Our view: 2011 Ford Mustang

Photo of Joe Wiesenfelder
Former Executive Editor Joe Wiesenfelder, a launch veteran, led the car evaluation effort. He owns a 1984 Mercedes 300D and a 2002 Mazda Miata SE. Email Joe Wiesenfelder

The debate over whether the Ford Mustang should be called a muscle car or a sports car is a long-standing — and pointless — one, but I think the 2011 model’s new drivetrains and chassis refinements give fodder to both sides of the argument.

With a new 305-horsepower V-6 engine and new six-speed manual and automatic transmissions, the V-6 model rivals the 315-hp 2010 Mustang GT’s V-8. The 2011 GT, with its 412-hp V-8, moves into an entirely different class. Despite the increases, gas mileage is also up across the board, including an amazing EPA-estimated 31 mpg highway for the V-6 automatic.

The 2010 Mustang was already the editors’ choice in a recent three-way comparison against the Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Challenger. The 2011 should be unstoppable. (See them compared here.)

The 2010 Mustang received substantial exterior and interior upgrades, so we wouldn’t have been surprised if the 2011 model got new drivetrains and no more. Actually, the new model enjoys a slew of changes, from brake and suspension upgrades to extensive noise abatement.

The V-6 Performance Package Shines
After driving multiple engine, transmission and body style combinations at the 2011 model’s national introduction in California, I walked away plenty impressed overall, but what truly stuck out was the V-6 with the optional Performance Package, which will be offered late this summer. It adds a 3.31 rear axle ratio in place of the standard 2.73, along with the suspension and brakes from the V-8-powered GT and 19-inch wheels shod with Pirelli P Zero summer tires. This car is a blast.

More than ever, engines are proving that size isn’t everything. The 305-hp, all-aluminum V-6 is a 3.7-liter, lower in size and weight than the previous generation’s 210-hp, iron-block 4.0-liter. Ford engineers say numerous technologies came together to boost both power and efficiency in the new engines, but it’s the dual independent variable valve timing that makes the biggest difference, improving torque at low rpm and efficiency across the board. Many manufacturers are turning to direct fuel injection to achieve similar goals, and Ford uses it in EcoBoost turbocharged applications, but Mustang engineers said the prospect of direct-injecting these engines didn’t pass the cost-benefit test. Its absence means one very important thing: They can add it later and get even more out of these power plants. Both engines now have four valves per cylinder where the old V-6 had two and the V-8 three.

2010 and 2011 Mustang Engines
Size 4.0-liter 3.7-liter 4.6-liter 5.0-liter
(@ rpm)
210 @ 5,300 305 @ 6,500 315 @ 6,000 412 @ 6,500
(lbs.-ft. @ rpm)
240 @ 3,500 280 @ 4,250 325 @ 4,250 390 @ 4,250
Redline 6,100 rpm 6,850 rpm 6,250 rpm 7,000 rpm
EPA city/highway mpg (manual; automatic) 18/26; 16/24 19/29; 19/31 16/24; 17/23 17/26; 18/25
Source: Manufacturer

With the 3.31 rear axle, the V-6 has enough grunt to launch the car like a V-8 — and chirp the tires in second gear — for zero-to-60 sprints of under 6 seconds. The short-throw shifter is a pleasure to operate — truly one of my favorites — and I like the clutch, too, which engages relatively low in the pedal travel and is easy to modulate. At practically any speed, if you choose the right gear, the new V-6 will jolt you back in your seat, revving freely up to its peak horsepower at 6,500 rpm, just shy of the 6,850 rpm redline (with a brick-wall rev-limiter at 7,000 rpm).

The car sounds good, too. Having fewer cylinders, it can’t really sound like a V-8, but somehow it sounds like a Mustang just the same, with a deep rumble under heavy throttle. Under light acceleration and cruising, it’s much quieter, and as of the 2011 model, so is the whole car — remarkably so. Ford implemented sound-damping materials seemingly everywhere, from the roof to the transmission tunnel and the hood to the trunk. There are new sound absorbers in the fenders, strut towers, firewall, C-pillars … I could go on. It really works, making for easy conversation between driver and passenger. It’s not just quiet for a muscle car; it’s quiet in general. The Performance Package’s summer tires were also nice and quiet, and when their soft rubber pitched a salvo of gravel at the rear wheel wells, a new liner muted the racket. I certainly heard it, but it didn’t sound as high-pitched and bone-jarring as it would have been.

The tire choice makes a difference, though, as I found when I drove a V-6 with the 18-inch wheels and Pirelli P Zero Nero all-season tires, which made their presence known on rough asphalt. They weren’t outrageously loud, but they were predominant in the noise buffet as no single dish had been in the other car. They also rode softer.

