We check out Ford's updates to its iconic pony car.
In 2015, Ford gave the Mustang a much-needed, globally oriented overhaul that finally brought it into the 21st century of performance car design, prepping it for launch in markets where V8-powered pony cars were previously coveted for their accessibility and unabashedly American charisma.
But as good as the 2015 Mustang was, it suffered from a nagging and inevitable reality of the American car market: Chevrolet loves to leapfrog. With the debut of the 2016 Camaro, Chevy not only took the pony car crown right back from the Blue Oval, but it proved that a simple American sports coupe can be every bit the world-class sports car people once came to expect from foreign manufacturers.
Ford returned fire with the GT350. Quicker though it may be, it's also more expensive. The 5.2L flat-plane V8 and MagneRide adaptive suspension are both sublime, but the former is more of a gimmick than a necessity and the latter is available on the (relatively speaking) humble Camaro SS for thousands less. In a sense, the GT350 was too much (rather than too little), too late.
For 2018, Ford fires back. The updates are relatively minor, but this is only a mid-cycle refresh, after all. For the purposes of this review, we'll focus on the updates to the GT model, however it's worth noting that the 3.7L V6 has been dropped entirely from the 2018 Mustang lineup. Only the 2.3L EcoBoost turbo and 5.0L "Coyote" V8 engines remain.
The Coyote gets a louder bark for 2018, both figuratively and literally. Its output bumped to 460 horsepower and 420lb-ft of torque (up from 435 and 400, respectively) and it now breathes through a louder, flashier, GT350-inspired exhaust. The six-speed manual transmission remains (thought it was reinforced to handled the increased power), but the six-speed auto has been replaced by the ten-speed unit offered in the updated Ford F-150 (and shared with some models from GM, with whom the hardware was co-developed).
There are chassis improvements too. Ford tweaked the component hierarchy here and there, trickling down some of the tech from more advanced models into the standard fare. There are new shocks for base GT cars, redesigned rear suspension geometry and new anti-roll bars for improved lateral stiffness and ride quality.
The biggest news is that MagneRide is now available on GTs equipped with Performance Package 1 and standard on cars with PP2. PP1 still includes six-piston Brembo brakes, unique 19-inch wheels, summer performance tires, a thicker rear sway bar, stiffer front springs, chassis stiffening, and a standard Torsen limited-slip differential (3.73:1 on manuals and 3.55:1 on automatics).
Upping to PP2 gets you an even more aggressive tire compound (Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2), the aforementioned MagneRide, and unique tuning and calibration. It also locks you out of the convertible option, for whatever that is worth.
Our tester was equipped with Performance 1, which we figured would set us up nicely for a drive through eastern Nevada and western Arizona in early May. Boy, were we wrong.
On the horizon
We're on Ford's naughty list these days (for reasons we cannot begin to identify, let alone explain), so we obtained this 2018 Ford Mustang GT the old fashioned way: We went to Vegas and rented it from Hertz.
No matter how much you load it up (and our rental was reasonably well-equipped), a pony car isn't going to impress the crowds in Sin City, where dedicated budget ballers litter the strip with rented Lamborghinis. Nor is a fastback really the ideal spring cruiser for local sightseeing, which was made plain by the dearth of available convertible models (a 2018 Camaro SS drop-top was our second choice). All of this ended up working out in our favor, as the 2018 GT ended up being both available and affordable.
Unfortunately, unlike a manufacturer-catered event where everything is crisp, new, and catered to showcasing the strengths of a new model, we were at the mercy of the real world, and sometimes the real world just doesn't want to cooperate.
Let's set the scene. It's 70°F and sunny as we land in Las Vegas, but our destination (Flagstaff, Arizona) is checking in at 37°F with a mix of rain and snow. Did we mention we're on summer tires? Oh, and the rental has 8,000 miles on it already. 8,000 rental miles. The wear bars told the whole story.
Over the road
We set off, getting comfortable in the leather-trimmed Recaro seats and firing up Android Auto to take advantage of its voice-activated interface. A spring shower saw us out of the city, immediately turning the Vegas highways into skidpads (again, 8,000-rental-mile summer tires). A few on-ramp flourishes later and we were clearing the Hoover Dam, pointed southeast on U.S. 93 and settling in for nearly four hours of highway slog.
