By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
A four cylinder muscle car, anyone?
Ford has done it before — back in the ’80s. Remember the Mustang SVO? It rivaled the V-8 Mustang GT’s straight-line performance, but did so with greater sophistication as well as better handling in the curves due in part to its lower curb weight (the result of having several hundred pounds less cast iron under its hood).
Take two — thirty-something years down the road.
Ford is once again selling a turbo four cylinder-powered, high-performance Mustang. And its performance is so good it’s enough to make even a muscle car maniac like myself think twice about buying the V-8.
WHAT IT IS
The Mustang is, of course, Ford’s entrant in the latter-day Muscle Car Wars. It goes up against the other two other mid-large RWD bruisers in this class, Chevy’s Camaro and the Dodge Challenger.
It’s similar to those two in terms of resurrecting the appearance — and experience — of late 1960s/early 1970s-era American muscle cars. But unlike the Chevy and the Dodge — which only come with big V-6s and even bigger V-8s — the Mustang now offers a small (and light) turbo four that also has the virtue of being almost economy-car efficient while also being credibly muscle car powerful.
How’s 310 hp, 5.4 to 60 — and 32 on the highway — grab you?
Base price for this version of the Mustang is $25,170 (a small jump up from the base price of the V-6 powered Mustang, which starts at $23,600).
But — trust me — it’s worth every penny.
In addition to the new engine option (turbo four, in addition to V-6 and V-8) the 2015 Mustang gets a sleek new (long-nose) body, an updated interior and — for the first time — a standard four-wheel independent suspension.
V-8 GTs are available in 50th Anniversary Limited Edition trims, too.
Turbo four Mustang’s straight-line performance is superior to that of its heavier, six-cylinder-powered (and automatic-only, in the case of Challenger) rivals.
Mustang’s gas mileage is better, too.
Less weight over the front wheels translates into a lighter-steering/quicker-reacting muscle car. Doesn’t feel as ponderous as its rivals.
Part-throttle roll on surge of 2.3 EcoBoosted four is Boss 351 worthy.
Costs much less than Challenger ($26,995 to start).
Roomier inside than Camaro.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Turbo four costs about $1,500 more up front than more powerful (although heavier and slower) Camaro V-6.
Turbo four might cost you more down the road. Historically, turbocharged engines — which are pressurized engines — have tended to wear out sooner; when that happens, they can be very expensive to fix.
Gas mileage advantage is slight: 3-4 MPG better on the highway than the V-6 Camaro; about 2 MPG better on the highway than the (much heavier, significantly larger) V-6 Challenger — and mostly negated by the little four’s premium fuel-only appetite and the Mustang’s smallest-in-class gas tank (16 gallons vs. 19 for the Camaro and 18.5 for the Challenger).
Center console storage cubby is set back too far.
“My Ford” LCD infotainment screen’s buttons are too small; system can be hard to operate without thinking about it.
UNDER THE HOOD
The ’15 Mustang still comes standard with a V-6, like its two rivals. But the upgrade engine is not a V-8 … unlike its rivals.
For the first time since ’80s, you can buy a new Mustang with a four cylinder engine.
But this time, it’s not an economy engine.
Well, it is economical.
But it’s also a performance engine. That 5.4 second to 60 run mentioned up above? If you could be like Cher and turn back time to 1985 and go heads up against a 5.0 liter “high output” Mustang GT, the new turbo four Mustang would waste it.
While the GT wasted lots of gas.
How much have things changed? The old five-oh made 225 hp. The new 2.3 liter turbo four makes 85 more hp with four fewer cylinders and half the displacement. To really drive the point home, compare the Ecoboost ’15 Mustang’s output — and performance — to that of my (up to now) favorite modern Mustang: the 1995 Cobra R Ford let me have for a week back when Seinfeld was America’s favorite TV show. It had the last of the 351 V-8s (5.8 liters) and that mill made… 300 hp. Ten hp less than the 2.3 equipped 2015. And the EcoBoosted Mustang runs about as hard, too. With AC, a great stereo and interior insulation … none of which the race-intended ’95 Cobra R came with. The new EcoBoosted Mustang is also capable of something my fondly remembered Cobra could never do … well, with its engine running:
Go 30-plus miles on a gallon of fuel.
The turbo’d 2105 rates 21 city, 32 on the highway (with the optional automatic; manuals do slightly better in city driving — 22 MPG — and slightly worse on the highway — 31 MPG).
Yeah. Color me impressed.