That’s not to say the 19-inchers and GT suspension made my V-6 Premium ride rough. There was no doubt I was in a sporty car, but the ride quality was more than livable. Suspension changes for 2011 were extensive, involving not just bushings and spring and shock absorber rates, but also stabilizer bars and control arms. As always, detractors will criticize the Mustang for having a solid rear axle, especially now that the Camaro and Challenger have independent suspensions. Though the latter has a theoretical advantage, I’ve always found the current-generation Mustang admirably composed.

I felt the same driving the V-6 Performance Package on winding canyon roads. When pushed, the car understeers a bit, but the V-6 now has enough torque that you can balance things out with the throttle if you aren’t in too high a gear. Ford says the aluminum block has helped to even out weight distribution, but preliminary specs say it’s roughly 54/46 percent (front/rear) with either engine in the coupe body style, which would be unchanged from 2010.

Between the quieter cabin and the car’s poised handling, it’s easy to go faster than you realize, and here the grippy, 255/40ZR19 rubber paid off, as did the standard electronic stability system, which adds a Sport mode in the Performance Package that makes it less intrusive and allows some sliding about. One shortcoming I experienced in dynamic driving was on roads with sudden elevation changes, where the car tended to get too light. The steering lost its precision, the wheels lost contact and I lost confidence. All Mustangs now have a standard limited-slip differential, and underbody aerodynamic work for 2011 is claimed to reduce lift. I’m not ready to blame this entirely on the solid rear axle. Chances are this is a tradeoff for the more comfortable ride quality. Where earlier Mustangs tended to feel skittish, this one just felt soft.

Impressive Electric Steering
I was also pretty impressed with the steering, which had a nice weight and appropriate assist levels at all speeds. Normally I wouldn’t rave about it, but this is a new electric power-steering system, which eliminates the hydraulic power-steering pump and its parasitic load on the engine. EPS is becoming widespread for its fuel-saving advantage, and it’s theoretically a superior approach, but overwhelmingly it fails to live up to the performance of hydraulic power assist. As for the Mustang’s steering, I don’t think I would have noticed it was electric if I hadn’t known ahead of time. The feedback was pretty good, too, especially when compared with the seafaring Dodge Challenger. (Seriously, ocean liners laugh at this car.)

What’s good about the Performance Package is that its estimated price is less than $2,000, and it will be available on stripped-down V-6 models, providing a great performance car for less than $25K. Anyone who’s not ready to buy a GT due to the cost — of the car, V-8 insurance or lower mileage with the recommended premium rather than regular gas — should jump on this thing. Given the model’s history, the 2011 V-6 is the more impressive of the two updated Mustangs.

The GT Enters a New League
The Mustang GT begs to differ. Power is up almost 100 hp over the 2010’s 4.6-liter V-8, to 412 hp, and torque rises 65 pounds-feet to 390, blasting the pony car to 60 mph in less than 5 seconds — with 4.5 seconds a possibility depending on the gearing. A 3.31 rear end is standard (3.15 on automatics), but Ford offers 3.55 and 3.73 rear axles as stand-alone options.

With the standard gearing, the GT launches with confidence rather than fury, and power quickly rises and builds to a peak, again at 6,500 rpm with a 7,000 rpm redline — pretty high for a V-8. The engine is by no means anemic at low revs, but I’ve driven V-8s that made gear choice an afterthought: Whatever gear you were in, they’d muscle you out of a turn without a second thought. That’s not the case here. I’m not suggesting the engine lugs easily, but there are times when you come out of a turn in too high a gear and find you need to downshift to get moving. The Camaro SS’ 420 pounds-feet of torque is more in line with what we’ve come to expect from V-8 engines, but its peak is also relatively high up the range, at 4,600 rpm, and the car itself is woefully overweight.

The two new Mustang engines illustrate how things have changed in the automotive business as a whole: They replace units that made more torque than power, and the V-6 delivers a broader torque curve while the V-8 requires higher revs to tap into the power. For giggles, check out the last 5.0-liter V-8 to power the Mustang GT, in 1995: It made 215 hp and 285 pounds-feet of torque. Ford is trumpeting the return of the 5.0-liter, whose displacement is interesting but ultimately meaningless, because the old pushrod V-8 gave way to a 4.6-liter that also made 215 hp to start and then increased, ultimately to 315 hp in the stock 2010 Mustang GT. Which would you rather have? The new engine combines modern technology with higher displacement, which happens to be 5.0 liters, and the result is high output. For anyone who’s nostalgic, there’s a big, fat “5.0” badge on either front fender of the 2011 GT.

