It has taken more than 50 years, but finally you can buy an official factory import | by Andrew Frankel
The proposition looks so enticing as to scarcely seem real. After more than a half a century’s wait, the Ford Mustang is going on sale in the UK. And not as a grey import or a left-hand-drive American-spec model, but with the steering wheel on the correct side of the car and a chassis set up for our roads, as official a Ford product as a Fiesta.
It gets better. In these days when the fast BMWs that would seem its most natural rivals are all powered by downsized, turbocharged 3-litre six-cylinder motors, the Mustang has an unreconstructed, 418bhp 5-litre V8 breathing air at atmospheric pressure. And perhaps most telling of all is that for this latest generation, a 50-year tradition of ride-wrecking live rear axles has been ditched in favour of a brand new, modern multi-link arrangement. The looks you know about but the price you may not. If a BMW M4 with precisely 13 more horsepower than this retails for £57,055, what would you expect Ford to charge for its better looking, better sounding, more responsive Mustang? The answer is £33,995, including all go-faster add-ons such as a limited-slip differential, lap timer, g-meter and launch control as standard. The only extra you’ll want is navigation.
I should mention too that for those wanting to pay less, there’s a 2.3-litre four-cylinder turbocharged engine with a still impressive 314bhp to its name, costing from £29,995. I expect that in time it will be remembered with similar fondness to the 2.8-litre ‘Thriftpower’ in-line six fitted to the least expensive original Mustang. And no, I don’t know why you would either, but I have not driven it yet, so perhaps its charms remain to be discovered. Even so, Ford says that 70 per cent of customers are opting for the full-fat V8, the only surprise to me being the number is not nearer 100.
It’s a car to set an alarm for. You’d not want to be jousting with the traffic on your first acquaintance with a device of such potency and importance. You want to be over the hills and far away before anyone else is even out of bed.
Initial impressions are broadly positive. You’d complain bitterly about the cabin quality if this car cost M4 money, but £23,000 further down the scale you can afford to manage your expectations. Of course there is too much plastic, but at least it’s not horrid like that used in earlier generations. The dials are clear and pleasantly simple, the switchgear sensibly arranged. You’ll like the driving position too, and the view out over a thick-rimmed wheel with its pony motif at its centre. That said, the colour information displays are confusing and difficult to operate via too many steering wheel-mounted buttons and there’s too much shiny metal (or plastic pretending to be shiny metal) for my liking. But for a car with more than 400bhp costing little more than a top-of-the-range hatch, I wonder what more it is reasonable to expect?
The engine surprises because its behaviour is largely the reverse of your preconceptions. For a start there’s no need to warn the neighbours or send the pets indoors before starting it. Compared to an Aston, Jaguar or even Mercedes AMG V8, it is the soul of finger-to-lips discretion when it starts. I was expecting a sloppy gearbox, too, but the standard six-speed stick shift is a precision instrument and quickly eases its way into each position with almost zero excess movement.
The car even has some ride quality. It’s no limo and more expensive European coupés set higher standards, but my brain is programmed to recall the butt-breaking ride of earlier Mustangs as they failed to manage the unsprung mass of their hefty rear axles, and this still firm but plausibly well damped approach to the open road provides an entirely reformed character.
So much so I wondered if Ford had gone a little too far and, in its eagerness to engineer in sufficient civility for it to work in both Birmingham, Alabama, and the West Midlands, had engineered out some of that down-to-earth, blue-collar honesty that has been the hallmark of the pony car since its introduction in 1964.
My fears seemed confirmed when I opened the throttles for the first time. The car’s response was muted, the acceleration gentle in the mid range. Only when the revs rose past 4000rpm did the engine note change and issue a hard-edged cry beaten only in volume by my sigh of relief. You might have to look a little harder than expected, but it’s all there when needed: the V8 thunder, the solid thrust and, most importantly, the idiotic grin on the driver’s face. Ford claims a 0-60mph time of 4.8sec and to me it feels it would be quicker even than that were it not for limited traction.
Which means it’s quick enough, while leaving scope for improvement for the supercharged Shelby cars still to come.
Its pace is matched very well by a chassis of engaging but by no means unlimited ability. Whereas the old Mustang’s entertainment derived largely from a paucity of grip and a good-humoured attitude to unusual slip angles, the new car sits halfway between there and the crushing but sometimes unengaging fluency of modern European equivalents. And I’d love to say that results in the best of both worlds, but it’s not as simple as that.
The new Mustang is well balanced, resists understeer and – if you do turn off the electronics – will happily indulge your tail-out fantasies. Oversteer is no longer a natural state for the car, but it will oblige if that’s what you want. What it lacks is the kind of body control required to maintain its ride height on a quick road and this ultimately limits its point-to-point pace and your driving pleasure. And when it rained a car that already felt big suddenly became harder to manage than I would have liked: there was too little feel from the steering in conditions requiring a delicate touch, and too little warning from the back axle that it was about to break loose. I’d stop short of calling it tricky in the wet but, unlike on a dry road, it provided too little reward for too much effort. Your instinct will be to re-activate the electronics, turn on the radio and proceed at an altogether gentler pace.
And it does that well, too. The engine is quiet in its massively overdriven top gear, the seats comfortable and supportive. With reasonable space in the back and a large boot, the Mustang is a perfectly usable everyday car, so long as you can put up with terrible fuel consumption and an infuriatingly small (61 litres) fuel tank.
I always assumed before I drove the Mustang that it would come with a fatal flaw. Cars that appear to offer so much for relatively little always do. But this one does not: it has failings and a long list at that, but there’s not a deal breaker among them.
I expect sales in Britain to be modest, but that says far more about a nation of badge snobs than it does about the first Mustang Ford has tried to sell us. I liked this car, welcome its belated appearance over here and hope people can see past their prejudices and its faults to the fun, charismatic and pleasingly different bargain beyond.