2019 Ford Mustang Bullitt First Drive: A Better Car Than a Tribute

The motion picture “Bullitt” begins in Chicago in the late 1960s. Coincidentally, so did I; between that and being the only editor who had driven the first two Bullitt-edition Mustangs — a 2001 and 2008 — when they were new, I was a logical choice to attend Ford’s national media drive for the third Ford Mustang Bullitt, held in San Francisco — the city that hosts the bulk of the film and one of the most beloved car chases in cinema history. (Per our ethics policy, Cars.com pays for its airfare and lodging at such automaker-sponsored events.)

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Like the others, the 2019 Mustang Bullitt was inspired by the 1968 Mustang fastback driven by police Lieutenant Frank Bullitt, played by the legendary Steve McQueen. The exact vehicle seen smoking its tires and catching air in the hills of “the city” enjoyed a homecoming of sorts in connection with this event, thanks to its owner, New Jersey-based Sean Kiernan, whose father purchased the car in 1974 and later declined an offer from McQueen himself to buy it back in 1977. Alas, we were not given the option to drive the original hero car.

1968 Ford Mustang movie car and 2019 Mustang Bullitt

A Familiar Feel

What I did drive had a familiar feel, as each 2019 Bullitt is fundamentally a Ford Mustang GT Premium equipped with the Performance Package, which we’ve tested extensively, including in a head-to-head against the newer and more aggressive Performance Package Level 2. As such, the Bullitt comes with the PP1’s revised suspension and the option of MagneRide adaptive shock absorbers, which all of the pre-production cars at the event featured. It also comes standard with an active exhaust system through which the modified 5.0-liter V-8 thunders to life, accompanied by a head-on image of the Bullitt Mustang on the standard 12-inch digital instrument panel display, in place of the regular pony logo. (Just how thunderously it starts depends on how you set the exhaust, which includes a Quiet mode and a Quiet Start provision.)

2019 Ford Mustang Bullitt

If you’re a fan of the film who’s not familiar with Mustangs, know that this is a great one. Thanks to about a decade of refinement (but not too much) combined with modern technology, the new Bullitt does a great job of being a performance car that’s more livable than ever from day to day … if you can drive stick. Like Steve’s original, all Bullitts have come exclusively with a manual transmission (this the first six-speed), and it now has an exclusive white cue-ball shift knob to match the movie car. Unlike the movie car’s tall four-on-the-tunnel Hurst shifter, the ’19 Bullitt has a short lever with agreeably short throws. The engineers ensured a satisfying weight by building the laser-etched ball around a copper sphere.

2019 Ford Mustang Bullitt

As in the earlier Bullitts, this one isn’t built to be an ultimate performance variant but does have some mods to set it apart, including the use of the Shelby GT350’s intake manifold, a larger throttle body (87 versus 82 millimeters in diameter) and an open air box. The freer flowing induction and active exhaust allow a new calibration that adds 20 horsepower to the peak for 480 hp total and broadens the torque band substantially. Most notably, it’s good for about 12 pounds-feet more at 2,500 rpm and a peak — unchanged at 420 pounds-feet — that comes about 100 rpm later, roughly 4,700 rpm, followed by pretty consistent superiority over the regular GT all the way to redline.

1968 Ford Mustang fastback from “Bullitt”

I’m not going to tell you I could feel the torque differences versus the regular GT because the hills of California were a greater variable compared with the slow-death flatness around Cars.com’s Chicago home where I drove other GTs. But there’s more than enough torque even for the steep streets seen in the movie, such as Taylor and Filbert, where I resisted the urge to catch some air and took frequent advantage of one of the transmission’s modern aids: hill hold. I also found myself using and abusing the crap out of another technological marvel, automatic rev matching that gooses the engine to rev up and mesh smoothly with the transmission each time you downshift. It’s a feature many manual fans like me view as the ultimate cop-out … and admit loving, especially as the music from the Bullitt’s short, matte-black tailpipes echoed off row houses reprising the role they played in 1968.

