There I was, spearing down one of the post deliciously curvy roads I’d ever been on. Jagged rocks on one side, hip-level Armco barrier on the other and lanes just wide enough for two cars, if the drivers are being scrupulous. The sun was shining, the air was fresh and I was at the wheel of the latest edition of one of the automotive world’s most famous nameplates: the Ford Mustang. As a muscle-car person, there are few places you’d rather be than the sun-baked foothills around Los Angeles, V8 engine ahead of you blasting off the walls every time you snag that stubby gear lever and slam home another gear.
Only, I wasn’t in that place. Not completely.
I didn’t have a stubby gear lever in the palm of my hand, or a V8; heck, I didn’t even have a V6, since that is no longer an option for the Mustang in 2018. I had the standard workhorse of the modern hatchback, mid-size sedan and crossover, if not sporty muscle cars like this: an inline four-cylinder with a turbocharger bolted to it. We’ve seen it in Mustangs before; it’s a 2.3L EcoBoost plant, good for 310 hp – same as last year – and 350 lb-ft of torque, up from 320 last year. Hitherto an option, it’s now the base motor.
That’s some news, but the big news surrounding the car I was currently piloting on this heavenly hash of a road was the existence of a 10-speed automatic transmission, which is all-new for this year. It’s a $1,500 option on any Mustang trim (Coupe, Convertible, Premium Coupe, Premium Convertible, GT Coupe, GT Premium Coupe and GT Premium Convertible) and it was time to find out if that’s $1,500 well spent.
But first: a look at what else has changed for the Blue Oval’s Pony Car for 2018.
Out with the old, in with the…somewhat new
At first glance, it may look like not much has changed for ’18, especially if you’re looking at the car in profile. The passenger compartment and roofline are exactly the same as previous, meaning you still have that retro ‘Stang silhouette, albeit one that has been slightly rounded and streamlined for the European markets in which it’s now sold.
Actually, for 2018 it’s even more streamlined. The way the hoodline drops as it meets the headlights is a drag-reducing feature, while the enlarged front grille is on hand to give the ’18 car a wider stance. Speaking of the headlights: eagle-eyed readers will see that these are also new, and are shrouded by what Ford is actually calling “eagle-eyed headlamp cutouts”. The Mustang now gets LED headlights and DRLs on all trims, which is a nice feature that adds a little more class to the proceedings. From the side, 10 new wheel styles (keep in mind, though, that “new” could mean nothing more than a slightly different wheel finish) as well as a character line that starts on the hood and reaches all the way to the rear of the car mark the extent of the changes. At the rear, models equipped with the Performance Package ($3,000 on EcoBoost cars, and $3,700 on GT cars) get a larger, permanent rear wing (coupe models only; convertibles don’t get it) while all V8 GT models get a more aggressive rear valance.
Inside, much of the chrome trim has been swapped out for more satin materials in an effort to draw the eye to certain cabin details – for example new embossed “Mustang” dash plaque and “heart of the Mustang” start/stop button that actually pulses red once you step inside -- without distracting occupants with flashy chrome. I myself like the change mainly because chrome tends to scuff, thereby becoming distracting and somewhat ugly all at once. The addition of a heated steering wheel, meanwhile, is a boon for Canadian drivers.
A boon for all drivers, meanwhile, is the $1,500 Safe and Smart package that adds all manner of electronic safety doodads like auto dipping high beams, adaptive cruise and automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection. Ford seems to truly believe that the Mustang can be used as a day-to-day driver, and with all of these new additions, I tend to agree with them.
As before, fabric and leather seats are available, as well as deep-bolstered Recaro Alcantara/leather options on cars equipped with the Performance package. The sport seats are a manual adjust, however, and while I eventually found settings that worked, I have a feeling that many will be glad they can get the Performance Package without having to choose the sport seats, too.
The packages don’t end there; if you want a little more flash for your Mustang, then the $1,500 Pony Package – exclusive to cars equipped with the EcoBoost – is also available, adding a chromed side window surround, side stripe, special 19” wheels and classic “Tri-Bar” badging. (You know the one: vertical three-colour bars topped with the classic Mustang silhouette). Shame you can’t get it for the GT model.
Pricing, meanwhile, has climbed a little. Your base choice is the EcoBoost Coupe that starts at $28,888 versus $26,898 for the outgoing V6 model (although it costs about $1,000 less than 2017’s EcoBoost). At $39,998, the GT model now starts at about a grand more than it did in ’17.
Digitize all the things
Well hopefully not all the things – this is a muscle car, after all, a segment some would call the last bastion of the analogue auto – but there’s so much tech going on inside here it’s obvious that even the muscle car needs to “tech-up” in order to appeal to a broader audience.
We’ve seen SYNC3 in Mustangs before, and it’s once again available here, though base model EcoBoost cars still get the older platform as well as a smaller screen, down to 4.2” from 8” on SYNC3 cars. My guess? Maybe five percent of Mustang buyers will stick with the older set-up. The new example is just so slick and user-friendly that it’s well worth the upgrade. Plus, it also features Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, which is becoming more and more necessary in cars of any stripe these days. The only other infotainment option, really, is a Shaker Pro 12-speaker sound system, which can only be had on GT Premium models for a $1,000 cost.