To be fair to the six-cylinder-powered competition, their efficiency is also pretty impressive. As is their power. The Camaro comes standard with a 323 hp 3.6 liter V-6; the Challenger a 305 hp 3.6 liter V-6. They don’t suck much gas, either — for cars of this type: 19 city, 30 highway for the both of them.
But their performance isn’t as good as the four-cylinder Mustang’s — because they each weigh much more than the four-cylinder Mustang: 3,702 lbs. for the V-6 Camaro (and a beefy 3,834 lbs. for the Challenger) vs. 3,450 lbs. for the turbo-EcoBoosted, six-speed Mustang.
Which explains the Camaro’s much less impressive six seconds to 60 time — and the V-6 (and automatic-only) Challenger’s even less impressive 6.5-ish to 60 time.
Neither car is slow. But the take-home point is the Mustang’s a lot quicker.
The mileage advantage is nice, too.
Well, there’s one nit: The turbo-Ecoboost engine requires premium unleaded to deliver the goods. It won’t hurt it to burn regular, but probably you’ll pay another way — in the form of reduced mileage and power/performance. The extra cost of the premium fuel probably neutralizes the Ford’s mileage advantage, since both the Camaro’s V-6 and the Challenger’s V-6 are designed to run best on regular.
And — as mentioned earlier — the Mustang’s gas tank is about 3 gallons shy of the tanks in its rivals. That reduces its range and means more frequent pit stops.
ON THE ROAD
This is the little engine that could.
And then some.
A mid-high five second run to 60 is a hotter run than 90 percent of big-block bruisers from the “good old days” could muster. Don’t believe me? Go back and read the road tests.
And 5.4 seconds to 60 will smoke 90 percent of new cars, too.
I won’t mention unmentionable top speed numbers, but … trust me when I tell you the four-cylinder Mustang is faster on top than every classic muscle car I’ve owned and driven — and that includes some serious (for the era) firepower such as a ’71 Plymouth GTX 440 and also my 455 (7.4 liter) powered Trans-Am.
Like both those cars, this car has hand-of-god part-throttle thrust; push the gas pedal down even a little bit and feel the hood rise as the car surges eagerly forward. The high horsepower certainly helps, but it’s the 2.3 engine’s 320 ft.-lbs. of torque that makes this marvel. It’s got more torque than the old 5.0 V-8 (300 ft.-lbs.) and the small engine makes it earlier in the power curve, so you feel it hit you in the small of your back sooner.
The turbo Ecoboosted Mustang will also do an excellent burnout — essential in a car with muscle car pretensions.
Ford provides a toggle on the center console to turn the traction control off (this happens automatically, if you select “track” mode, two toggles over from that). The Mustang’s “track” setting is serious bidness. The TCS electronic old biddy is told to sit down and shut up.
You control the car.
Hold the brake with your left foot and (if it’s an automatic) use your right to bring the engine up to about 3,000 RPM and then — gradually — ease up a bit on the brake and let the tires begin to spin.
Now, hammer it — and hold on to yer helmet!
You’ll leave the line with the Mustang’s rear end fishtailing left, then right — just like back in ’69 — twin patches of rubber permanently etching your deed into the asphalt. If the car (like my test car) has the optional six-speed automatic, you’ll enjoy another retro muscle car experience: A very firm 1-2 upshift under WOT — not unlike what Saturn V astronauts felt when the first stage engines cut off and the stage 2 engines lit. If the tires were retro — ’70s era Goodyear GR70s on 15-inch rims — they’d definitely chirp as the gears shifted. The only reason they don’t is because the Mustang comes standard with vastly grippier 17s (18s being optional). But it’s a close-run thing… a little more power would probably do the trick. And remember: This is a turbo engine. That means, more boost could probably be dialed in, once the car is in you sweaty hands. Well, that’s what would happen if my sweaty hands got hold of this car.
The long hood is also most excellently retro.
Under-30s will need some time to get used to the expanse of cowled steel, but people over 40 who have personal recollections of the first-generation muscle cars of the ’60s and ’70s will feel immediately at home. You are once again the commander of something serious.
Further menace is provided by the twin raised pleats, which are not at all hard to envision as twin .50 caliber gun emplacements molded into the hood.
The car feels big, but not too big — as (to me) both Camaro and Challenger do. This is not entirely subjective, either. The Mustang is objectively less wide, not nearly as long, rides on a much shorter wheelbase — and is several hundred pounds lighter than its rivals. In Camaro and Challenger — both of which I’ve driven several times — you sometimes feel there’s not enough road for the car. There’s less margin to your double yellow left and your drop-off-the-shoulder right. On the highway — and the wide roads of built-up suburbia — this is less an issue. But hustle down a windy back road in the country and you will see what I mean.
