackle of SYNC-enabled phone commo: the road is clear ahead for miles. My rear view mirror is empty. Now this big pony and I can really talk, in the language known to American Iron and CMC racers everywhere. Respect the chassis, but don’t be late with the power. Squeeze on the brakes, ease off. The outright grip is fantastic. A long, clean sweeper forces me to halt on our self-imposed maximum speed. The Mustang could do more, easily.

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At the top of the hill, empty blue sky as the suspension unloads on a series of sharp road peaks. The revs jump and fall with a “squeak” every time the rear end leaves the ground. Still straight and true. After each peak, a full compression at the bottom, but bump steer has been banished from the Mustang vocabulary. A sharp left-hander curves up and cambers in, inviting a full-monty throttle exercise and a sideways exit. We could have gone faster. There are no unpleasant surprises lurking at the bottom here. The old Fox would push, grind, bite and slide, but this car is one-finger adjustable even as the road is better viewed through the passenger window.

Now we descend a thousand feet in one long off-camber sweep. There’s the glint of gravely salt in the midcorner ahead. Straighten the wheel. A firm press of the brakes lets the ABS communicate for a second before we’re straight and through, picking up the steering load once more. Down again, steep enough that the trees seem to angle in parallel to the Mustang’s A-pillar. Stone wall lining the curve at the bottom of the hill. So what. Brake. Turn. Accelerate. Stop sign. Turn right into Ash Cave’s parking area. We’re done.

There’s time to get out of the car, shake the cramp out of my forearms and legs. The Ford ticks silently with the releasing heat. My hands are cold; I wave them a few feet from the front wheels and feel a wave of warmth. Oh, how I want to cage this car and race it. What a trustworthy, strong-hearted partner. The Fusion rolls up, heat rolling in visible waves from the brakes. It’s a fast car in its own right, but freed of our preconceptions, our pony can run much faster. This experience is the opposite of antiseptic rally-rep competence. It’s the thrill of driving a car that refuses to idiot-proof the situation but which works tirelessly with you to extract the maximum possible over-the-road performance. If you’re ready to play, the Mustang is ready to ride.

We ride out of the hills in a silent, sobered convoy. An hour later, we’re at home. Dave, the photographer and my passenger on that final ride, has his laptop out. He’s a multiple-Subaru owner, a dirt-road fanatic, and a tireless proponent of the rally-rep layout. I sneak a peek at his screen. I recognize the site, because I was just there myself. It’s the Ford website. He’s building a Mustang GT. So was I.

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Mustang Madness Month continues with a full Texas road test and an exclusive series of dispatches from Japan later this week! Stay tuned!

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Jack Baruth

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