2018 Ford Mustang First Drive: An All-Round Better Pony Car
– Malibu, California
The hills are alive with the sound of coyotes. Not the animal; it’s the crackling thunder of a 5.0-liter “Coyote” V8 that’s shattering the silence here as writers take turns exploring Malibu in Ford’s newest Mustang. Tearing up and down canyon roads, along Pacific Coast Highway and back again, in a parade of multicolored coupes, one thing is immediately clear: The 2018 Ford Mustang is still a riot.
Starting off the day in the Mustang GT is absolutely the way to go because its engine is such a gem. The V8 may still be called Coyote but it’s not quite the same mill as before. The cylinder bore has increased a bit, thanks to new plasma-sprayed bores that obviate the need for liners, so the precise displacement number rises from 4.96 to 5.04 liters. Port fueling joins direct injection, with a total of 16 injectors underhood. The redline climbs by 500 rpm to a lofty 7,500; the cylinder heads, crankshaft, and connecting rods are new; and a composite oil pan saves 2.2 pounds of mass.
The result is simply glorious. From barely above idle all the way to its redline, the V8 pulls instantly and eagerly, with snappy throttle response that makes mid-corner corrections a treat. With so much mid-range shove, it’s completely forgivable to short-shift way below the 7,000-rpm power peak. Oh, and it’s loud: leave the $895 active exhaust in Track mode to induce equal measures of grins and tinnitus. The engine thunders and barks and rumbles like the best muscle cars of all time.
Leave the $895 active exhaust in Track mode to induce equal measures of grins and tinnitus. The engine thunders and barks and rumbles like the best muscle cars of all time.
That exhaust, by the way, is an absolute must-have option. Leave it in the Normal or neighbor-pacifying Quiet modes, and the V8 whispers so quietly you’d barely notice it on a long road trip. But crank up Sport or Track mode and it sounds like you’re at the wheel of a bonafide race car.
Equipped with its new 10-speed automatic transmission, the Mustang GT is plenty quick off the line and easily settles down into a low-rpm cruise at speed. In fact, Ford says the dash to 60 miles per hour will take you less than four seconds when you get that gearbox. Enthusiastic driving occasionally surprises the 10-speed as it hunts for the next gear you’ll want, so use the Sport transmission mode and, better still, the shift paddles for optimum results.
For my money, I’d stick with the six-speed manual. Redesigned this year with a new dual-mass flywheel and larger synchronizers, it balances on the knife-edge of mechanical heft and slickness. Precise throws enable two-finger gearchanges time and time again, and with no automatic rev-matching feature, it forces you to stay engaged with the action.
You might expect that the base Mustang EcoBoost would be a disappointment in comparison, but it’s not. The turbocharged 2.3-liter inline-four still has 310 hp, but this year torque swells from 320 to 350 pound-feet. That bump comes courtesy of lessons learned programming the overboost mode in the Focus RS, with which the Mustang’s engine block is shared.
From barely above idle all the way to its redline, the V8 pulls instantly and eagerly, with snappy throttle response that makes mid-corner corrections a treat.
With that torque peak delivered at 3,000 rpm, there’s a meaty midrange that makes the EcoBoost feel plenty quick. It starts to run out of steam past its 5,500-rpm horsepower peak, but ride the middle of the tachometer and you’ll never complain that this is “just” a four-cylinder Mustang. The sprint to 60 takes “under” five seconds with the 10-speed automatic, Ford promises. The only disappointment about the engine: it sounds pedestrian compared to the GT’s bellow.
As well as its far improved fuel economy ratings, one big advantage to the EcoBoost engine is its lightness. Manual-transmission models are 162 pounds lighter than the GT manual, and with most of that weight loss coming from the front of the car, it’s really noticeable on canyon roads. The EcoBoost points into corners more eagerly and darts out of them handily, its steering quick and true. The effect is to make the four-cylinder Mustang “feel” smaller than the V8.
In fact, the EcoBoost feels like the car to have if you really enjoy corner-carving: there’s already more than enough power to get into trouble on a winding road, yet with the $2,495 performance package equipped, all the chassis and braking capability you could want. A limited-slip differential noticeably tightens my line when I throttle out of hairpin bends, while the four-piston front brake calipers satisfy with firm, precise feel through the left pedal.
That’s not to say the GT isn’t a performance machine. Its performance package goes even further, with Brembo six-piston front brakes and extremely sticky Michelin Pilot Sport 4 rubber. Buttoned-down with minimal body roll, it devours high-speed corners, taking advantage of all the accelerative force on offer from the V8. On open roads with sweeping bends, the GT flies.
