PORTLAND, Ore. — Last Thursday morning, "The Today Show's" Al Roker crooned about summerlike temperatures across the country: 82 degrees in Washington, D.C., 72 in Chicago, 67 in Minneapolis. NBC’s telecast then segued to the local forecast: Forties and rain on Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Not the choicest weather to drive a Ford Mustang, but we gave it a go anyhow. Ford revamped its iconic pony car for 2013, adding a few horses to the 5.0-liter V-8 GT and tweaking the whole lineup’s appearance. V-6 and V-8 coupes and convertibles are on sale now, as is the V-8 Mustang Boss 302 coupe. The 650-horsepower Shelby GT500, meanwhile, arrives this summer.
Stick-shift GT coupes add an optional Track Pack, which combines a 3.73:1 rear axle (versus slower, 2.73 to 3.55 axles for other stick-shift cars) with an engine oil cooler, upgraded radio and performance Brembo-brand brakes. They also get a Torsen rear differential from the stupid-fun Boss. Upgraded Shaker audio systems, a 4.2-inch gauge LCD with various performance monitors, adjustable steering assist and available Recaro-brand sport seats round out the 2013 updates. I took to the hills west of Portland in a stick-shift Mustang V-6 coupe with the 2.73 rear axle and then drove neighborhood streets as engineering manager Tom Barnes sat shotgun in a stick-shift 3.73 GT coupe.
The Mustang is as raucous as ever, with a gutsy V-6 and a V-8 that pulls like hell. I’m not sold on all the visual updates, and the interior needs work. But the Mustang still combines scrappy fun with everyday livability, and it should draw buyers even as competition heats up not just from Chevy's Camaro but entries from Hyundai to Dodge.
Ford's 3.7-liter V-6 roars like a V-8, and even with the pokiest (but most fuel-efficient) rear axle, the stick-shift Mustang launches strong enough to spin the rear tires all the way through 1st gear. The 305-hp drivetrain loses steam as the tach needle swings to redline — territory where the 420-hp Mustang GT shoves you back in your seat. Barnes says friction reduction helped Ford eke out another 8 hp from the 5.0-liter V-8, which should match or beat the quarter-mile times of the last Mustang GT that our friends at "MotorWeek" tested — 13 seconds flat, a few 10ths faster than a 426-hp Chevrolet Camaro SS.
Both Mustangs exhibit satisfying steering feedback with power steering dialed to the car's Sport mode. At the other end, a Comfort mode makes the Mustang easy enough to make three-point turns with one palm. The chassis handled tricky roads outside Portland well enough, staying grounded over broken pavement better than any car with a solid rear axle ought to. Sharp turns on wet pavement had the V-6 coupe's all-season tires yielding to mild understeer, but working the tail out only required easing back on the gas when coming through the corner.
Our V-8 tester's optional Brembo brakes (14-inch front discs, versus 13.2-inchers in lesser GTs) hammered the car to a stop, albeit with excessive forward suspension dive — an unexpected sensation, given neither the V-6 nor stiffer GT suspensions allowed much body roll. Ride quality keeps with Mustangs past: firm but livable.
The optional six-speed automatic gets a redesigned shifter with a manual-shift mode — long overdue for the Mustang since rival Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Challenger automatics include it. Ford says it won't override you with upshifts, but shifting gears happens with buttons on the shifter's side. We have little use for manual-shift automatics, but the others execute this better. The Camaro has paddle shifters, and the Challenger allows manual shifts by slapping the gearshift one way or another. Ford’s button-equals-shift motion is anything but fun. Barnes conceded the point: "I'm not saying it's the best, but functionally it gives you what you need."
Most visual updates should appeal. The grille pulls farther forward, and body-colored rocker panels (previously black) add some maturity. The Mustang used to have two headlamp arrangements — iconic outboard halogen lamps or lizard-eye xenons that sat inboard. The inboard xenons are now standard. They still look reptilian, but horizontal LED daytime running lamps flank them for an interesting effect, and the reshaped grille — including a new front air splitter — increases downforce on the Mustang GT, which Barnes calls “the best V-8 we’ve had by far” in terms of aerodynamics.
A few things need work. New, rectangular LEDs ensconce the taillights, casting a cool glow when they're on. When off, it's anything but: The lowered center portions look like festering sores. Cabin inconsistencies still mar the inside, where Ford dresses the dashboard with premium materials but gives the doors the short shrift. And a telescoping steering wheel, widely offered in the competition, is still MIA.
Stay tuned for a full review.