Car Report

2011 Ford Mustang

My first car was a Ford Mustang. It was a white 1982 coupe with four on the floor and, painfully, four cylinders under the hood. On a good day it pumped out 88 horsepower, but by the time my dad handed me the keys its best days were a distant memory.

So were the ‘energy crises’ which were the reason it existed in the first place. The little engine was just enough to move you through the early part of the go-go ‘80s in Mustang style without the pain at the pump provided by a big five-liter V8. The EPA highway rating was 26 mpg by today’s standards. Not exactly what anyone would consider impressive now, but decent at the time.

Flash forward to 2010 and the updated base Mustang still gets 26 mpg, but its four-liter V6 now generates 210 horsepower. Progress? Apparently not enough because the all-new 2010 Chevrolet Camaro manages to squeeze out 304 hp and 29 mpg, despite its smaller engine and the burden of having to lug around an extra 300 pounds.

Let the world’s first muscleconomy car war begin!

For 2011, the Mustang is getting an all-new 3.7-liter V6 that uses tricks like a cold air intake, variable valve timing and piston cooling to increase horsepower to 305 hp. Combined with the model’s first six-speed automatic transmission, subtle aerodynamic improvements and efficient electric-assist power steering, the rental car special is now rated at 31 mpg highway, becoming the first car in history to break the 300 hp and 30 mpg barriers simultaneously.

Ford probably isn’t bothered by the fact that Chevy had the Camaro re-certified for 2011 at 312 hp, since fuel economy didn’t improve along with the on-paper power boost. We’ll have to wait and see what the Bowtie boys have in store for 2012.

Until then, the Mustang stands as the most improved player in the growing ranks of rear-wheel-drive, V6 coupes, which include the Nissan 370Z and Hyundai Genesis Coupe. Shockingly, although nearly everything but the drivetrain was reengineered last year, the $22,955 Mustang gets dozens of additional changes to further increase its refinement and performance to keep pace with the added power.

Gobs of added insulation, new door seals and wheel well liners make things even quieter inside, while the first dual exhaust fitted to a Mustang V6 cranks up the volume for passersby. Not quite the roar of a V8, the sound is still the most satisfying ever produced by six of Ford’s pistons.

The same can’t be said for the automatic transmission, which lacks any good method for manual control and is mostly interested in squeezing out those mpgs. Fortunately, there’s a new six-speed manual, too, and it’s a gem.

With the top two gears dedicated to fuel economy, the bottom four can worry about the speed. Although the output of the high-revving engine is only 10 hp less than the V8 in the 2010 Mustang GT, its 280 lb-ft of torque comes up 45 lb-ft short, so it’s a wink slower, but the power delivery is linear and the motor smooth, all the way up to its 7,000 rpm redline. You can roll along all day long in third gear, loping down the boulevard or blasting through canyons at will, the latter a novel new trait for the entry-level ‘Stang.

Ford is so confident that enthusiasts will take to its new little pony that there is even a performance package available featuring a lower rear axle ratio, suspension and brake parts from the GT, 19-inch wheels, performance tires, and a recalibrated stability control for more tail out fun at the track. Just for kicks the designers even added half a plastic engine cover under the strut tower brace intended to give the V6 a more symmetrical, meaner look, proving that you can take enthusiasm too far.

Any penance due is paid in full once you deactivate the traction control and lay down a smoky burnout that would look right at home at the Summernationals. Hook up the tires, and after a few hundred feet even the most hardened small block fan will start thinking that maybe, just maybe they can finally downsize for the health of our oil wells.

Or not.

Nearly pushed to sidebar status by the overachieving V6, Ford has also updated the GT for 2011 with an all-new 412 hp five-liter V8 under the hood, proudly announced by the return of “5.0” badges to the front fenders.

You might think that adding a third more power would turn the Mustang into an unwieldy bronco, but changes to the suspension not only keep it in line, they make it an even better handler than the old one.

Powering around switchbacks, the GT exhibits a neutral stance unheard of in a showroom stocker with 54 percent of its weight on the front wheels and 390 lb-ft of torque being sent to the rear. You have to work very hard to induce understeer, and the rear end won’t come around before asking for your permission.

The six-speed manual has short throws and is connected to a new clutch with near-perfect action. But the electric variable assist power steering is the real eye-opener, mostly because it hardly makes itself known. The feel is natural, unlike many of these units which appear to be made by Logitech, and the transition through the levels of resistance is more seamless than any that I’ve experienced. Ford says it will even adjust itself to compensate for road crown and wind, and has an ‘anti-nibble’ feature that suppresses minor vibrations caused by a rough road or tire that’s slightly off-balance. Some might wish that it was a little heavier at speed, but the feedback is direct and you’ll never miss the days of hydraulics.

The brakes still use those, however, and a special Brembo package featuring calipers from that brand, along with a more enthusiast-focused suspension and bigger wheels and tires pushes the new GT even further than the ‘Track’ package offered on the 2010 model. Fitted with it, the GT remains a comfortable cruiser that follows the undulations of less than perfect road surfaces without battering your backside. Yes, it still has a solid rear axle. And, no, I really don't care...at least not 99 percent of the time.

The interior, which was redesigned with soft-touch materials and real aluminum trim last year, is available with Ford’s top-flight infotainment center and a system called MyKey which allows trusting, but not foolishly so parents to limit the top speed of the car when they let the juniors and misses of the house take it for a spin. My dad didn’t need that when he gave me mine, speed wasn’t exactly an issue with that one.

One thing the GT does have in common with old ’82 is that 26 mpg highway figure, which may not sound any more exciting today than it did thirty years ago, but is tops in the V8 muscle car class. Enrollment starts at $30,495, or $7,549 more than the V6. Most people would be happy with either, but for some there is no choice.

I’ll leave the decision up to you.

----------

2011 Ford Mustang and Mustang GT

Base Price: $22,995//$30,495

Type: Front-engine, rear-drive, 4-passenger, 2-door coupe

Engine: 3.7L V6//5.0LV8

Power: 305 hp, 280 lb-ft torque//412 hp, 390 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual or automatic

MPG: 19 city, 31 hwy (V6 auto)// 17 city, 26 hwy (V8 manual)