The sixth-generation and first proper global Ford Mustang debuted in Oz in early 2016 like elixir for the pain of the terminally ill car-making and muscle car scenes. To its credit, Ford Australia foisted a shiny halo – or two, counting Mustang and Focus RS – over the dark era of Falcon’s demise in the hearts, minds and wallets of red-blooded petrol heads.
Not everyone ‘got’ this new, worldly Mustang. For our part, in CarAdvice’s collective assessment, the average ratings for the pony car breed – V8s and turbo fours, coupes and convertibles – now averages out to a decent 7.71 out of 10. Meanwhile, our published reviews from actual owners who actually bought them present a vastly rosier 8.74 figure.
I’ve personally contributed nothing to either score to date, but I’ve driven a shedload since my first taste at the international launch and, in fair disclosure, I’ll admit I’m card-carrying Mustang sympathiser, particularly of the manual GT hardtop. I’m a firm believer the modern muscle car needs to have muscle – in vibe, in soul, in character – as a priority over niceties, refinement, comfort and practicalities.
With that in mind, I’ve come to the local launch of the 2018 facelift to see if the raft of changes – many of them teching up the pony car – improve the breed or merely meddles with it.
City, country, racetrack, drag strip – the launch in South Australia served up a variety of driving, if in small morsels, and was limited to just the V8-powered manual and auto examples. Fine. We sampled the meat-eating versions, then.
First up, appearance. Gen six was a winner out of the blocks, a nicely balanced design hung on alluring curves and proportions that look great no matter what paint colour or wheels you threw at them: proof of styling successful. The revised car supplants the comparatively bluff nose with a lower, reshaped bonnet that’s lost its so-called ‘power bulge’ but gained some questionable air vents. There’s a 60mm broader grille with inverted lower intake, plus countersunk ‘eagle eye’ all-LED headlights. In the flesh, the nose job looks great from some angles (side on), less so from others (front on).
The remodeling in the rear is subtler: techier-looking LED taillights, a diffuser-effect lower fascia, quad exhaust tips and, optionally, an ugly tacked-on wing. Less muscle car, more motorsport effect, then, but from the rear this is a tougher looking beast. The new halo Orange Fury paintwork looks good rather than stunning, and the optional forged wheel design fitted to our test cars are polite and unassuming.
The Mustang’s interiors have been a whipping post for many critics weaned on premium Euro slickness. But to chastise the interior fit out of a four-cylinder Fastback manual - a $46k tip-in point in the outgoing range – against that of a circa-$66k Benz C200 or $70k BMW 420i is a poorly aimed salvo. Mustang has been materialistically modest and built-to-cost inside since the 1960s and has never aspired to high-street opulence.
But beside the upgraded soft touch points, added stitching, satin-chrome detailing and whiz-bang new 12.4-inch digital driver’s screen, it’s still a plasticky cabin struggling to hide the low-rent elements. Thankfully, it hasn’t been ‘Euro dipped’ and retains a nice level of Americana-tinged kitsch - a slice of ‘California’ even when you’re stuck in southern Aussie winter gloom.
One big lunge forward with revised Mustang package is the all-digital 12-inch instrumentation. It offers three core modes – Normal, Sport and Track – and dizzying array of geeky personalisation options. The basic display apes Audi’s twin-barrel Virtual Cockpit format, although it swaps the detailed slickness (such as in-screen sat-nav map display) for a suitably-retro software design well suited to the muscle car theme.
Some optional display formats, such as the ‘tacho bar’ that sweeps left-to-right in tandem with engine rpm, are a bit naff. And the numeric rev-counter – a continually scrolling jumble of numbers – effect is utterly pointless and needlessly distracting.
The new optional Recaro seats – more racerisms – are form fitting and offer reasonable comfort, but the standard units are a bit of a letdown, both in shape and quality of finish. The retro-homage steering wheel does suffer from terrible button-itis, though the upgraded leather rim is quite a treat. Elsewhere, the modest 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system has been upgraded to Sync3 software with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, while a reversing camera and sat-nav are both standard.
Using MyMode settings, you can configure preferred settings for powertrain, suspension, steering and exhaust, the latter featuring four modes – Quiet, Normal, Sport and Track – for its active valve-actuated hardware that’s standard fitment on V8 versions.