There’s no Performance Package per se for the GT, but you can get a Brembo Brake Package that uses components from the Shelby GT500, as well as unique 19-inch wheels to accommodate the large branded calipers. In place of the Pirellis, these wheels wore Goodyear F1 Supercar tires rated 255/40R19. The brakes are impressive, but I wouldn’t be in a rush to option them. The stock brakes, also upgraded for 2011, do a fine job.

On the other end of the spectrum, the base coupe and convertible, standard axle ratios and automatic transmissions make for tamer Mustangs. The engine specs are the same, and you get the acceleration if you give it enough gas, but the experience is more easygoing. With the new six-speed automatic, lower revs combine with different exhaust tunings for quieter acceleration overall — unless the tires chime in. Their main objectives are efficiency and comfort. The automatic transmissions are reasonably responsive, and they don’t have paddle shifters; you have to respect that. For the casual driver, the Mustang has all the improvements and no apparent downsides. Even the convertible feels more rigid than before.

Exterior & Styling
The 2010 Mustang brought the first substantial styling changes since this generation’s blockbuster debut in 2005. The more sculpted rear end addressed what was the original design’s most lackluster facet, and it also added LED taillights whose three segments illuminate sequentially from the center outward when you use the turn signal. There were also changes to the front-end detailing and ground effects, improvements all. For 2011, there are some exterior changes, but they’re mainly for aerodynamics, including a lowered front air dam, underbody treatment and spats ahead of the rear wheels.

You can choose from a variety of cosmetic options like racing stripes and spoilers, which now come in three types: a modest lip spoiler, a slightly larger one that accommodates the optional backup camera and a raised “pedestal” type that comes in the GT Premium’s California Special Edition option. Most people I queried said they preferred the Mustang with no spoiler at all, which is available as a delete option.

The California Special also includes a billet grille with a three-bar pony badge, other unique badging and decals, side scoops, a matte-black panel between the taillights, a rear diffuser like that on the Shelby GT500 and a unique front bumper with low-mounted fog lights — along with interior upgrades. California Special is offered only on the GT Premium, but the V-6 Premium trim level can come as a Mustang Club of America special edition, which also has a billet grille, a unique panel between its taillights, a rear spoiler and low-mounted fog lights. It also has gray 18-inch wheels and side stripes.

The V-6 Pony Package adds pony fender badges, a bright pony grille, tri-bar pony floormats and wheel center caps. You can also get a hood scoop, side scoops, rear-quarter-window louvers and other add-ons for the GT Premium.

Though the Mustang hasn’t looked better in decades, there are a few quirks: Because they wouldn’t fit in the normal location, the optional xenon headlights appear inboard of the turn signals rather than outboard, which looks less like a Mustang to me. The trunklid’s lower lip protrudes, proud of the taillight — it just looks wrong. And while the outboard part of the hood overhangs the headlights, in the center there’s a gap between it and the grille, which is pretty conspicuous in V-6 models whose grille surrounds are body colored. It looks like the hood isn’t closed properly.

Around back you’ll find dual exhausts, even with V-6 engines, but you’ll also get an eyeful of shiny mufflers. The first thing I’d do is bust out the barbecue paint.

The 2011 Mustang hasn’t been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Because the changes for 2011 are mainly drivetrain related, 2010’s ratings likely apply, but we’ll need to await the IIHS’ verdict to be sure. The 2010 coupe scored Good (the highest possible) in frontal impacts and Acceptable in the side test. The convertible scored Good in both tests.

Standard safety features include frontal and seat-mounted side airbags with head extensions, but no curtain airbags. Also standard are antilock brakes and an electronic stability system with traction control. Click here to see all safety features.

Mustang in the Market
One of the things I admired about the 2010 GT in our comparison test with the Camaro and Challenger is how well all its systems and attributes worked together — a unified whole. The Challenger, though roomy and remarkably comfortable, was correspondingly large and heavy, and short on soul. The Camaro had superior specifications, mileage and speed, but I couldn’t see out of the damn thing, and its nearly 400 pounds more curb weight felt like 800. We all thought the Mustang was simply more fun to drive. Now it has the speed, too, and the immunity idol of relatively high gas mileage will defend it from being voted off Tree-Hugger Island.

The 2011 is much more than just a quicker Mustang. Its power is matched by the various other upgrades, and once again it’s a very balanced, unified package. From one perspective, its greater refinement is also a downside: I deemed the 2010 consistently and appropriately unrefined — just rough enough to make it what a muscle car should be. If the 2011 isn’t a sports car, it’s certainly closer than ever. I guess you can’t stop progress.

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