At first glance, this matchup looks completely unfair. In one corner, we have the 2018 BMW M4 with the Competition Package, a super-expensive German sports coupe powered by a twin-turbocharged inline-six-cylinder engine. In the other corner, the American-as-apple-pie 2018 Ford Mustang GT with the Performance Package Level 2 option, a V-8-powered brute featuring track-day tires and a purpose-tuned suspension. The Mustang costs a little more than half of what the BMW does: $45,885 as equipped for the Mustang versus $86,945 for the BMW, both including destination fees. So just what were we thinking, stacking these two up against each other on a track when, realistically, this should be a slaughter for the BMW?
Hear us out. On paper, these two iconic machines stack up rather well. The BMW makes 444 horsepower from its 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged six-cylinder, since this one has the Competition Package with 19 extra horsepower. The Mustang's 460-hp, 5.0-liter V-8 is largely unchanged from the regular GT. Performance Package Level 2 (aka PP2) is focused on boosting grip through aerodynamics, suspension and tires, leaving the powertrain largely untouched. Both cars have highly adjustable electronically controlled suspensions and steering. Both have bigger brakes than their standard counterparts (the BMW's are carbon ceramic). Both ride on super-sticky summer tires, with the Mustang's being more aggressive.
So, it initially seems the biggest difference between these two is the 40 grand gap in sticker price. We wanted to see if the BMW's performance really is 40 kilodollars better than the Mustang, or if you can have an equally entertaining time with the Mustang and spend that remaining money on a trailer full of tires for track days. Cars.com reviewers Joe Bruzek, Mike Hanley and I ran both cars on the road course at GingerMan Raceway in South Haven, Mich., the drag strip at Great Lakes Dragaway in Union Grove, Wis., and on the street to see which one came out on top. We even threw a professional track instructor into the mix — Hollie Heiser of CGI Motorsports — to see what these cars could do in the hands of someone who spends her workday going corner to corner at GingerMan. Here are the standout areas we talked about following our time with these track stars.
Both cars are meant to be heard as much as driven, but only one of them delivers the goods — the Mustang. Both have selectable exhaust modes: The BMW's is tied to whatever driving mode you've selected and the Mustang's is independent of the modes, even offering a Quiet mode for sneaking home late at night. OK, maybe it's for starting up before dawn and not waking the neighborhood, whichever works best for you.
Bragman: Both of these cars are crazy fast around the track, but only one sounds truly exciting behind the wheel, and that's because of the sheer noise it makes. The Mustang absolutely bellows when you've selected the exhaust's Track mode, which opens up the exhaust's butterfly valves. You can hear it reverberating off the hills from anywhere on the track. The BMW, however, sounds like a tractor. It just doesn't seem to have a soul like the Mustang does.
Bruzek: The M4 doesn't sound that bad — well, let me qualify: on the inside, with the windows up when the electronic sound augmentation is doing its thing in the cabin. I likened its noises to a sewing machine when the windows are down. The adjustable exhaust doesn't seem to affect tone or volume so much, but the pops and burbles on deceleration are more pronounced. The Mustang's optional exhaust has way more range from Quiet mode to Track.
Hanley: On the track, I loved the raucous thunder from the Mustang, particularly the way, as Aaron says, you can hear the exhaust rumble, bouncing off things like the track's guardrails. The M4's exhaust tuning produces a fairly deep, V-8-like sound, but it's reserved, no question. But that can be good at times; the Mustang's exhaust — even in its Normal mode — produces a loud droning sound at highway speeds that's draining after a while.
You've got two different approaches to brakes on these cars — they're both big, high-performance systems, but the BMW features optional carbon ceramic rotors and specialty pads. They're not available on the Mustang, but that's because they're not cheap; BMW charges $8,150. In the Mustang's favor is superior tire grip from wider and more track-oriented Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires; the BMW has a level lower Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires. The Cup 2 tires let Ford retune the antilock brakes to allow more aggressive braking before lockup; otherwise, they're physically the same as Performance Package 1 brakes, which use larger front rotors and six-piston front calipers compared with a base GT. At the hands of hot-shoe Hollie, the braking performance made a difference in her lap times, with the BMW braking later, carrying more speed up to a corner.
