Now 50 years old, the Ford Mustang has undergone a complete refresh, and it’s now available worldwide for the first time. So how will the newboy fare against its old sparring partners?
|Ford Mustang GT||V8, 4951cc||435bhp @ 6,500rpm||542Nm (400lb ft) @ 4,250rpm||4.4 secs||250kph||1,691kg (257bhp/ton)||$52,500|
|Dodge Challenger R/T||HEMI V8, 5654cc||372bhp @ 5200rpm||542Nm (400lb ft) @ 4,400rpm||4.9 secs||250kph||1, 852kg (201bhp/ton)||$47,100|
|Chevrolet Camaro SS||V8, 6162cc||400bhp @ 5900rpm||556Nm (410lb ft) @ 4,300rpm||4.8 secs||250kph||1,790kg (223bhp/ton)||$50,300|
Life is full of certain incontrovertible facts. Night follows day, as pepper follows salt. Kanye West will someday be punched incredibly hard in the face, and as a result the internet will be irreparably broken. And if you want to buy a contemporary muscle car, your choices boil down to the Chevrolet Camaro, the Dodge Challenger, and the Ford Mustang.
Or so I thought. But as I sit in the all-new 2015 Mustang GT, I wonder if I’m mistaken.
Having started America’s love affair with the pony car a little more than 50 years ago, and with the ‘15 Mustang having recently arrived in the Middle East after its launch last September, it’s no real surprise that the Blue Oval’s performance headliner is drawing most of the attention on today’s group test (not just from the evo crew itself, but from our fellow motorists as we head for our photoshoot location in Liwa). Indeed, the GT marks only the sixth time in five decades that the Mustang has received a clean sheet re-design, a move driven by Ford’s desire to attract a more global customer base. Hardly surprising then that some considerable work has been done beneath the belt line.
Lift the bonnet on our test model and we find a 5-litre V8 pumping out a typically muscular 435bhp and 400lb ft of torque. One snorting eight-cylinder unit doth not a ‘wider array of customers’ make though, so alongside this slides a slightly less aggressive 300bhp 3.7-litre V6 and, given the globe’s current eco kick, a brand new 310bhp 2.3-litre Ecoboost four-cylinder. Raw power alone is not what the sixth generation Mustang is about. Indeed, beneath the sharp new looks – that include sleeker headlights, more subtly sculpted bonnet grooves and a more delicate short rear deck – lies a stiffer chassis, all-new independent rear suspension, and both a lower and wider stance for improved handling relative to its predecessor.
Though not as extensively overhauled as the Mustang GT, our Challenger R/T test model meanwhile brings a revised appearance, larger brakes, an electronically controlled exhaust for a more resonating soundtrack, and 20in performance tyres to the table for 2015. Oh, and power too. Quite a lot of power. It doesn’t quite touch the stratospheric madness that is the Hellcat’s 707bhp rating, nor does it top trump the Mustang or Camaro SS, but Dodge’s 375bhp 5.7-litre V8 (with Mopar intercooler) is far from slow: 0-100kph, thanks in no small part to 400lb ft of Mustang-equalling torque, is achieved in under five seconds.
By comparison, it’s been a while since the Camaro SS received its brand new head and taillights. Indeed, given the imminent arrival of the 2016 Camaro, the SS joins our group test as the underdog. The fifth gen model is not reaching for the carpet slippers just yet though. For one, the 6.2-litre V8 behind that angry visage produces 400bhp, 410lb ft of torque, and is essentially the same unit (sans supercharger) that powers the maniacal ZL1, from which the SS also pilfers suspension components, a close-ratio six-speed transmission, Recaro seats and those evil-looking bonnet vents. There’s still plenty of fight left in the oldest model here today.
“The Camaro’s V8 delivers an aggressive punch and a sonorous battle cry.”
But it’s the Mustang I make a beeline for first. Indeed, upon depositing myself in the driver’s seat, I’m quite taken aback, offering as it does bags of room alongside a fine mesh of retro and contemporary styles. The silver switches on the centre console are a nifty new addition, as is the carbon fibre look upholstery, complete with a ’50 Years’ badge in honour of the Mustang’s arrival in 1964. Even the sport seats are comfortable. The silver stallion, a hallmark of Mustangs past, retains its pride of place on the remodelled steering wheel. Throw in fine build quality alongside this strong design, and it’s the best Mustang cabin we’ve seen yet: indeed, what had established a reputation for blue-collar rawness back in the 1960s could unapologetically stand alongside coupes from BMW and Audi.
It’s the delicacy of the steering wheel though that strikes me. Despite the plethora of buttons, it’s surprisingly elegant to behold and use. Which proves rather an apt metaphor for the Mustang itself. Don’t get me wrong. Power from that V8 is beyond plentiful, and the GT – boasting a kerb weight significantly lighter than both the Camaro and Challenger – is more than capable of out-sprinting both its arch rivals. While that in itself is cause for celebration back at Detroit GHQ, it’s the manner in which this performance is delivered that truly surprises.