Initial impressions: This chassis speaks, and you don't always want to hear it. Between the Performance package hardware and the heat-cycled tires, we were treated to every nuance of the highway surface. Wind noise was not so noticeable (considering we were rarely going slower than 70 miles per hour except in construction zones, that ain't nothin'), but it may have simply been drowned out by the near-constant tire roar.
Impacts were felt as well, to put it mildly, and the track-ready shocks, tuned to keep the rubber on the road, often (and seemingly enthusiastically) subjected us to body movements most frequently associated with a paint mixer. Spending four hours on the road in a performance car will give you a new appreciation for just how scarce a truly smooth road surface really is, even in the lower elevations of the desert southwest.
Our first impressions of the new ten-speed auto were mixed. Up-shifts were quick and smooth, with the fact that there are ten different ratios sort of fading into the background. We noticed that it was often reluctant to down-shift on longer inclines, and could be caught flat-footed if moderate acceleration was called for under those circumstances. That reluctance also led to a bit of drone from the new exhaust. It was only noticeable under high-load, low-RPM conditions, and that's exactly what we experienced multiple times on our way east.
Under the weather
As we neared our destination, the weather turned rather quickly. A brief rain shower gave way to wet, sloppy snow as we found more and more elevation and the temperatures tumbled. We put the Mustang away for the night, hoping the day-two forecast would turn out to be overly pessimistic.
Nope. We awoke to more snow flurries, and that prompted a round-table discussion which led to a unanimous vote to go ahead with our plans to visit the main attraction slated for the trip: Grand Canyon National Park. As we left Flagstaff, the temperature was hovering above freezing but well below the desired threshold for a summer tire. This would be a fitting opportunity to mention that you probably shouldn't do this, but we pressed on. You know, for science.
Leaving town in stop-and-go traffic, we noticed some more foibles of the new transmission. Slowing to a stop would occasionally prompt rather clunky down-shifts, and occasionally they were pronounced enough to be concerning. Like the tires, we chalked it up to rental mileage, but it was noteworthy nonetheless.
Snow flurries gave way to snow showers and then near-zero-visibility downpours of fat flakes and graupel (That's a fancy word for the thing you think is hail, but isn't.) as we made our way north. The roads turned pleasantly twisty, but evaluating the Mustang was secondary to simply keeping it nose-forward and shiny-side-up. We had the presence of mind to try out the GT's low-traction drive mode, but found that it took away the immediacy of the big Ford's responses that we had come to rely on for feedback. "Normal" suited us best, and there we stayed for the duration.
Sadly, our persistence did not pay off. Weather at the rim became progressively worse throughout the morning, and parts were even shut down due to thundersnow. We cut our losses and headed back south, making a brief pit stop in Flagstaff before continuing on toward Sedona.
Over the moon
If you've never driven State Route 89A between Flagstaff and Prescott, it should be on your short-list. Imagine all the beauty of Zion National Park, less the authoritarian speed enforcement and occasionally one-way tunnels, and that will give you an idea of what you're missing. Here, we had an excellent road surface, challenging corners, and--mercifully--clearing skies. Finally, some room to run.
This is where we were reminded that the Mustang is a genuinely good car. Its responses are quick, its composure excellent. The engine (God, that engine) is everything you want from a high-performance coupe's powerplant--responsive and torquey, but thoroughly willing to be revved.
It's in moments like this that we are reminded why we like sporty cars at all. They may not be the best for the long highway hauls or the moonscape-like roads found in many urban centers, but get one on the right road in the right weather, and there's just nothing like it.
The next morning, we made our way back to Las Vegas, stopping in Williams to take advantage of the sun for some last-minute photography. The Mustang, covered in road salt, grime and, thanks to our location scouting, a non-trivial quantity of mud, still proved surprisingly photogenic. Side-by-side, we'd still take the 2015, but the backlash generated by the exterior redesign is undeserved.
The 2018 Ford Mustang is a good car made better. It may not be the best (and even that still remains to be seen, as Performance Package 2 have just started rolling off the production line), but it's proof that the gap between first and second place can be so small as to be inconsequential in the real world.
Leftlane's bottom line
We'd love to get our hands on a Performance 2 car to drive back-to-back with a Camaro, but we're pretty confident in saying that neither would inspire a great deal of FOMO. Buy the one you like and enjoy it. We did.
2018 Ford Mustang GT Premium base price, $39,190; as tested, $45,680
GT Performance package, $3,995; Recaro leather seats, $1,595; Destination, $900
Exterior photos by Byron Hurd. Interior photos courtesy of Ford.