AB: Lap after lap, the optional carbon ceramic brakes on the BMW were absolutely unshakeable. It takes a little bit to get them warmed up, but they exhibited absolutely zero fade, no squishiness, just unflappable grip time and again. But the best part — out on the street, these are the first carbon ceramic brakes I've ever driven that didn't squeal their hearts out in low-speed, around-town driving. And that may be what impressed me more than anything.
JB: You can dive consistently deeper into the corners with the BMW's carbon ceramic brakes and there's more pedal precision available from those bad boys after they have a few hot laps under their belt. It's an appropriate performance advantage, after all, for an $8,000 option that's 20 percent of the price of a base Mustang GT.
MH: While a little drama can add to a car's fun factor when you stomp on the gas or power out of a turn, I want to avoid it at all costs when staring down a quickly approaching turn. That's what the M4's expensive brakes do: They keep the drama at bay.
Both the Mustang and the BMW feature an electronic adjustable suspension (the Mustang using MagneRide dampers), adjustable steering assist, adjustable throttle mapping and more — but that doesn't mean you can dial one up to feel like a limousine. These are sports cars with aggressive tires that are purposely designed to be fast on a track. But can you live with them in daily use? Both of these cars can be painfully stiff, but only one of them can be called truly comfortable out on the street.
AB: I drove both cars for several hundred miles on road trips, and frankly I don't have an issue with either one of them. I'd have to give the nod to the BMW, however, as its ridiculous level of customizability allows you to tailor its manners to a degree that surpasses the Mustang's. The two programmable buttons that let you switch between any different settings you like were great: Set one for super-comfy street driving and one for super-tight track work, and off you go.
JB: I don't know what magical smooth roads Aaron was driving on with the Mustang, but I found it horrible to drive on the street with poor tracking at highways speeds where it would grab every line and rut in the road and tug at the steering wheel. Sometimes violently. Adjustability between the modes is noticeable, but nowhere near the levels of the BMW that has independent adjustability for steering, suspension, engine and transmission. The BMW suspension has a larger range of soft to firm than in the Mustang. It's clear where the money goes in this comparison as far as being a dual-purpose performance coupe. I wouldn't question daily driving the BMW, while the PP2 I'd leave for only short trips.
MH: The M4 comes alive on the track but it can feel rather sedate at legal speeds on the street. The Mustang, meanwhile, is a brute regardless of where you happen to be. I love that about it — along with its super-high limits — when I'm on a smooth racetrack, but it can get tiresome on the less-than-perfect (to put it charitably) roads I regularly drive. And if it's raining? Forget about it with the PP2's minimal-tread tires. The M4 doesn't make as many sacrifices in the name of performance.
Here's the meat of our query: Both of these cars are immensely capable, but one of them costs nearly twice as much as the other. At nearly $87,000, the BMW costs far more than the relatively bargain-priced $46,000 Mustang. Are the BMW's capabilities really that much more impressive than the Mustang, enough to justify the price?
AB: I have a really hard time justifying paying $40,000 more for the BMW when the Mustang as equipped delivers this much unholy fun. This Mustang didn't have extras like a fancy digital instrument panel or leather interior bits, just the basics for making a fun track day car or canyon carver that doesn't go too far over the performance edge so as to be unusable on the street. All the parts and tuning that come with the PP2 add up to a car that has almost everything the BMW has except for the fancy brakes, for far less money.
JB: Purely looking at drivability and not all the frills and luxuries of the BMW, which is what we were measuring in this test, the PP2 really is a close match to the track ability of the M4 for nearly half the price. Will people be cross-shopping the two? Doubtful, but M4 owners shouldn't be surprised when a base-looking Mustang GT with wide tires sticking past its fenders is keeping up on their six at track days.
