2011 Ford Mustang: First DriveS

For the last year, every Mustang review has essentially read, "an involving, exciting sports car, but it's slower than the Camaro." In the muscle market, it's power, not handling, which sells. Luckily, the 2011 Ford Mustang fixes that. Moar power!

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Full disclosure: Ford wanted us to drive the 2011 ‘Stang so badly they made us wake up at 3am to catch the first flight out to LA and then put us up in a hotel we were too jet lagged to remember. Also, they fed us, but that was apparently forgettable too.

Let's recap: The 2010 Ford Mustang hit dealers about a year ago with comprehensive upgrades to its styling, quality, suspension and brakes, but not its power trains, which have remained largely unaltered since 2005. There was a crappy, 4.0-liter 210 HP V6 no one but teenage girls and rental fleets bought and then there was the old-as-nails 4.6-liter V8 which made only 315 HP. That V8 was fun to use and sounded great, but as soon as the new 426 HP Camaro SS showed up last summer, Ford was left eating Chevy's dust. Making things worse, the Camaro also comes with a V6 which makes 304 HP, nearly as much as the old Mustang GT's V8. Sadly (for Ford at least) engine development didn't keep up with model development and last year's Mustang wasn't as fast as it needed to be.

For 2011, the Mustang is coming with a fitting tribute to its founder — Donald Frey — who died earlier this weekendtwo new engines: a 3.7-liter V6 using variable inlet and exhaust valve timing to achieve both big power and torque figures - 305 HP and 280 Lb-Ft - but also impressive fuel economy - 31 MPG highway/19 MPG city with the 6-speed automatic transmission. The 5.0-liter Coyote V8 uses the same technology to make 412 HP and 390 Lb-Ft, but still manages a respectable 26 MPG highway/ 17 MPG city. The Coyote V8's headline power figure is still a bit shy of the Camaro LS3's 426 HP and 408 Lb-Ft number, but the Ford is a useful 255 Lbs lighter than the Chevy. That actually gives the Mustang GT a slightly superior power-to-weight ratio of .114 HP per pound to the Camaro SS's .110 HP per pound figure.

2011 Ford Mustang: First DriveS

Rednecks of the world rejoice, the 2011 Ford Mustang GT is now faster in a straight line than the Chevy Camaro SS. Driving Ford legal department-mandated six-speed slushbox-equipped cars, I ran an 86.85 MPH 1/8th mile in the Mustang and an 80.15 MPH run in the Camaro. A lot of the Mustang's advantage is due to lower gearing, as indicated by its 2.165-second 60-foot time despite my laggardly .420-second reaction time. Compare it to the Camaro's 2.549-second 60-foot time despite a better .243-second reaction time. The Ford launches much harder than the Chevy, easily lighting up the rear tires if you switch the traction control off, something the auto-equipped Camaro really hates doing.

So that's it, right? The Mustang is now faster than the Camaro in a straight line and it was already arguably more fun to drive. The Mustang wins the Muscle Car Wars, story over. But Ford didn't stop there, it also comprehensively updated the 2011 Mustang's suspension, brakes and other running gear, not only to keep up with the new-found speed, but to improve the driving experience too.

Let's start with the V6, in fact, let's start with the bottom-of-the-range $22,145 V6 equipped with lilliputian 17-inch wheels and a six-speed manual transmission. In addition to the new engine, it's been upgraded with Electric Power Assist Steering (EPAS), firmer dampers and springs all round, new lower control arms for the live rear axle and thicker anti-sway bars with bushings now bolted to the bar to control its movement more effectively.

The 3.7-liter engine now makes this a genuinely quick car. Ford refuses to quote an official 0-60 MPH time, but indicates 5.5 seconds wouldn't be a bad guess. In action, the six-cylinder feels a lot like an asthmatic version of the old V8. Making its peak 305 HP at 6,500 RPM and its peak 280 Lb-Ft of torque at 4,250 RPM it's got plenty of flexibility for easy day-to-day progress, but you need to be bouncing off the 7,000 RPM limiter regularly to make real progress. Luckily the slick shifter and rev-happy engine makes that easy. It sounds good when you work it too, not quite up there with the V6 in the Nissan 370Z, but the intake noise - the only thing you'll hear - is a crisp wail and if you stand outside the car while it pulls way the exhaust noise is nice and deep too. Your little sister's classmates will be impressed and you won't be disappointed if you have to borrow her car, even in base form you can have fun driving the V6.

EPAS is fairly controversial on performance cars; it's often blamed for corrupting steering feel which isn't just something us spoiled journalists like to harp on about, but the communication you'll need if you really want to explore the limits of your car. Equipped with 17-inch wheels, the V6's steering is direct and linear, but lacks communication. While it's a capable, friendly handler, it also floats over bumps, meaning it's imprecise and difficult to fully get the most out of.

