The 2018 Ford Mustang GT's Performance Package and Performance Package Level 2 may be separated only by one number, but comparing these two handling packages is like comparing a pony to a horse.
(Those are different, right? Is a pony a baby horse?)
Equestrian confusion aside, we grabbed two ponies (horses? I should have Googled this): a 2018 Mustang GT vehicle equipped with the $3,995 Performance Package (PP1), and one with the more extreme $6,500 Performance Package Level 2 (PP2). Cars.com reviewers Aaron Bragman, Mike Hanley and I tested the packages on the road course at GingerMan Raceway, the drag strip at Great Lakes Dragaway, and the streets of Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin to get a feel for the difference between these two packages.
We typically invite an in-market consumer to help us evaluate a class of cars, but for this test we enlisted the help of professional driving instructor and a vice president at CGI Motorsports, Hollie Heiser. Hollie grabbed the reins of these pony-horse packages and set lap times around her home track of GingerMan Raceway in South Haven, Mich. We paired Hollie's lap times of these Ford Mustangs with our track and street impressions of categories including powertrain, braking, handling, fun to drive, street manners and value to pick our favorite Mustang Performance Package.
Performance Package Hardware
Performance usually means more power, but not here. Both the PP1 and the level 2 PP2 are powered by the venerable 5.0-L V8 making 460 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of torque. Perhaps the biggest differentiator between the packages is the PP2's considerably wider, racier tires: Michelin's track-day Pilot Sport Cup 2 rubber sized 305/30R19 front and rear, which are a step up from the PP1's 255/40R19 front and 275/40R19 rear Pilot Sport 4S tires, themselves no slouches and more common on European sports cars than American muscle cars. The PP2's suspension gets stiffer componentry and uniquely tuned standard MagneRide shock absorbers, which are optional on the PP1 (and were equipped on our test car). There's only one transmission on PP2 cars, a six-speed manual, versus the as-tested PP1 with a 10-speed automatic; yes, we know, blasphemy that one's an auto, but that's how it shook out.
The Performance Package Level 2's approach is like dialing your own car up a notch with wider wheels and tires, stiffer stabilizer bars and fancy shock absorbers. The wheels are 1.5 inches wider in the front and back, and the car sits lower thanks to shorter tires (26.3 inches tall for the PP2 versus 27.1 inches tall for the PP1), though it does leave an odd amount of wheel gap despite the lower ride height. The steering is quicker and the electronic stability system and antilock braking system have been retuned to fully maximize the new parts. It makes for one planted, secure and confident track car.
The combination of faster cornering speeds and more braking confidence around GingerMan's 2.14-mile track let pro instructor Heiser knock just over 4.5 seconds off her best PP1 lap times behind the wheel of the PP2. Here's what we thought:
Bruzek: Clearly, the PP2 is a more extreme track package and it does well when thrown into a corner, but the PP2 is a completely different animal than the PP1. In Track mode, this Mustang is a beast with heightened limits and so much more available grip. You can brake way later and get on the gas way earlier in the PP2, so much so that the car is unflappable compared with the PP1. It's an intense Mustang with composure that lets you focus on going faster, a lot faster.
Bragman: The PP1 goes around a track just fine. It's a lot of fun (but would've been more fun with a stick), but it's not the sharp tool that the PP2 is. The retuned suspension transforms the car, making it much more eager to turn in and more responsive in its feedback through the steering wheel, too. The PP1 is fast, smooth, and well-controlled — but the PP2 feels like a budget Shelby GT350R out in the twisties. In fact, it makes me wonder if spending another $10,000-$20,000 for the GT350 is worth it.
Hanley: The PP2 is an absolute joy to drive on the track. The car stays flat in corners with the tires serving up tons of grip, and the suspension setup is complemented by great steering precision and turn-in, as Aaron mentioned. Plus, the PP2's manual gearbox keeps you even more involved when thundering around the course. By comparison, the PP1 feels a little less locked in, with more body roll and steering that's not as sharp.
