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Expert Reviews 1 of 9
By Kelsey Mays
May 7, 2009
It's a bit odd that Detroit's healthiest automaker makes Detroit's least appealing muscle car. That said, the 2010 Ford Mustang isn't all that bad. Restyled inside and out, it boasts better cabin quality than the competing Dodge Challenger and Chevy Camaro, and it wins a number of small victories elsewhere, too. Many will find it a perfectly reasonable choice. An exciting one, though? Not so much. Muscle cars are chiefly about performance, and from the racetrack to the highway, the Mustang's aging architecture keeps it a few steps behind the competition.
The rear-wheel-drive Mustang comes in V-6 and V-8 variants (the V6 and GT, respectively), each with a base and Premium trim. Compare them to the 2009 model here. Either engine teams with a five-speed manual or five-speed automatic; a convertible version is also available. I tested a stick-shift Mustang GT coupe and an automatic convertible with the V-6. There's also a six-speed manual available in the Mustang-based Shelby GT500, whose supercharged V-8 makes 540 horsepower. Styling The 2005-09 Mustang ranks as one of the great styling successes of its decade — a muscular interpretation of the mid-1960s original that's iconic even while ubiquitous. Its reskinned successor leaves me cold. The tail leans forward at an awkward angle, and the contoured taillights look less commanding than their rectangular predecessors. The reshaped hood encroaches too much on the grille and driving lights, which were among the outgoing Mustang's best-looking elements.
Fundamentally, of course, this Mustang doesn't stray too far from that one. The essentials remain — namely the blockish bumpers and '60s-throwback nose. Seventeen-inch alloy wheels replace last year's 16-inchers on the V6. Eighteen-inchers are optional on the V6 and standard on the GT and GT500 convertible; 19s are optional on the GT and standard on the GT500 coupe.
At 188.1 inches long, the Mustang is a couple inches shorter than the Camaro and nearly 10 inches shorter than the Challenger. The V6's turning circle, at 33.4 feet with the 17-inch wheels, is impressive. The available 18- and 19-inch wheels render a more average 37.7-foot circle. Going & Stopping The Mustang GT is quick enough to roast the rear tires for a dozen feet or so from any stoplight, but its V-8 lacks the all-out grunt of the Camaro SS or the freight-train torque of the Challenger R/T. The Mustang GT, though, weighs some 300-500 pounds less than either competitor, and by the time you push the engine past 3,000 rpm there's more than enough power to keep up. I only wish it arrived sooner: Coming off second-gear hairpins, there's less immediate thrust to resume barreling down the straightaway than either competitor's larger V-8 provides.
Perhaps another gear for the five-speed manual would help. Second gear takes too long to wind out, and, on the highway, there's too big a gap between 4th and 5th. Fifth leaves too little in reserve for confident 60-70 mph passing; 4th gives you more than you called for. There has to be a happy medium somewhere. (Perhaps there is: My test car had a 3.55:1 final drive ratio. An optional 3.73:1 ratio shortens all gears for better performance, though fuel efficiency takes a hit — "1-2 mpg or so," Ford spokesman Alan Hall said.)
The stick shift itself operates without complaint. The clutch is a bit heavy — that's expected for a muscle car, but less friendly during traffic — but the shifter, a Tremec unit crowned by an aluminum ball shifter in Premium models, has shorter throws and cleaner gates than the outgoing Mustang GT's. Accelerator response, too, is excellent. Ford hit a sweet spot between hyper-sensitivity and outright lag, and the setup allows for easy throttle-blipping for seamless rev-matches. Overall transmission smoothness easily beats either V-8 competitor's six-speed stick, though the V-6 Camaro's Aisin-built manual is better still.
Wind out the gears, and 60 mph comes fast: Road & Track magazine clocked a stick-shift, 3.73 Mustang GT hitting 60 mph in 5.3 seconds and running the quarter-mile in 13.8 seconds, roughly splitting the difference between the Camaro SS (4.6 and 13.0 seconds) and Challenger R/T (6.2 and 14.5) that the publication tested. Both competitors had manual gearboxes.
The GT's 4.6-liter V-8 is essentially the outgoing Mustang's three-valve aluminum engine with airflow improvements from last year's special-edition Mustang Bullitt. Lesser Mustangs carry over Ford's iron-block 4.0-liter V-6. Though it isn't particularly refined, its generous low-end torque yields ample power starting out, and the available five-speed automatic kicks down quickly enough for decent passing power. The V-6 Challenger can't even manage that — its engine feels encumbered by too much car — but the V-6 Camaro, endowed with Cadillac's direct-injection V-6, feels lighter on its feet than both. With EPA gas mileage estimates of 18/29 mpg city/highway with an automatic, Chevrolet's contender is also the group's most fuel-efficient.
Mustang Drivetrains Compared
Base price (coupe)
Horsepower @ rpm
210 @ 5,300
315 @ 6,000
540 @ 6,200
Torque (lbs.-ft. @ rpm)
240 @ 3,500
325 @ 4,250
510 @ 4,500
Five-speed manual or five-speed auto
Five-speed manual or five-speed auto
EPA mileage (city/hwy., mpg)
18/26 (manual); 16/24 (auto)
16/24 (manual); 17/23 (auto)
Source: Automaker data
Though regular 87-octane unleaded will suffice, Ford says the Mustang GT has adaptive drivetrain calibration to improve low- and mid-range torque when run on premium gas, though peak outputs remain the same with either fuel. I filled up with regular gas my first tank and premium my second. Indeed, acceleration from 2,500 to 4,000 rpm feels stronger on premium, but not by much. Below 2,500 rpm, I couldn't tell any difference. The bottom line: If you're carving up canyon roads or hitting the track, fill up on premium. Otherwise, save the dough and go with regular.