All Mustangs now have full-LED illumination as standard, and a Skittles-like color palette delights with options like Orange Fury and a fabulous Royal Crimson.
Perhaps the greatest praise of all must go to the MagneRide dampers, a $1,695 option on cars with the performance package. Supplier BWI Group started tuning the dampers for the 2018 Mustang two years ago, after finishing them for the Shelby GT350, and the work pays huge dividends in every driving scenario. One thousand times per second, an electronic controller factors in dozens of variables – steering-angle change, wheel positions, braking forces, etc – and changes the viscosity of the magnetorheological fluids in each damper. Darrin Dellinger, BWI Group marketing manager, says the fluid can change consistency anywhere from the slickness of 0-weight engine oil to the thickness of peanut butter (creamy not crunchy, one presumes).
What that means is that left in the Normal drive mode, the Mustang glides over imperfect roads, while in Sport or Track it resists body motions like the best performance cars. The ride is never harsh, yet the car corners like a champion, all thanks to the flexibility of the magnetic suspension. There’s even special tuning in Drag Strip mode, which adjusts the shocks specifically to improve traction in hard launches.
Seeing the 2018 Ford Mustang under the California sun provides a much better impression than when it debuted under the glare of auto show lamps. A minor update, the squintier headlights, larger grille, and various other styling nip-tucks nevertheless are easily noticeable on the road. All Mustangs now have full-LED illumination as standard, and a Skittles-like color palette delights with options like Orange Fury and a fabulous Royal Crimson. The cars look great. And if you don’t like the big new rear wing of the performance pack variants, you can opt to delete it.
Changes inside are a little less noticeable, with many of the same retro-inspired details dotting the cabin. It’s a nice place to spend time, however, with good sightlines out over the hood and to the sides, the latest version of the Sync 3 infotainment system, and comfortable seats (though the long clutch throw requires a somewhat close seating position). The trunk is spacious, with a reasonably useful opening and a pass-through when you fold the back seats, and while the rear seats are not commodious, they can at least feasibly be used for carrying real live adults.
While not as crisp or bright as Audi’s much-loved Virtual Cockpit, Ford's 12.4-inch digital instrument cluster presents lots of information in a very clear manner.
Another must-have feature is the new 12.4-inch digital instrument cluster. While not as crisp or bright as Audi’s much-loved Virtual Cockpit, it presents lots of information in a very clear manner. You can configure virtual recreations of two analog gauges, a totally confusing J-shaped digital tachometer, or a super-cool fully horizontal digital tach. There are also myriad displays for details like engine boost, oil temperature, and so on, and you can configure a shift light at whatever engine speed you desire. (There’s also a little spinning-tire animation when you use the electronic line lock function.)
Base prices for the 2018 Mustang are not too far removed from last year’s figures. The EcoBoost coupe starts from $25,585, with the Premium trim at $30,600, while the GT is $35,095 and the GT Premium commands $39,095.
Of course, all of the new goodies available can seriously elevate the Mustang’s sticker price if you check a lot of option boxes. The Mustang GT pictured here, for instance, cracks the $50,000 barrier, and I tested another that was $53,195. Yes, it’s possible to get a Camaro SS to similar prices, but it still starts to feel like a lot for a Mustang when the Shelby GT350 starts from $57,145 – and even a BMW M2 lists from $53,500. Ultimately, though, few buyers are cross-shopping those cars with a Mustang.
Buyers will also appreciate that fuel economy figures have improved, thanks to the 10-speed auto and better aerodynamics. With the EcoBoost and the automatic, the car now returns as much as 21 miles per gallon city and 31 highway; the GT auto is up 1 mpg in each rating to 16 city and 25 mpg highway. Both engines require premium fuel, of course.
Improved fuel economy is very good news, because you’ll want to drive the 2018 Mustang as much as possible. It’s perfectly civilized when I sit in traffic and hugely exciting when I turn onto canyon roads. Both engines deliver gobs of performance, and the chassis (especially with the Performance package) boasts sportscar capability.
The new Mustang’s greatest achievement is that it offers even broader possibilities than before. Power is up at the same time as fuel economy increases. The MagneRide dampers improve both handling and ride quality. There’s even more technology to make everyday driving simpler. Couple that with the fact that the basic package – rear-wheel-drive fun in a stylish coupe package – is unchanged, and it’s clear the 2018 Mustang is a winner. Bring on those summer road trips.
Photos: Jake Holmes / Motor1.com