2019 Ford Mustang Bullitt

The Bullitt sounds a little different from a regular GT, even one with the active exhaust, thanks to the open air box up front and additional burble graciously programmed into the engine management. By the time I was done bellowing through tunnels, San Francisco was probably ready to send me back to Chicago (if not for that reason, then definitely for calling the town “Frisco”).

The hills proved how rewarding a classic naturally aspirated, torquey V-8 can be, as well as how effective, if slightly grabby, the Brembo brakes are, which bite super-high in the pedal travel and then proceed to grant more stopping power than the Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires can always match. On canyon roads, the Bullitt hunkers down and sticks admirably unless you get on the gas too hard, but it remains controllable and surprisingly comfortable — especially in a straight line — where the shocks remain soft regardless of the mode you choose. I employed Sport Plus mode and its firmer suspension almost all the time, a departure from home, where the pavement is less forgiving.

If the torque changes were hard to confirm, there’s no question the Bullitt’s horsepower climbs all the way to redline, where the regular GT’s peters out at 7,000 rpm. Combine this performance with the intoxicating sound, and you find yourself getting more acquainted with the rev limiter than you do in the average manual.

2019 Ford Mustang Bullitt

While I’m praising the engineers, more kudos to them for going the extra mile for all manual 2019 Ford Mustangs by incorporating a sensor in the shifter itself. As a result, the prominent gear indicator inside the digital tachometer registers the moment the stick enters a gate rather than a second or two after you release the clutch, as in many stick-shift vehicles. (Look, if you’re going to indicate the gear, it has to be immediate or why bother?)

The Exclusives

Apart from the powertrain tweaks and other features mentioned, Bullitt exclusives include the Dark Highland Green paint, which has more metal flake than in the past, reportedly necessary to make the lines pop. Black is the only other paint option. The grille openings are the same size as the GT’s, but the upper grille is uninterrupted by vertical members and is ringed in chrome to emulate the ’68, and the lower grille’s mesh extends to fill the opening. The wheels are … inspired by the original’s and carry on the chrome ring of earlier tributes. The leather seats have subtle green stitching, and the Bullitt lettering and/or crosshair logo appear on the trunk, a strut-tower brace under the hood, the steering wheel, the door sills and a dashboard plaque bearing each car’s unique chassis number. Less adjustable Recaro front sport seats are one of three options along with MagneRide and the Bullitt Electronics Package that provides a memory driver’s seat and side mirrors, ambient lighting, navigation, a new B&O Play audio system and blind spot warning with rear cross-traffic alert.

2019 Ford Mustang Bullitt

The Ford Mustang Bullitt starts at $47,590, including a destination charge, and hits $52,980 loaded. Production is technically limited, but Ford won’t give a number and says the Bullitt will continue through the 2020 model year. Between the similarities to a GT Premium PP1 and the manual transmission, I suspect the build will be limited by demand, not production.

The Best Bullitt?

Choosing the best Bullitt edition is difficult because they all have their strengths and weaknesses. The 2019 is unquestionably the best to drive, as it should be. (I think the current Mustang on which it’s based should be frozen in time because they can’t make it any better without making it too slick and less a Mustang.) On one level, its drivability makes this Bullitt the least like Dearborn’s best effort from 1968. Conversely, the 2001 unfathomably was still built on the dodgy Fox platform that made its debut in 1979, and had dynamics and refinement closer to vehicles of an earlier era. The 2008’s styling was based on the old fastback, so its profile is truer to the movie car that inspired it, and its nose is the closest, with widely spaced round headlights above the turn signals rather than inboard of them like the 2001, flanking a similarly shaped broad grille under an overhanging hood.