Four-wheel-discantilock brakes are standard, with larger front discs on the Mustang GT. Performance brake pads are optional, while the Shelby GT500 gets even larger discs with four-piston Brembo front calipers. My test car had the base GT hardware, but the brake pedal elicited strong, linear response. Brake fade is noticeable, though not excessive, after repeated heavy use. Ride & Handling While the Camaro and Challenger have adopted four-wheel-independent suspensions, the Mustang retains a non-independent, solid rear axle. It shows: Accelerate over uneven surfaces, and the rear wheels skip noticeably. Bumpy pavement leaves the tail ever so slightly unglued, and on the highway there's a steady patter of uncontrolled up-and-down motions in back. The experience is far from trucklike, mind you; Ford may very well have taken the solid axle to its qualitative limits. But when I took the Camaro and Challenger out for comparative spins, the Mustang's limitations were obvious. The Challenger is unflappably settled, the Camaro less so, but still very good. In virtually all handling situations, the Mustang comes off as the least refined in the group.
Wind and ambient noise, something Ford says it worked to reduce this time around, is low, even at 70 mph. Highway road noise is noticeable, but even with my GT tester's 19-inch wheels and P245/45R19 all-season tires, it was less than in some sports cars I've recently tested. High-performance summer tires are optional, with even wider rubber on the GT500. Opting for them, however, may increase road noise, just as going with the lesser Mustang's 17- or 18-inch tires might decrease it.
The steering wheel in my test car didn't feel too well-assisted, as the steering did in the last Mustang GT I spent serious time in — a 2005 model. Turn-in precision is good, but even with the GT's hardier suspension, body roll is more noticeable than in the Challenger R/T or Camaro SS. It makes the Shelby GT500's suspension, with retuned shocks and beefier stabilizer bars, worth checking out. That setup will be optional later this year on the Mustang GT.
Thread your way through tight corners, and the Mustang resists understeer admirably well. Deactivate the car's electronic stability system, and the rear steps out easily. Reeling it back in is manageable enough — until you hit rough pavement, where oversteer shows up on its own. Oddly enough, those antics were a better fit for the last Mustang's demeanor. That car was more of an unpredictable brute, sending the tail wide with little warning and requiring a fair bit of countersteer to reel things back in. In today's Mustang, all of that rings a bit hollow: The car's refinement — in cabin quality, noise levels and overall packaging — makes the raw edges seem out of character. The Inside In the Fusion and now the Mustang, Ford's efforts to shore up interior quality are evident. The last Mustang's cabin was a mix of grainy textures and low-rent fixtures. Other than some cheap-looking upper door panels and a sloppy automatic gearshift, this year's cabin is far better. Soft-touch materials and low-gloss textures adorn the dash, clear down to knee level. Ford's so-called "poke-through" center controls exhibit few of the flimsy movements the earlier versions did.
I'm not as crazy about the seats. My Premium test car's power driver's seat had rich-feeling leather upholstery and ample adjustment range, but the lumbar support sat too high in my back, no matter how I adjusted it. The seat positions, too, are awkward. I felt either too close to the steering wheel or too far away to comfortably operate the clutch. The steering wheel tilts but doesn't telescope, as the Challenger's and Camaro's do. No doubt that would help with the wheel/clutch issue. The seats have grippy surfaces to help hold you in, but I could have used larger side bolsters. The GT500's sport seats have larger bolsters, though I haven't sat in them.
The two-person backseat has decent headroom and good thigh support, thanks to its low footwells. Knee room is minimal, however, and the front-seat release handles have an annoying habit of scraping your thighs as you exit. Cargo space, at 13.4 cubic feet, is midway between the Camaro (11.3 cubic feet) and Challenger (16.2). Sun lovers should note that the Mustang convertible cuts trunk volume to 9.6 cubic feet. Sync Interface Ford's Sync stereo interface, standard on Premium trims like my test car, continues to have a mind of its own. (I'm in the minority of auto writers who aren't sold on it, though.) It allows you to call out specific tracks, playlists or artists off your iPod, and it works most of the time. It can't catalog songs without metadata, however — that's most of your old Napster downloads — and sometimes it doesn't always play what you ask it to, metadata or no. At least the stereo itself sounds good: Ford's available Shaker system, available in 500- or 1,000-watt packages, delivers distortion-free sound even at ear-splitting decibels. I've sampled the optional stereos in the Camaro and Challenger, both by Boston Acoustics. The Mustang's lays waste to them. Safety, Features & Pricing As of this writing, the 2010 Mustang has not been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Standard safety features include an electronic stability system and seat-mounted side airbags with head extensions; click here to see the full list. Though side curtain airbags aren't offered — both the Camaro and Challenger include them — it'll be worth waiting for the crash tests to reveal their relative importance. The previous Mustang convertible, with seat-mounted side airbags only, performed well.
The V6 coupe starts at $20,995, about $1,200 short of the '09 Challenger and '10 Camaro. The Mustang GT starts at $27,995, about $2,200 short of the V-8 Camaro and Challenger. Fully loaded, a Mustang GT convertible tops out around $44,000.
The well-equipped Shelby GT500 starts at $46,325 for the coupe and $51,325 for the convertible. Mustang in the Market There's an elephant in the room, and it's the tenuous business situations surrounding GM and Chrysler, still unfolding as I write this. Absent one or both of its competitors, the Mustang has a far more certain road to success. Assuming both remain, however, I suspect the next few years of muscle-car wars will cast Ford's contender as an also-ran. The Camaro, particularly in V-6 form, is all about performance value. The Challenger is a well-settled cruiser. The Mustang has the best interior quality, but I'm not sure that alone carries enough weight.