Which brings us neatly down to proper business: the revamped Coyote V8. An increase in displacement (4951cc to 5038cc), higher compression (11.1 to 12.1), freer flowing heads, dual fuel injection (port and direct) and a peak rpm lift (7500rpm) conspire to deliver an extra 33kW and 26Nm, for outputs of 339kW and 556Nm.
By the seat of the pants, it’s a more substantial feeling engine: more low-end swing, more top-end feistiness, and that four-voice exhaust, even in Normal, returns a rich, bold and stirring exhaust note. This new GT absolutely roars because, according to Ford, direct customer feedback made it clear the outgoing V8 was way too quiet.
But quiet can be cool. The adaptive exhaust's Good Neighbour mode allows you to electronically preselect time-of-day parameters for the Mustang so it starts up in Quiet mode rather than the already-bellowing Normal setting.
With everything set to Normal, the GT auto remains a toey, firm-riding, characterful experience around town or on the open road. What’s immediately clear is the new, optional MagneRide continuously adaptive damping doesn’t filter out much of the low-speed ride fidgetiness, yet introduces a nice sheen of compliance once you get some road speed on. As a default drive mode, there’s certainly purpose in its vibe: clarity in the chassis, newfound crispness in the steering, a bold fatness to the soundtrack. It doesn’t become overly limp and flaccid.
The new 10-speed automatic is an absolute gem on road. It doesn’t sequentially shuffle ratios needlessly – it can lunge from tenth to third, say – nor is it overly hyperactive. Its self-shifting calibration is superb, and it’s not ‘moon shot’ with widely stretched ratios you’ll never use. In fact, in tenth and with 2000rpm on board, the Mustang’s road speed is only 120km/h.
There numerous detail changes underneath: from the strengthened six-speed manual with a dual-plate clutch and dual-mass flywheel, to Shelby-spec half shafts, rear under-bracing, a revised tune to the passive suspension we didn’t get to sample at launch and the brand-spanking continuously adaptive MagneRide set-up we did, which has been calibrated to suit the new made-for-Mustang Michelin Pilot Sport 4 rubber.
The outgoing’s GT chassis and 306kW poke is a fun if frisky marriage, a dynamically adept combination if one with a certain sting in its tail. It can be playfully fun-filled in some (warm and dry) conditions, more tail-snappy and hair-raising in others. And if our brief punt around the tighter section of slippery The Bend circuit are any indication, this Michelin-shod update lifts Mustang’s agility and driving purpose without ruining the steer-on-the-throttle character many have praised the modern pony car for.
There’s an extra dose of clarity in the steering, a heightened edge in the dynamics, that injects added confidence from behind the wheel. While you can dig into Mustang harder than before in the curves, it also remains a beast you can be ham-fisted and -footed with. It’s not as ‘loose’ any more, but the rear will unhinge itself with urgency if requested. Despite the more track-centric stylings, it’s still very much a true and proper muscle car under the surface.
As reported previously, autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection is standard, as is the lane-departure warning and lane-keep assist systems. While this has lifted Mustang’s safety credentials above its well-publicised two-star ANCAP woes, it’s been a one-point boost (now three-star) anchored by low scoring in the area of second-row safety.
With prices up across the Mustang range – from around four grand in entry EcoBoost Fastback manual to well over eight grand for GT Convertible auto – the question is where exactly the value lies in the myriad changes or which only some are bona-fide improvements.
In the $5500 hike applied to the V8 coupes we tested, Ford could’ve made Mustang a nicer, more pleasant, more European-like experience targeted to broader buyers tastes. And it would’ve been a backwards step and one not in rhythm with the car’s rich heritage. Instead, we have a ballsier, more muscular, louder and characterful pony car aimed squarely at the enthusiast set which – mostly in intention and partly in execution – makes the update impressive and worthy. For the added charisma and soul, it’s five-odd-grand well spent.
However, a good raft of the updates still cost extra. Like the OTT stripes? That’s $650. The questionable rear wing treatment? A further $750. The unnecessary Recaros add $3000, the forged alloys (for GT only) another $2500. Even the adaptive suspension smarts command an extra $2750 to the bottom line. Our 10-speed test car wants for lofty $74,490 before on road and that’s large coin for what is, in spirit, an everyman device.
If anything, the updated Mustang makes much more sense with options boxes left unchecked. It’s certainly still the stirring and honest to goodness muscle car served without the unnecessary and costly excesses.