Measured stopping distances from 60 mph and seat-of-the-pants braking feel give the advantage to the PP2 in a big way. And here's the kicker: The Brembo brakes are physically the same between the cars. The only difference between the two are the wider wheels and tires, and unique antilock brake logic, which went a long way to making the car a more potent stopper.
JB: Tires, tires, tires. The Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires and revised antilock programming transformed the braking experience of the PP2. The PP2's brakes are easier to manage at their limits with smoother pedal modulation near antilock braking system intervention.
AB: Both cars have excellent braking performance, but Joe's right: The PP2 is built around those Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires. Everything from the brakes to the aerodynamics have been retuned to the new limits provided by the tires. The brakes on both Mustangs are strong, fade-free and have an excellent feel, but it's fascinating to see what the engineers can do to retune how they stop given some extra tire grip.
MH: The PP2's wide, performance-oriented tires gave it the advantage; hit the brakes and the PP2 would bite harder and shove you against the shoulder belt. Just be prepared to make tires a regular monthly budget item if you plan on driving the car hard; the Pilot Sport Cup 2s, which are $400 apiece, were shot before the odometer hit 4,000 miles.
On the Street
Adding a bunch of go-fast parts to any car's suspension is usually a sure way to ruin daily drivability. The PP1 is a pleasant balance of handling proficiency and drivability, so how badly did the PP2's stiffer springs, shock tuning and mammoth-wide front tires impact its drivability? Two of us thought a lot, but one didn't.
JB: I don't need any more street time in the PP2. Ever. I think I'm good. The wide tires grab every line and rut in the road and tug at the steering wheel, making a white-knuckled, high-strung drive no matter how short or long. The most aggressive Track suspension setting on the PP1 has the firmness of the least aggressive setting on the PP2, and Track mode in the PP2 had me hoping all the nuts and bolts on the car were securely fastened. It's in stark contrast to the PP1, which after the 10-speed automatic settles down at highway speeds, lets the engine loaf along at 70 mph. The PP1 is as comfy as any grand touring cruiser with the MagneRide suspension in the most plush setting.
AB: You can loaf in the Mustang, or you can fly in it. I chose to fly in it. It's astonishing how rock-solid the PP1 is at high speed, but here's where I differ from my colleagues: I don't think the PP2 is bad on the street at all. Yes, it tramlines a little bit on Illinois interstates, and cratered Chicago streets beat the crap out of its occupants despite the MagneRide suspension's best efforts, but this car is not meant for Chicago daily driving — it's meant for smooth roads, dry conditions and easy access to canyons.
MH: The penalty for sports-car performance is sometimes a very firm ride, but as Joe and Aaron have said, the PP1's adjustable suspension keeps things livable on city streets. I'd love to take the PP2 on a smooth, dry canyon road sometime (I suspect it'd be a glorious way to spend an afternoon), but my drive from Southwest Michigan to Chicago in the rain was exhilarating for all the wrong reasons. The tires that make this Mustang so good in dry conditions turn it into a skittish, traction-challenged heart-stopper when the pavement is wet — especially when said tires are at the end of their usable life like the ones on our test car. Plus, it's really loud in the PP2 on the highway.
Our PP1 was a loaded GT with leather, a digital instrument cluster, adjustable active exhaust, forward collision warning with adaptive cruise control, Shaker Pro stereo, MagneRide suspension and 10-speed automatic transmission. The PP2's options were simply the wild Orange Fury paint and active exhaust, bringing the bill to $45,885, far less than the PP1 as-equipped price of $52,765 — feel free to push your jaw back up.
JB: Shelby GT350s have the notoriety of the Shelby name and embroidered snake jacket to wear at car shows, but the PP2's performance feels closer to the GT350 while the price is closer to the regular Mustang. In other words, at nearly $46,000, compared with the roughly $61,000 of a 2019 Shelby GT350 and $52,000 of our PP1 car, it's a damn bargain.