True, the Mustang’s initial bite of momentum is abrupt and accompanies a rich, bassy soundtrack, but the wide torque band means that rather than offering an initial burst of gut-wrenching power, acceleration is surprisingly linear. Impactful yes, and with the same sense of occasion a model built on a heritage of standing quarter miles would imbue. But it’s a far cry from the great wave of raw, visceral fury emanating from the Challenger R/T. Plonk the right hoof in the Dodge and you’re met with a sonorous V8 roar and a spike in momentum, which continues to pull strong in the lower revs and abate slightly the further up the rev range we go. At which point, the Mustang’s V8 is still pulling, not even close to running out of steam. It’s an intoxicating yet slightly unnerving experience, the innate muscular fury of the Challenger completely at odds with the almost relaxed – but no less rapid – composure of the Mustang. Not adjectives I’d expected to describe a contemporary ‘muscle’ car with today.
“It’s good. And not just ‘for a muscle car’ precursor. I mean, the Mustang GT is SERIOUSLY good.”
Ironically, in the Camaro SS, the opening lunge is rather restrained: I wouldn’t dare say ‘sluggish’ since this is a vehicle well capable of 0-100kph in 4.8 seconds, but against its rivals the initial bite of acceleration isn’t anywhere near as aggressive. Out of the lower revs though, the V8 really begins to stretch its legs, its initial (comparative) lethargy swept completely under the rug in a wave of aggressive punch and a pure eight-cylinder battle cry. Granted the six-speed Hydra-matic may be a little dated, but upshifts are still wonderfully swift, each unleashing neck-straining pull. Keep those 6.2-litres in the high revs and they’re superbly engaging.
Not just on the straights either. On the more winding stretches of road we come across, the Chevy is just itching to be hustled. Even with that mass lump over the front axle (the engine, not those enormous hood vents), the balance is still very good. This is particularly impressive, for the combination of that enormous bonnet and short overhangs at the rear create the illusion that you’re driving whilst sitting on the rear axle. Granted, into some of the heavier braking corners, the rear end can squirrel as lateral weight transfer takes hold, and little travel in the brake pedal – plus a rather mushy sensation at the top end – means nailing braking points can be tricky.
Nevertheless, despite the raw power delivery, on the twisties the SS asserts itself as much more than a drag race special. The low-slung profile means body roll is rarely a factor through even the longest sweeping turns, a super stiff chassis and good weight distribution allowing the Camaro to corner flat. And even despite the sheer size of the bonnet, connection to the front wheels is pretty intuitive, thanks in no small part to those grippy front tyres. Meanwhile weighty, well-balanced steering offers immediate feedback to the front end, even if the feel of the faux-suede steering is not my particular cup of Darjeeling.
A word on the Chevy’s suspension at this point too: taut certainly, and one does wonder how effectively the SS would handle a track day (we’re guessing rather well), but said setup does dilute the ride comfort. The weathered look of the interior – particularly compared with the Mustang – after years of service means the design is due a refresh. And I realise I’ve dusted off this chestnut a few times now, but while that sleek roof may give the Camaro its menacing, hunkered good looks, it doesn’t offer my six-foot frame much headroom either.
Of course in the Challenger this issue is moot, the R/T being longer, wider and taller than both of its rivals and, as a result, easily the most civilised. The R/T embroidered seats for instance offer the best lumbar support, and while they’re quite stiff, they are deceptively comfortable. There’s also bags of headroom, solid build quality, and a driver-focused cabin that inches almost threateningly towards being claustrophobic thanks to the high-rise transmission tunnel. Almost. The elongated and widened stance also marks a huge improvement over the Challenger’s predecessor through the corners. Granted the sheer weight on the front axle, the higher centre of gravity and the shift in momentum through the turns that this produces means bodyroll in the R/T is greater than either the Mustang or the Camaro: on some of our higher speed runs, my heart rate does spike as I find myself working hard to keep the Challenger reigned in.
Still though, the balance is impressive, particularly when powering out of turns. Plant the right foot and the sense of urgency out of the corners is spellbinding as 375bhp is sent to the rear wheels via Dodge’s eight-speed TorqueFlite transmission. Swift changes through the sawn-off paddles (which I never find particularly comfortable to use) bring with them a tangible rock of momentum and the explosive sense of drama that goes with it, even if several downshifts in succession can confuse the ‘box a little. The Camaro might have mullered the corners more effectively than the Challenger, but the punchy acceleration and hair-raising bursts of speed on the straights means adrenaline in the R/T is beyond belief.