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Beyond the base V6 model, Ford's also now offering a six-cylinder Mustang which will actually appeal to car enthusiasts. Called the "V6 Performance Package," it changes the final drive ratio from 2.73 to 3.31 for better acceleration, fits stiffer suspension based on the GT, adds unique black and silver 19-inch wheels and Pirelli summer performance tires, gains the brakes off last year's GT Track Pack, adds a strut brace to the engine bay and gets a unique engine cover. The idea was to create a car which is insurance-friendly, yet still fun to drive and exciting to look at. It's the V6 Mustang you can finally be proud of. Gone is the imprecision of the base model, replaced with very communicative, if still slow, steering. The ratio, not EPAS is the problem there. The acceleration feels sharper than the regular V6 too, in fact the whole thing feels very much like the old GT. All this brings the price up to just below $25K, which is a hell of a bargain for a 305 HP car which looks this good and goes this fast.

One caveat: even in "Sport" mode which fully defeats the traction control and allegedly allows 10 or so degrees of rear end slide, the stability control system is still too restrictive, cutting power often and ruining your fun. Unlike the system in the 2010 Shelby GT500 it doesn't even work to reduce understeer. Luckily the Mustang is now a transparent, friendly handler, so just switch if off.

Now, a lot of arm chair pundits and journalists who like arm chairs more than cars are going to tell you this V6 Performance Package is the car to get, combining a low price with high performance and 150 Lbs less weight up front than the GT. And we'd tell you that too...if we hadn't drive the GT.

2011 Ford Mustang: First DriveS

5.0 is sort of a magic number for Ford. It's the Mustang's connection to popular culture and the pinnacle of ‘Stang as affordable performance for the masses. Last time around it was all about white kids rapping and getting to the end of a 1/4 mile in the shortest possible time. Now, it's responsible for transforming the Mustang from a fun muscle car into one hell of a performance car.

The GT now has 12 percent more lateral stiffness thanks to a new Z-brace which enables Ford to fit stiffer springs and dampers without ruining the ride quality and larger sway bars front and rear without turning it into an understeering nightmare like the Camaro. Control arms from the GT500 keep the live rear axle from misbehaving. Along with a bunch of new sound deadening material, all this brings added refinement too; the Mustang GT is now a quiet, comfortable place to spend time with the resonance pipe running behind the dash delivering the only noise you'll hear: the intake growl from the V8. Thanks to the EPAS, on-center steering is quick when you want it to be, but the car is stable way above 100 MPH too, not something the old GT managed.

A lot of the old 4.6's character came from how fun it was just to drive around the neighborhood. The engine burbled and popped and you had to work to get it around corners. It wasn't that the handling was limited, it was involving even at low speeds. A lot of that's gone from the 5.0. The engine now sounds and feels more like a high-revving V8 from the likes of Audi or BMW than it does a throwback to ‘60s Americana. Driving the 4.6 at high speeds down a mountain road required a lot of effort. The 5.0 is easier, but it's faster too. Don't bemoan the lack of involvement, you just have to go a bit faster to find it now. The 5.0 has more muscle, but it's less of a muscle car and more of a performance coupe.

The 5.0 is a revvy engine, making its peak power at 6,500 RPM, just 500 short of the red line. Its 390 Lb-Ft of torque comes at 4,250 RPM. Like the V6, the V8 benefits from variable exhaust and inlet valve timing. Both gearboxes are six speeds, we only spent a significant amount of time in the manual, which is now as slick and precise as anything from the European or Japanese competition.

One huge change from 4.6 to 5.0: the live rear axle no longer hops uncontrollably during burnouts. Finally, you can do a burnout in a Mustang without feeling like you've broken it.

One other important difference: there's no longer a Track Pack option for the GT. Why? Unlike the old Mustang, the new one comes with the best parts fitted as stock. There is an optional Brembo brake package bringing 14" front discs and Brembo calipers from the GT500 and unique 19-inch wheels, but while it appreciably improves feel and should better resist fade if you're lapping it constantly around a track, it's not a necessary upgrade, the stock items are plenty powerful.

Last year, the '10 Mustang GT placed second in our Muscle Car Wars comparison behind the Camaro SS and ahead of the SUV-like Challenger R/T. We gave the Camaro the nod because it was faster and came with a higher level of stock equipment while making excuses for the Mustang using words like "involving" and "lightest" and bemoaned the need to spec it up to the Camaro's $30,945 price to get the most from it. Now, we no longer need to make excuses for the Mustang. Starting at $29,645 you get all the 5.0 you need.

2011 Ford Mustang: First DriveS

The 2011 Ford Mustang GT is, finally, an involving, exciting sports car that's faster than the Camaro.

Video credit: Tangent Vector