Road Tests

More tech but new Ford Mustang is still a Pony Car

This is still unmistakably still a Ford Mustang. The hugely successful ‘Pony Car’ has been given a round of updates for the 2018 model year, which sees more power from the big V8 engine, a new automatic gearbox, detail improvements to the suspension and interior and new safety equipment that has been largely driven by sharp criticism of the outgoing model’s safety score in the Euro NCAP tests.

The styling, as iconic as ever, hasn’t been meddled with much. There are new LED headlamps and rear lights, a new bonnet with extra air scoops (or hood vents, if you want to go with the American vibe), while the aero has been tweaked a little to include a new front splitter, an optional boot lip spoiler and more efficient underbody airflow.

On the inside, the cabin has been given the mildest of makeovers with some new materials and snazzy new all-digital instruments, but the bigger changes are going on with the oily bits.

The most significant news is the addition of a new ten-speed (yes, 10 ratios) automatic gearbox, which is a Ford-built item, not bought in from the likes of ZF or Getrag. It’s supposed to improve fuel economy (which it doesn’t, much), but definitely improves performance, knocking a whole half a second off the outgoing 5.0-litre V8’s 0-100kph time.

Other changes see more power for that V8 engine (now up to 331kW) and a new Magneride damper option for the suspension, which has a few interesting tricks up its sleeve. Plus, there’s a new collision avoidance braking system with pedestrian detection, along with active lane keeping steering and adaptive cruise control.

Oh, and for those early-morning airport runs where you don’t want to wake up the neighbours? The Mustang now has that covered with a programmable ‘quiet’ mode for the bombastic V8’s exhaust. How thoughtful.

There is a distinct difference between the two ford Mustang body styles, the Fastback coupe and convertible, in how they drive. Technically, there are no major suspension differences between open or closed versions, just some tweaks to take account of the different weights and different tyres depending on the engine under the bonnet (Michelins for the V8, Pirellis for the EcoBoost).

We started with a 5.0 V8 convertible and, easing it through early morning traffic towards mountain roads, two things were immediately apparent. One, the new ten-speed auto, while not quite as smooth as some of the best rival units, is still very impressive, and has no trouble juggling its multiples of ratios. Two, the Mustang’s V8 isn’t lazy — in fact, you need to rev it high, hard and loud to get the best from it, so you’d better move away from populated areas with single-glazed windows or you’re going to get in trouble.

Once the road gets interesting, the Ford Mustang conforms to all our Yank-Tank prejudices. Thanks to the loss of the roof, the convertible wobbles and shakes quite a bit, often right in the middle of a quickly taken corner. It never feels like it’s going to snap or bite you, but this is a big, soft, American car that’s out of its depth on European roads. Even the Magneride dampers, which can read the road and adjust their stiffness 1,000 times a second, don’t seem to help much.

The V8 is both hero and villain here. It sounds unutterably wonderful and goes like the clappers once you build the revs beyond 2,500rpm, but it’s a hefty donkey of an engine to have stuck out over the front wheels when you’ve got tight corners to deal with.

The 2.3-litre EcoBoost engine has mysteriously lost around 20bhp from the last generation, now recording an official 214kW. Ford says that the number is to do with retesting the car for WLTP purposes (the new fuel economy test standard), plus the addition of a particulate trap for the exhaust, but it records the same performance figures as before. Odd.

It’s also around 90kg lighter than the V8 model. Plus, the Fastback body is stiffer than the convertible’s and, suddenly, the Mustang feels more precise, more poised. The EcoBoost engine is always going to be a let-down after the V8, but it’s still a very rapid machine, capable of covering ground at a serious lick. And if you hadn’t just stepped out of the V8, it would sound just fine. So, the choice seems to be V8 convertible for posing, EcoBoost Fastback for driving.

What about a V8 Coupe, then? Certainly, it feels far more precise than the convertible, but you’re still dealing with the extra weight in the nose, so it comes down to a choice between power and precision. Get the V8 if you want the noise and serious forward thrust. Get the EcoBoost if tight and twisty roads form your daily commute.

The Mustang gets a new digital instrument pack for 2018, which you can colour co-ordinate with your shoes if you fancy (there are literally hundreds of different combinations from which to choose) and which flicks from twin round dials to a strip-style rev counter depending on whether you’re in Normal or Sport modes.

There’s another new mode called Drag Strip, which combines launch control with a softening of the rear Magneride dampers to allow the car to squat and grip more for massive acceleration. Not fun and we didn’t try it. Lots.

You can choose from standard (big, wide, squishy, comfy) seats or optional high-backed racing buckets (which are a bit narrow if you’re of generous proportions). Comfort and space in the front are fine. The rear is cramped, but OK by 2+2 coupe standards.

What’s not OK is the level of fit and finish of the 2018 Ford Mustang. There’s still too much cheap plastic on show and nasty chrome-effect buttons at the base of the dash. With a starting price estimated around R800 000 for the EcoBoost the cabin’s a bit of a shocker, especially if you’re trading from an Audi or BMW. Character and heritage can only count for so much.

It might be a flawed car, but it must be doing something right – Ford out-sold Porsche in Europe in the sports car segment last year. Clearly, the styling, badge and attitude have massive appeal to anyone who’s a car nut, but it will be interesting to see if sales are maintained now the first cohort of ‘dream car’ buyers have scratched their Mustang itch.

The updates have undoubtedly improved the Ford Mustang offering. The automatic gearbox makes the car crisper to drive, while the looks and noise give it kerb appeal that can’t be matched at this price point. It’s not sophisticated, but it is enormously good fun. Yes, even as a convertible. An EcoBoost coupe with Magneride dampers and the satisfying, hefty manual gearbox is probably the best all-round choice if you care about driving. But could you say no to a V8 Ford Mustang?

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