Which brings us back to the Mustang, described by Ford itself to be ‘the most nimble pony ever’. And there’s little doubting that. It’s good. And I don’t just mean with the customary ‘for a muscle car’ precursor. I mean, the Mustang GT is SERIOUSLY good. Like the Camaro and Challenger before it, the Ford holds a sizeable weight over the front axle, but in the GT it’s considerably less intrusive. Even at full pelt, weight transfer corner-to-corner is remarkably subtle, the balance from that super stiff chassis neutering any potential understeer. Even through the more insanely wide and sweeping turns, there’s little threat that the back end will snap, the front end will let go, or that I’m about to be punted through the passenger window in a spasm of bodyroll. Boasting the lowest centre of gravity of all three and the best driving position too, the Mustang is a seriously impressive hustler.
“Hair-raising bursts of speed means adrenaline in the Challenger R/T is beyond belief.”
Take the steering for instance. Okay, regardless of driving modes, it doesn’t offer quite the feedback or weight as we find in the Chevy. But the delicacy with which the front wheels can be placed makes this immaterial, the reworked suspension keeping the body flat through the turns. Pokes of momentum start emanating from the rear wheels, hinting that they’re about to break traction, although the sense of confidence they imbue rarely makes this a major cause for concern. To drive at speed is astonishingly easy in the nimble Mustang.
And it’s as I sit in the redesigned Ford cabin, considering which contemporary muscle cars fans of the segment might actually buy, I wonder if the Mustang makes the grade.
Alongside its main rivals, the Mustang is technically the best: it offers a more elegant design, more room in the cabin, a higher quality of materials, and also – critically – better road handling. Even with its ‘muscle car’ hat on, it still beats both the Camaro and Challenger off the line. And yet in offering a greater agility through the turns and a product more suited to day-to-day civility, the uncomplicated fury associated with the muscle car segment has been lost somewhat with the new Mustang: I can’t imagine diehard muscle car fans being overly thrilled that their big, brash V8 ‘monster’ can comfortably house two golf bags in the boot. In its advanced state, with new independent rear suspension, a tauter chassis, greater power-to-weight ratio and configurable driving modes, the Mustang has moved away from the traditional idea of a muscle car towards that of a conventional sports car. Which is not a bad thing, certainly, but does make that muscle car moniker harder to swallow.
By the comparison, performance in the Challenger R/T is as you would expect from any self-respecting muscle car. Handling through the corners is solid rather than spectacular, but it’s the drama under heavy acceleration that really makes the R/T experience, and indeed – coupled with that truly astonishing V8 soundtrack – a sensation sadly missed in the more sedate Ford. Likewise the Camaro, though not quite as dynamic from the off as the Challenger, brings a deliciously aggressive spike in acceleration when you commit to those high revs. Like the Mustang, the Camaro’s handling is impressive, but in a manner less composed than the Ford, giving an impression of barely controlled fury that at any moment could bury you in the wall. It’s a far cry from the Mustang’s poise and agility, albeit one perhaps not as innate as the Challenger. It’s just more…’muscly’.
Where you stand on the issue really rather depends on your priorities. In searching for a driver’s car to thrash through the mountains offering beautiful handling, an awesome V8 soundtrack and a sense of history, one could do a lot worse than the new Mustang, a model incomparably better than the generations that came before it. But for a sense of uncomplicated energy, fast acceleration with an ear-thumping soundtrack, and a muscle car in the true sense of the word, it has to be the Challenger R/T.
*My thanks to Harisanker.S, and Awesome Group for the images
Ford Mustang GT (Tech specs)
Engine: V8, 4951cc
Power: 435bhp @ 6,500rpm
Torque: 542Nm (400lb ft) @ 4,250rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Front suspension: MacPherson strut
Rear suspension: Integral-link independent
Brakes: 352mm (front), 380mm (rear)
Wheels: 18 x 8.0in front and rear
Tyres: 235/50 R18 front and rear
0-100kph: 4.4 secs
Top speed: 250kph
Dodge Challenger R/T (Tech specs)
Engine: HEMI V8, 5654cc
Power: 372bhp @ 5200rpm
Torque: 542Nm (400lb ft) @ 4,400rpm
Transmission: Torqueflite eight-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Front suspension: Independent SLA
Rear suspension: Five-link independent
Brakes: 345mm (front), 320mm (rear)
Wheels: 20 x 8.0in (front and rear)
Tyres: P245/45 R20 (front and rear)
Weight: 1, 852kg
0-100kph: 4.9 secs
Top speed: 250kph
Chevrolet Camaro SS (Tech specs)
Engine: V8, 6162cc
Power: 400bhp @ 5900rpm
Torque: 556Nm (410lb ft) @ 4,300rpm
Transmission: Hydra-matic six-speed, rear-wheel drive
Front suspension: Multi-link strut
Rear suspension: 4.5-link independent
Brakes: 355mm (front), 365mm (rear)
Wheels: 20 x 8in (front), 20 x 9in (rear)
Tyres: P245/45 ZR20 (front), P275/40 ZR20 (rear)
0-100kph: 4.8 secs
Top speed: 250kph