2001 Ford Mustang Bullitt

Frankly, the new Bullitt is almost as far from the movie car as the 2001 was, with angular headlight clusters extending way back in the fenders, and a return to the red brake calipers that appeared in ’01 but vanished in ’08. The 2019’s sole exclusive claim to authenticity seems to be a white cue-ball shifter in place of the previous tributes’ metallic finish. Ultimately, where the 2019 lost me was with its new 19-inch wheels, which are nice enough on their own merit, showing off giant brake rotors and conspicuous red Brembo-branded calipers, but they simply depart too much from the original mag wheels, which were a highlight. Granted, 15-inch wheels simply don’t fly in 2019, but the 2008’s 18s at least held onto the classic shape to a degree, as did the 2001’s 17-inchers. It’s possible throwback rims would look wrong on the more modern 2019, but to me that just reinforces that this one isn’t the ultimate Bullitt tribute — and probably should be the last.

2008 Ford Mustang Bullitt

My pick for the distinction of best Bullitt tribute is the 2008. Though it was disappointingly slab-tailed (ahead of some changes that came later in its generation), neither of the other tributes capture the original’s haunchy and stylistic rear end anyway. It’s the right mix of baked-in similarities (profile, nose) and wise choices where flexibility was an option (wheel design, dark calipers).

Viewers Beware

As for the film, if you’ve never seen it, it’s worth a viewing. Like many classic movies, it seems slow by today’s standards, but it’s not a hindrance. It takes place in 1968, a year with enough political and cultural turmoil to make 2018 look like a reality TV show, but none of that is in the film. The only tragedy of the era reflected in “Bullitt” is an overabundance of jazz music.

The fact that the character’s name is Frank Bullitt suggests a hokiness that’s thankfully absent. It’s a no-nonsense production with understated performances and a relatively simple storyline that ends where a modern film would just get started, for better or for worse. Just bear in mind two things, car fans: First, it’s not a car-chase movie; it’s a movie with one very long car chase scene in it. (The other pursuit, itself similarly innovative at the time, was a foot chase on an active airport runway.) Second, what passed for a landmark car chase in 1968 seems quaint but for the fact that the lead actor does much of his own driving. Far more inventive car chases have come since, often to a fault. But it’s still engaging to see the cars storming over the hills of San Francisco in the days before computer-generated animation and hearing the unflattering bang of their landings (Hollywood would do much better today) to a backdrop of sweet V-8 music and McQueen double-clutching each shift.

While you’re at it, keep an eye on the bad guys’ black Dodge Charger, which presumably has four conventional wheels yet manages to lose five hubcaps over the course of the pursuit — clearly. (Some claim it loses eight, less clearly, but I’m not going to pore over this thing like it’s the freakin’ Zapruder film.)

The Remake

It’s surprising a movie that turns 50 in October has inspired three tribute vehicles but no remakes, despite one threat. My colleagues and I attempted to cast such a reboot, and the beloved McQueen — desired by women, admired by men — proves difficult to replace. If not Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise seems to be the iconic American actor who’s also known for doing his own stunts in the name of authenticity, but McQueen’s authenticity was viewed as extending beyond the set, a charge we’ve never heard leveled against Cruise. Keanu? Maybe. Fassbender? Not American. Gosling? I’m not as sold on the guy as some are, and I fear he’d do all his own driving but constantly look at his feet. All of these guys might seem too old, but old isn’t what it used to be. McQueen was 38 in 1968, but I would have guessed 48. The ultimate test: Would any of these jokers qualify, as Steve did, as the “King of Cool”?

Let’s not kid ourselves, folks. The 2019 reboot would star Charlize Theron as Frankie Bullitt. One of those other stiffs would play her boyfriend. Maybe. Charlize was born in South Africa, but at a time when her namesake Mustang is built with 56 percent domestic parts (2018 data) and has a manual transmission with a country of origin listed as China, she’s American enough, and she’s proven to be something of a badass in “Mad Max” and “Atomic Blonde” who appeals to all genders.

Like the 2019 Mustang Bullitt, a 2019 film remake would move faster. It would be slicker and more refined. Jumping cars would land with a more agreeable sound, and we’d probably learn more about the Chicago mob and what happened before and after the snapshot 1968’s “Bullitt” covers. Would it be better than the original? Nope. But at least there would be less jazz.

Cars.com’s Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with Cars.com’s long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don’t accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of Cars.com’s advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.

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