AB: This is the exact spec level of what someone would buy if they wanted the maximum amount of fun for minimum cost. For less than $46,000 out the door, you have an immensely capable car that you can drive to the track and then blow away just about anyone on it.
MH: Even though the PP2 in our test was a base Mustang GT, it didn't feel like a car that was lacking creature comforts with its power front seats, dual-zone automatic air conditioning and Ford's Sync 3 touchscreen multimedia system. Factor in what it can do on the track and there's no question it's an incredible car for the money. Drive it, and you'll be scheming to put one in your driveway.
Elephant in the Room: The 10-Speed Automatic
Elephants, horses, ponies. Yes, we did test cars too. The 10-speed automatic in the PP1 made this comparison not an apples-to-apples test, but it was enlightening to test the new transmission in virtually every imaginable scenario against a stick: road course, drag strip, street. Our judges came away with mixed impressions. Also of note: After we drove the car for this comparison, our PP1 test car received a transmission programming update that improved low-speed drivability and increased the fun factor in modes besides Track.
JB: I've driven a few F-150s with the 10-speed (5.0-liter and Raptor), and none felt as mushy and confused as the 10-speed in our Mustang. In Track mode, however, the transmission did a complete 180 with its ability to confidently choose a gear around GingerMan. I didn't think the 10-speed was out of place at all when driven hard on the track except for one slow corner where it repeatedly didn't downshift as low as I wanted.
AB: The 10-speed is the biggest disappointment with this car. I didn't like it on the track or on the street — I understand that transmissions with 10 gears to play with will shift a lot, but the low-speed, around-town performance of the 10-speed is infuriating. It's almost impossible to drive smoothly. On the track, it never shifted when I wanted it to, so I ended up doing it myself.
MH: On the street, the automatic is too leisurely for a sports car, like the Mustang somehow got the Taurus' transmission programming. It was better on the road course, however, with a willingness to downshift when entering corners.
At the Drag Strip
Despite having the same engine, the difference in transmission showed during acceleration testing, where the manual was considerably slower. We've run as fast as 11.9 seconds in this exact car in the quarter-mile, but times were two to three tenths slower on this hotter, humid test day (Cars.com doesn't apply weather correction factors to our test results). The 10-speed and Drag Mode are a match made in heaven (or Dearborn), with short gearing and tires that have enough grip to handle aggressive launches. The manual was more difficult to drive, and Mother Nature (who must be a Chevrolet Camaro fan), drenched the track before we could really dial in the manual Mustang's launches. I predict, however, that even in perfect conditions, the six-speed manual isn't coming close to the 10-speed auto's times at the drag strip.
The Performance Package Level 2's unlikable street-driving characteristics (for two of us) weren't enough to detract our judges from the unabashed fun it delivers when driven hard. Even a difference of 1 second in straight-line acceleration testing between the slower manual and faster automatic didn't put much of a dent in the overall results. Where the PP2 out-did the PP1 in dynamic driving, it did so in a big way, running more than 4 seconds faster around GingerMan versus the PP1 in the hands of pro instructor Heiser, and stopping more than 5 feet shorter from 60 mph.
Hollie was thrilled with the PP2 as a track car, giving it a 10 out of 10 in the would a pro drive it category. She rated the PP1 lower at a 7. Still, the PP1 is a capable car to take on the track, with more of a 50/50 split for street/track duty versus the 30/70 split of the PP2. Between our $50,000-plus PP1 and the significantly more affordable PP2, it was no question which one we'd choose.
And here's where it gets interesting: A PP1 car with MagneRide is actually within a few bucks of the base PP2. So it's less of a decision of which one you can afford versus which one you want. If you're entertaining the thought of a track day here and there, then the PP1 is right up your alley. But if you're the kind of person who has multiple sets of tires in the garage separated by weekday or weekend use, then the PP2 is your kind of car.
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