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Sunday, September 21, 2014

Driving the 2015 Ford Mustang, the pony car learning all-new tricks


2015 Ford Mustang
Every redesign of a classic American muscle car inevitably brings the critics out in force. Some will contend that the ‘60s and early ‘70s were the only muscle cars worth bothering with, and that today’s versions lack swagger. The other side of the fence calls modern muscle cars too uncouth and cumbersome; they’d rather a machine with more grace around a corner than just grunt in a straight line.

Ford claims the 2015
Mustang — with its new suspension and turbo engine built for world consumption — straddles that line to perfection. On the canyon roads outside of Malibu, Calif., we took the wheel to discover what the truth was.
In the year since Ford revealed the new Mustang, the competition has only grown tougher, with Dodge upping its game with the new Challenger Hellcat and Chevy stealing headlines with its brutal Camaro Z/28. The 2015 Mustang must deliver not just on paper, but on tarmac.
Recall there are now three engines to choose from – the new and controversial addition being the 2.3-liter turbocharged EcoBoost four-cylinder. It sits between the V-6 and the 5.0-liter Coyote V-8, now sporting 435 hp and 400 lb.-ft. of torque.
 At 310 hp, the four brings with it a 10-hp bump over the 3.7-liter V-6, and a 30 lb.-ft. increase of torque to 300. It also boasts 32 mpg on the highway, and the twin-scroll turbo, a first for Ford, promises to spool quickly with little lag.
2015 Ford Mustang
                                 2015 Ford Mustang 
The fact we’re even talking about a four-cylinder turbocharged Mustang says a lot about the current climate: V-8s are a species in decline, as all manufacturers shift toward smaller turbocharged engines to burn less fuel. It also tells us that, given the 2015 ‘Stang will be sold across the pond and even in a right-hand-drive edition, the new Mustang is built to appeal to a wider audience.

Gifting the new car its independent rear suspension was – in one engineer’s words – a way to shut people up. They were quick to point out that by ditching the solid rear axle Mustangs have always used, the car gained 100 lbs, and required a complete redesign of the front suspension to match the new rear.
At the our press presentation, there was a whiff of, “we didn’t need to do this, but you guys complained so much we had to,” and that Europeans were far less forgiving than the Yanks.
 In the same breath, the engineers did state that handling has improved markedly with the upgrades. (Funny how non-Ford engineers offer fewer paeans to the righteousness of a driveline design shared with the Model T.)

My day began in the 5.0-liter V-8 with a Getrag six-speed manual transmission. The car didn’t have the $2,495 performance package – which includes a Torsen 3.73 differential, bigger Brembo brakes, stiffer suspension and a larger rear anti-roll bar – and my Pirelli P Zeros were all-seasons rather than sticky summer tires.

From the outside, the new Mustang hews to the powerful looks of its forebears with modern flourishes; the vertical LED gills in the headlamps mimic the metal creases on the 1965 edition.
 That conservatism has a downside: Despite our immersion in Cali car culture, I barely received any comments or knowing nods regarding the new car. Even Mustang motorists didn’t glance at the 2015 model — perhaps because Ford has been showing it off for nearly a year.

On the road, my first thought compared to the outgoing GT was that the sound of the 5.0 felt muted. It didn’t have the same rambunctious roar I remembered, either inside the cabin or out.
The burble that came from under the hood was more civilized and refined — and refined isn’t a word I personally want to use when talking about a Mustang’s engine.
A more welcome update came from the redesign of the cabin itself. The center stack is now nicely styled, and while the various knobs are still a bit too plastic, they appear less haphazard and more thought out. It’s a comfy place to be, even in L.A. traffic.
2015 Ford Mustang
         2015 Ford Mustang

Still, the big V-8 pulled well above 3,000 rpm, and frankly I couldn’t care less about garnering attention. With the six-speed manual now tighter and crisper, the short gear ratios ensure you’re focused on driving. (Manuals are the perfect antidote for those who might text behind the wheel.)

Even without the performance package, the Mustang’s new suspension felt a touch softer, but the balance was neutral, with lots of mid-corner rotation – almost too much for my spongy all-seasons. (Having experienced the performance pack on the four-banger, it’s a must-have option; the excess roll vanishes and the rotation feels far more natural and predictable throughout a turn.)

Ford has done a wonderful job ensuring its electric power steering communicates with the driver. The steering features three modes – comfort, normal and sport – with normal being the preferred choice. Sport felt a bit heavy without gaining any extra sense of the road, and comfort was somewhat float-y. It’s one of the new car’s best features, and comfortably outmatches the Challenger and Camaro.

Mix that with a sharper transmission and the 2015 GT proves its potency, although between the muted engine note and the lack of the performance package, I confess it left me feeling a bit indifferent. I came to wrestle the GT, not chat politely with it.
So what about that independent rear?
 Combined with the new front suspension, it yields a more chuckable, playful driving dynamic – one where the front axle better communicates with the rear. But what’s more fun is the new Line Lock burnout system, where the front brakes engage automatically while leaving the rear tires free to spin.

This produces the wildest elevens imaginable. It allows up to 15 seconds of braking before sending you on your merry way, and I got to 13 seconds – having filled the California countryside with enough smoke to trick the fire department into assuming another forest fire was nearby — before chickening out. Trust me, 13 seconds of a stationary burnout is plenty.
Next up was the turbo four – the machine Ford claims to be quite the charmer – and that had summer tires.

With a lighter motor up front, the weight balance is closer to 50/50, and on paper, it should handle better than the V-8. Tipping the scales at 3,524 lbs., it remains a mere six pounds heavier than the lightest 2014 V-6; all other variants gained a decent chunk of weight during reworking.

The engine purrs on acceleration, but there’s no real growl, or much noise from the wastegate. It doesn’t sound bad from behind the wheel, though, and it’s not clear what kind of trickery Ford may be using to alter the engine’s note inside the cabin.
Our fully optioned four-banger carried a sticker of $38,000 (base price is $25,995), and while it handled beautifully with the performance pack, and boasted all sorts of creature comforts like an upgraded audio system and cross-traffic alert, I couldn’t help but wonder why you wouldn’t just buy a less-optioned V-8 (which starts at $32,100).
It’s not that the four’s a bad engine in an uncompetitive package – quite the opposite – it’s simply a different experience, and one I still can’t quite wrap my head around.
2015 Ford Mustang
2015 Ford Mustang
Ford didn’t bother providing a V-6 for us to try, and my opinion of a six-cylinder Mustang likely remains unchanged; it shouldn’t exist outside of an Avis parking garage. A Mustang without a V-8 doesn’t feel right, and I say that even after driving the new Ecoboost.
The four-cylinder is a capable machine, one that will find many fans on both sides of the Atlantic. But if it’s my money, I’m not buying a Mustang for its continental appeal. I’m buying it because I want enough torque to convert tires to smoke on demand.
 The V-8 upholds that tradition as God and Lee Iacocca intended, but even in GT trim it felt a bit too mannered – Europeanized, if you will.

Taking an icon like the Mustang and reinventing it never makes sense. Cars like the Porsche 911 and Corvette Stingray demonstrate the value of steady, continuing progression.
 And that’s exactly what’s happened with the 2015 Mustang: it’s finally evolved for the 21st century while preserving the spirit it first revealed 50 years ago. And despite saying it’s a bit mellow, as a car it’s definitely better than the one it replaces.

The new Mustang is a truly solid platform to build upon, and upcoming monsters like the GT350 have the potential to unleash something special indeed. As for the turbo four — well, the critics will have to fight that one out. It’s a great car. I’m just not sure it’s a Mustang yet