For the automaker teams that engineer, develop, and tweak the Chevrolet Camaro and the Ford Mustang, the pony-car war is a seemingly endless, seesawing conflagration conducted with an intensity bordering on religious fervor. The objectives are simple: outgun the opposition on the road and annihilate them on the sales front. When your side loses ground, which will inevitably happen, escalate the war with more power, better handling, additional features, and improved styling.
Ever since the current-generation Mustang debuted for 2015 it has been winning the sales battle but, more often than not, losing the war on the road—and in our reviews—to the sweet-driving Camaro. So 2018 is a year of multiple improvements, a sort of mechanical troop surge, intended to make the current Mustang go faster, drive better, look sexier, and protect its occupants more comprehensively.
We detailed the new Mustang’s upgrades in a previous report, so we’ll focus here on our initial impressions about how well those revisions work. We got a chance to briefly pilot base and GT Mustang coupes on the roads draped across the foothills north of Malibu—some of California’s more challenging stretches of tarmac.
Our first stint was in a blazing Orange Fury Metallic GT equipped with the six-speed manual and the optional Performance package, which for V-8 models adds tauter suspension, Brembo six-piston front brake calipers, more robust engine cooling, a Torsen limited-slip differential, and Michelin Pilot Sport 4S performance tires—255/40R-19 front, 275/40R-19 rear—on black-painted aluminum wheels. Our car also had the optional Active Valve programmable exhaust and new-for-2018 MagneRide adaptive magnetorheological dampers—technologies that have been available on the sixth-gen Camaro since it hit the market for the 2016 model year. If you can’t beat ’em, match their mufflers and dampers.
The GT’s standard Coyote 5.0-liter V-8 barks a renewed statement of intent the moment you fire it up—its throatier cackle declares that it has been thoroughly reworked. Horsepower is up by 25 to a stout 460 at 7000 rpm. (That figure beats the Camaro SS’s 6.2-liter V-8 by five horsepower, which is probably just coincidence, right?) Torque rises by 20 lb-ft to 420 lb-ft at 4600 rpm. The redline now stands at a ripping 7500 rpm.
This is a gnarly sounding engine, even with the adjustable exhaust set in Normal mode. Its guttural growl is stirring just puttering around town, and it swings to intoxicating as you cane it to the lofty redline—where it sounds distinctly like a NASCAR V-8 in full Brad Keselowski mode. Clamp down on the throttle and the GT accelerates with a smile-inducing rush. It doesn’t jam you into the seatback with the low-rpm gut punch of the Camaro SS and its substantially larger V-8; the Mustang’s power comes on more like a Porsche’s, building steadily and ever more ferociously.
Ford claims that the Mustang GT is now capable of sub-four-second lunges to 60 mph when equipped with the new-for-2018 10-speed automatic. The six-speed manual GT test car felt like it couldn’t be more than a tick behind. The revised manual gearbox employs a shorter first gear, and when you go wide open from rest, the 1-2 shift comes up fast enough to surprise you if you don’t keep a sharp eye on the tachometer.
Thundering along Mulholland Highway and Latigo Canyon Road, the GT was impressive in its impassiveness. Steering feel is a bit distant, but it dives for the corners with razor-sharp precision and scythes through bends with zero drama. The car was pinned to the road as if pressed into it by the great engineer in the sky, seemingly tethered around the torturously tight turns—which allowed us to pin the throttle aggressively even across pavement heaves.
Nor was the firm ride unduly harsh, likely a benefit of the MagneRide dampers—something we’ve long appreciated in Camaros. We’ll have to wait until we get a GT back on our chunky Michigan roads to see whether it can match its rival’s ride comfort, as the twisty California pavement had nary a blemish to jar the chassis.
We also got a chance to flog a base turbocharged 2.3-liter version—last year’s base V-6 has been dropped—kitted out with the Performance package and the 10-speed automatic. It proved to be a fine understudy to the muscled-up GT. Torque is up to 350 lb-ft now, an increase of 30 lb-ft. There’s plenty of power underfoot; we expect it to bust out a five-second zero-to-60-mph run, and the harsh resonances this engine used to emit have seemingly been quelled.
The 2.3-liter car’s handling limits are a bit less heroic and more approachable than the GT’s—it rolls on less aggressive summer rubber—but it ate up the serpentine mountain roads like a polished pro nonetheless. Shifted manually with the steering-wheel paddles, the transmission responds crisply; driven gently in D, it hands off gears almost imperceptibly.
Inside, the Mustang differs only slightly from the 2017 model, the biggest change being a new, optional 12.0-inch digital instrument cluster with a reconfigurable screen keyed to the selected driving mode (Normal, Sport+, Drag Strip, Track, or Snow/Wet). Depending upon equipment, the mode switch also controls the damper setting, exhaust timbre, steering effort, throttle mapping, and the automatic transmission’s shift programing. There are two ways to custom mix the modes and two shortcut buttons to access them. This year brings more available safety equipment to the options list as well, including automated emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane-keeping assist, and rear cross-traffic alert.
Subtle exterior revisions include a flattening of the hood for better forward visibility and standard LED lighting all around. Performance package coupes get a big wing carefully designed to—wait for it—do absolutely nothing. Ford’s wind-tunnel group already had the Mustang’s high-speed, front-to-rear aero balance where they wanted it, so the new wing thing is there only to impress the cars-and-coffee crowd. Luckily, it can be optioned off. Look to the GT’s new Level 2 Performance package if you seek true aero enhancements and greater grip levels.
Are this year’s changes enough to let the Mustang take back the high ground from the Camaro? The Ford certainly seems to be a stronger combatant than before, but the balance of power between these two pony-car warriors is so even that until we drive them back to back on the same roads on the same day—and run them through our full testing regimen—we can’t be certain. All we know is that, however things turn out, they likely won’t stay that way for long.
VEHICLE TYPES: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 4-passenger, 2-door coupe or convertible
BASE PRICES: EcoBoost, $26,485;
EcoBoost convertible, $31,985;
GT convertible, $45,495
ENGINE TYPES: turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 16-valve 2.3-liter inline-4, 310 hp, 350 lb-ft; DOHC 32-valve 5.0-liter V-8, 460 hp, 420 lb-ft
TRANSMISSIONS: 6-speed manual, 10-speed automatic with manual shifting mode
Wheelbase: 107.1 in
Length: 188.5 in
Width: 75.4 in Height: 54.3-54.9 in
Passenger volume: 82-85 cu ft
Trunk volume: 11-14 cu ft
Curb weight (C/D est): 3600-4000 lb
PERFORMANCE (C/D EST):
Zero to 60 mph: 3.9-5.9 sec
Zero to 100 mph: 10.0-16.0 sec
Standing ¼-mile: 12.7-14.4 sec
Top speed: 150-160 mph
EPA FUEL ECONOMY:
Combined/city/highway: 18-25/15-21/24-32 mpg