Review: 2011 Ford Mustang – New Engines Breathe New Life Into Muscle Car


By Mark Atkinson

Car magazines are going to hate Ford for this one. Usually, when one of the big books put together a group test of fast sports cars, the token muscle car usually found itself in dead last – or close enough. Too rough a ride, lacklustre engine, truck-ish transmission and creaky were the usual descriptors.

The last few years have shown that with a little ingenuity and lots of effort, those muscle cars can get darned impressive. The Mustang’s redesign in 2010 allowed Ford to fix the visual stuff, and take a second crack at improving the handling. But it left the geriatric, underpowered, lethargic engines alone. Those who cry foul should remember that BMW does the same thing with its new generation of cars.

Now, a year later, and the company is obviously tired of the quiet complaints. New clothes, but an old heart. So all Mustangs now come with some pretty kick-ass motors. The base 3.7-litre V6 puts out 305 horses, which is nearly the same as the old 4.6-litre V8 GT. The engine doesn’t hit the limiter until a good 7,000 rpm, and sounds like a motor of much better provenance. Its cultured yell is aided by standard dual exhausts, and sounds better than the VQ-engines in various Nissan and Infiniti products.

The V8 confirms that ‘80s culture is here to stay by boasting 5.0-litres of displacement – and the expected five-point-oh badges to accompany. However, this multi-valve engine produces more than twice the power of the old 302 ci: 412-hp and 390 lb-ft of torque. That’s more than certain supercharged SVT Cobras in previous years. You can hear the tires screaming for mercy already.

Controlling all that power is the responsibility of two six-speed transmissions – a manual or an optional automatic. The manual has a short travel, and the gates are well defined. It engages cleanly, without any of the will-it-won’t-it of mid-level BMW transmissions, and is a willing partner in clean heel-and-toe downshifts. The clutch is well weighted too, and has a perfect pickup point.

The automatic is a good choice for those who have no desire – or ability – to shift themselves. There’s no real loss of throttle response, and it kicks down willingly if your right food commands it.

Not that it’s everyone’s real passion, but fuel economy is class-leading too, significantly better than competition from Chevrolet, Dodge, Hyundai and Honda. Most of that comes from a proper diet that keeps the base V6 Mustang less than 3,500 lb. Acceleration numbers were not released, but one Ford engineer told us to ‘do the math’ regarding weight, power and gearing. Our bet is that the rental-grade Mustangs will nearly outrun last year’s V8-powered GT. And the new 5.0 will smoke most everything under $75K.

The base car’s suspension has also been tweaked to provide better ride and more balanced handling. And brakes get upgraded pads to help slow the V6’s near V8-like speed. One of the only negatives is Ford’s adoption of electric assist power steering – the calibration on V6 models leaves too much assist at low speeds, and doesn’t start firming up soon enough. Surely that wouldn’t be a difficult challenge to overcome.

The V8’s steering is much better from the get-go, and was definitely up to the task of taming the worst that Mulholland Drive and Topanga Canyon could throw at it. You’d swear Ford had somehow stuck an independent suspension in the rear because the damping and body control is so far beyond what you’d expect from a cart-sprung axle.

For those wishing to take advantage of Canada’s two months of sunshine, the convertible is a refreshing change from the legions of power-folding hard tops that gobble all available trunk room. With the soft-top stowed, there’s still a ton of room for luggage, coolers and more.

The interior is comfortable, if still more brittle than its import competition, but Ford uses its own technology, like SYNC, MyKey and MyColour gauges to keep it up to date. Obviously V8 models start out slightly better, and have more supportive seats as well. Tall passengers will not like riding in the back, though.

The best part of the new Mustang? That you can get over 300 hp for so little money. Thanks to the strong Canadian dollar, you can get a ‘Value Leader’ coupe for just $22,999. That’s a mid-level Mazda3. It’ll be in rental-car spec, but that just makes it lighter, right? A regular V6 coupe is $26,999, while a convertible starts at $31,399. Moving up to the GT just doesn’t net the same value, though. It’s $38,499 for a V8-powered coupe, which is almost $10,000 more than the $29K and change you can find just across the border…

Like most recent Fords, this one has taken a second crack to get right, but oh, how right it is…

Price as tested: $22,995-$38,499

Summary: The perfect Muscle Car

Exterior Design: 8/10. Not many tweaks to successful 2010 facelift

Interior Design: 5/10. Better than before, but no Audi

Engine: 8/10. V6 and V8 both punch far above their weight

Transmission: 7/10. Smooth six-speeds

Audio/Video: 7/10. SYNC worth its weight in gold records, Shaker 500 does what it says

Value: 9/10. 300 horsepower for $23K? Value of the century

Overall (not an average): 8.5/10

[Photo credit: Thoroughbred Ford/Flikr]