All three cars are capable cornerers — but do it with sheer force of adhesion rather than innate athleticism. Remember: These are not sports cars. They are muscle cars. You work ’em in the curves — and turn them loose on the straights. That’s where they do their best work.
The new Mustang’s also got a fully-independent suspension, a major point of departure relative to old-school solid rear axles — which (like a big V-8 under the hood) used to define American muscle. A solid axle rear is tough, but the back wheels cannot articulate up and down independently to compensate for road irregularities but move together as a pair. So, if say the left rear dips into a pothole, it upsets the geometry of the entire rear suspension.
IRS gives a better ride on uneven surfaces — and that’s the main reason for its adoption. Not handling. A solid axle car can be made to corner like it’s on rails.
But the Mustang deals much better with potholes and such like now. Drive the one and the old one back to back and you will notice this immediately.
AT THE CURB
I realize looks are in the eye of the beholder — but this Mustang looks really good to me. It’s long and lean — every young man’s dream.
I felt lust in my heart, gawping at the fly yellow Mustang parked in the garage next to my ’70s-era pumpkin orange Trans-Am. A match made in heaven. Well, Detroit. I’ve never felt such stirrings over the current Camaro — despite having owned (and loved) four previous-gen. examples. The current gen. Camaro doesn’t speak to me; it strikes me as bulbous and cartoonish; a ham-handed paean to the ’69.
The Challenger is better. So faithful to the ’70 E-body you’d swear panels interchange.
But this Mustang is — to my eye — the best of the three. It reminds one, of course, of classic-era Mustangs. But it’s a different Mustang. An interpretation rather than a cribbing.
Lithe, but masculine. The lethal elegance of a fighter aircraft.
Indeed, this long-nosed Mustang reminds me of a very specific fighter: The WW II-era Focke Wulf FW-190D. The D models had an extended nose nacelle, to accommodate the massive Daimler-Benz V-12 that powered the thing in lieu of the normal 190’s radial engine.
All that’s missing here is the Revi gunsight.
I’ve mentioned already that the Mustang is physically smaller than its rivals — much smaller than the Challenger, which is huge. This hugeness has advantages, including a people-viable back seat with 33.1 inches of legroom vs. the Mustang’s 30.6 inches (and the Camaro’s absolutely desperate 29.9 inches) as well as a Soprano’s-style 16.2 cubic foot trunk vs. the Ford’s 13.5 cubic footer and the Camaro’s absurd (given the size of the car) 11.3 cubic foot trunk.
But despite being several inches shorter overall than Camaro (188.3 inches vs. 190.6 inches) and having a much shorter wheelbase (107.1 inches vs. 112.3 for Camaro) the Mustang has vastly more legroom up front (44.5 inches vs. 42.4) as well as more headroom (37.6 inches vs. 37.4).
The Challenger has good visibility and a big car’s interior. But despite its gigantic proportions (197.6 inches long, nearly a foot longer than the Mustang; 116.2 inches of wheelbase — also almost a foot more) it actually — and kind of shockingly — has 2.5 inches less front-row legroom (42 inches). At least it has a lot of headroom (39.3 inches — about two more inches than either the Mustang or the Camaro) making it the best choice for the really tall.
An Ecoboost-equipped Mustang will cost you about $6k less up front than a V-8 GT… and may cost you many thousands less to own, too.
If you’re under 30, especially.
One reason why latter-day muscle cars seem to be bought mostly by guys like me in their 40s — instead of guys in their 20s — is because the cost to insure a V-8 muscle car is out-of-hand. But this car? Hey, it’s only got a four cylinder engine, Mr. Insurance Mafia Man… . They’ll catch on eventually, of course. But for now? Seize the day!
So, what’s not to like?
Two small things.
First, the center console’s main storage cubby is set back too far to the rear. Accessing it — while driving — is awkward. Attempting to plug in your iPod (the slot is in the cubby) almost impossible. The good news is Ford put the 12V power point at the front of the console, just ahead of the shifter. So it’s no problem plugging in your radar detector.
Second gripe: Ford’s MyTouch interface — the LCD touchscreen flat screen — has too-tiny buttons that can be hard to operate when the car is moving, which makes it more difficult than it should be to do simple, basic things such as change the radio station or scroll from one screen to another (e.g., from “climate” to “GPS”) and so on.
These are, however, mere trivia.
Drive this car and you’ll love this car.
Look at it — and fall in love.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Of the “big three,” only the Mustang has survived 50 years without interruption.
Because for 50 years, Ford has continued to get it right.