MH: Or passing them; with Hollie at the wheel, the Mustang was about 2 seconds faster than the M4 around GingerMan. The Mustang gives up a little to the BMW in terms of cabin refinement, but it's not as much as you might think, and from a purely performance standpoint the Mustang's capability for the money is staggering.
While the street manners of the Mustang may have had some of our reviewers wringing their hands, its track manners certainly did not. Both cars are meant to scratch the enthusiast itch; both are ready for a track day at your local circuit track right from the showroom floor. But is one more satisfying?
AB: The Mustang is just a riot. I actually prefer driving it to the BMW. It's bigger and heavier, but between the iconic styling, the glorious roar from the big V-8, the super-sticky tires and the fiery Orange Fury paint job, this is the one that grabs your attention. I also don't mind its street manners as much as some of my colleagues. For what it is, I found its ride to be plenty compliant. Yes, it tramlines a bit thanks to its wide Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 near-slick tires, but any car riding on wheels and tires this big will do that (the Mustang Shelby GT350R does it, too).
JB: The PP2 is fun in an in-your-face kind of way. For a V-8, the Mustang's engine is a rev-monster and it's a riot to keep wringing it out. I think the BMW has more guts down low in the rev range, but the Mustang isn't far behind, and between these two as-tested cars, the Mustang's manual transmission helps with the fun factor on the street.
MH: The M4 was easier than the Mustang to drive fast, but that didn't make it more fun. The Mustang's steering is more direct with better turn-in, the car's cornering grip is amazing and the V-8 engine is a blast. My M4 track time was enjoyable but sufficient. With the Mustang, it wasn't enough; I was having too much fun.
At the Drag Strip
At Great Lakes Dragaway, the M4 ran away from the Mustang PP2 in acceleration testing, with the BMW's seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission giving it the edge over the harder-to-launch manual-transmission Mustang, despite the Ford's stickier tires. The M4 turned in a best time of 12.09 seconds in the quarter-mile at 120 mph versus the Mustang's best of 13.34 seconds at 109 mph. "The Mustang's times kept coming down as I dialed in the launch with the manual transmission, but not before we were drenched in a rain storm and I wasn't able to hop back in for another go," Joe said. "The M4 was easy to drive with its automatic transmission and even outpaced the Mustang GT PP1 with 10-speed automatic that ran 12.33 seconds at 116.4 mph the same day."
Zero-to-60-mph times also showed how tricky the Mustang was to launch: The BMW rang up a zero-to-60-mph time of 4.15 seconds, very near the official numbers BMW touts, while the Mustang managed 5.32 seconds. The automatic Mustang we had at the track that day hit 60 mph in 4.25 seconds, almost exactly a match for the M4. In zero-to-60-mph braking, the Mustang's wider, grippier tires eked out a slim victory to the BMW's fancy carbon ceramics, stopping in 109 feet compared to the BMW's 110.13 feet.
Pro on the Road Course
On GingerMan Raceway, the roles were reversed, with the Mustang's Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires helping give it the edge. It lapped the course in a best time of 1:44.98, nearly 2 full seconds faster than the M4's time of 1:46.88. Hollie had praise for both cars. "That BMW shifts so quickly, and I was quite surprised by the power delivery exiting a turn," she said. "I would own one of these, but it's just so much more money than the Mustang." The Mustang surprised her with how good it was, as well. "It handled so well, the suspension felt so good," she said. "I really liked it!"
Let's be clear, driving either of these cars on a track will make you feel like a serious winner, but we arranged this head-to-head to answer a fun question: Do you have to spend big bucks to have big fun or can that be achieved with a more reasonable payment? After we tabulated our scores in various fields, compared the drag-strip timing and logged all the data generated by our pro on the track, we had our answer: The Mustang won this one by a nose, thanks to a combination of our judges preferring its handling, value and fun-to-drive factor, and its measured performance. The Ford may not have won at the drag strip, held back by its manual transmission, but it bested the M4 around GingerMan Raceway by nearly 2 full seconds, a significant margin. The value equation tipped the final call in the Mustang's favor. Either one of these cars will bring you tons of fun on track days, but the Mustang GT with Performance Pack Level 2 is our choice.