All-new in the tech department is the addition of a 12” digital gauge display. It can be modified any number of ways, from the colours displayed (instead of choosing from presets, you actually get to choose from a swatch of colours on a colour wheel), to the way revs are counted, either by a traditional tach or on a linear counter that snakes its way up and across the top of the display. Having said that, unlike in other cars that use a digital display, the two main gauges always remain, so there’s no way to go with an all-digital set-up sans round gauges. I also would like to have seen a little more from the centre display between the gauges; you can’t, for instance, have your navi map displayed there like you can in a Porsche or Mercedes. You do get turn-by-turn commands there if you want, but how many people will actually use this feature as opposed to just focusing on the centre stack’s map display?
While muscle cars were built for success on the straight-and-narrow of North America’s drag strips, this latest Mustang – with its switch to an independent rear axle and all – was designed to be a better handler, on our roads but perhaps most importantly on European roads. Europeans are a little pickier when it comes to handling, and there’s a good chance the bobbing rear end associated with the old car’s live-axle rear set-up would turn many potential European buyers off.
While the basic suspension hasn’t changed, what you can now do is add magnetic dampers to your Performance Package for $2,000. I had the chance to try both the EcoBoost and GT cars with this set-up, and it does a fine job of keeping body movements in check both through turns and under braking/acceleration. The new dampers, plus the added power (that’s 460 hp for the V8, a 25 hp jump) and new twin-disc clutch on the GT now have the non-Shelby models feeling closer to their high-performance brethren than they ever have, which is going to be a boon for those who really want to push the performance envelope without going the whole-hog hardcore Shelby route. Even without the dampers, the Performance Package also adds additional chassis tuning and heavier-duty front spring. Add the k-brace the GT models get, and when it come to the roads we were on the Mustang’s ride is a nervous one, to the point where I was feeling driveline shudder more than I would have liked.
That’s especially the case for the heavier GT model, which will blow you away with its outright pace. So much so, in fact, that it was almost a little overbearing on some of the narrower, more jagged sections of our drive route. Power is delivered so quickly and in such a linear fashion that I found myself on the brakes a little more often than predicted as this kind of power straight to the back wheels can really scramble your brain in these conditions.
Which is where we circle back to the beginning of this tale. I found myself behind the wheel of a muscle car that was missing those key muscle-car elements – V8, stick shift, clutch -- and I didn’t miss them, not entirely. The lighter engine up front means turn-in is a little better, and left-right transitions happen with a little less drama. In these conditions, on these roads, you could make a very valid argument that the four-cylinder is all you really need. It’s a Mustang transformed, really, from pony/muscle car to sports car. And there are plenty of people out there who will choose one for that reason. That said, the addition of the line lock (read: “burnout”) feature to EcoBoost models for 2018 shows that Ford hasn’t forgotten those who want a little more muscle car flare, even if they have chosen to trade four additional cylinders for a turbocharger. What I do wish, however, is that they’d have thought to include the GT’s new active valve exhaust system. Basically, this lets you choose from four different exhaust notes, from the muted “quiet” setting to the ear-splitting “track” setting, designed so you won’t wake the neighbours when you set out on your early-morning rip to the country. It’s a cool feature and why they didn’t offer it on the EcoBoost car – which could really use some exhaust augmentation, as turbocharged cars often do – is a mystery.
The 10-speed automatic transmission is a different story. I have no problem with the smaller engine, but the way it interacts with the 10-speed just isn’t on-point. The gears are shuffled quite regularly no matter which drive mode (normal, snow/wet, sport, track or drag) you choose, and it’s distracting. Of course, there’s always the option to shift gears on your own, but that just means you spend so much time and attention on flipping the paddles you spend just that much less on the curves ahead. What’s more, having so many ratios means you have to re-jig the idea of which gear you should be in depending on the severity of the curve ahead, incline and so forth and that’s not as easy as it sounds when you’ve spent so much time driving performance cars fitted with traditional 5- and 6-speed manual gearboxes. Is that a problem that only a select few will face? Maybe, but whether you’ve driven many performance cars or not, chances are you’ve driven very few cars in general fitted with a gearbox like this.
I see your turbo, and raise you four cylinders
While every muscle-car bone in my body was telling me I couldn’t’ allow myself to like the EcoBoost, it wasn’t enough to stop me from admitting that yeah, this is something that can actually work. It’s got power, you know it’s efficient and it manages to help in the handling department, too. It’s a fantastic set-up, there’s no doubt about it.
But would I have one? Not. A. Chance.
Give me a few more clicks on more familiar roads in the GT, and I’m sure I’ll have learned all its ticks and foibles. Then, I’ll be able to sit back, glance out over that long, proud hood and enjoy as all that torque and power spear me towards the horizon, “track” exhaust bellowing at me to push it harder, harder and harder still.
No matter how much tech or turbocharging they try and throw at me, it won’t be enough to sway me away from that wonderful V8 bellow for which muscle cars are known, and have become famous for.