It’s 1968, the year of the hit movie Bullitt, starring the king of cool, Steve McQueen, and one of the most iconic cars in Silver Screen history – the Ford Mustang GT 390 Fastback.
The movie itself was slow and dull, except for one of the most spectacular car chases ever captured on film, which saw McQueen and his Mustang in hot pursuit of a menacing black Dodge Charger carrying an evil-looking hitman and his bespectacled wheelman.
It was a hard core driving on the part of both vehicles and it carried on for more than 10 minutes with every single frame riveting viewing, especially given it was pre-CGI movie effects which made the camera work all the more brilliant.
McQueen did some of the driving, too, along with his stunt driving mate, Bud Elkins – both these guys could drive like a pro and it showed on screen. I must have replayed it a 100 times or more over the years and it still gets the heart pumping.
That was 51-years ago, and yet here we are today, still celebrating the iconic Mustang Bullitt with the latest and only third version of the car – in period Dark Highland Green, naturally, just like the movie car.
The original featured a 6.4-litre V8 but this latest version gets the same 5.0-litre Coyote V8 as the stock GT model, only in the Bullitt it’s got more a bit more grunt and makes more thunderous noise thanks to a new active exhaust system and one or two specialised performance parts.
Lifted straight from the Shelby GT350 is the intake manifold, but there’s also a larger throttle body (87mm against 82mm), as well as the visually impressive open air box all of which combine to give the Bullitt a little more ticker than a standard Mustang GT.
And just like the original version there are no Ford or Mustang badges on the car – anywhere. In fact, there are no badges at all but for a rather cheesy Bullitt badge out back, which for me, has no rightful place there.
Actually, I tell a lie, open either door at night and there’s a neat Pony puddle light on display. Sure, it might be a bit tacky for some, but I don’t mind it one bit.
There are, however, a few subtle ‘Bullitt’ badges scattered around; on the strut-tower brace under the bonnet and on the steering wheel (that could go too IMO), door sills, and finally the individual chassis number plaque on the dash.
Along with the unique paint colour, the grille is also blacked out just like the car McQueen drove in the movie. It’s one of the most differentiating features of the new Bullitt, giving it a noticeably tougher all-round look compared with its stock GT siblings.
It’s the same story with the chrome window surrounds and the spectacular white cue-ball shifter knob – both nods to the original movie car and all the better for it.
Not so when it comes to the wheels. I’d like to say they’re cheap knock-offs, at least that’s what they look like. It’s a real pity Ford didn’t go for a set of proper Torque Thrust mags from American Racing in the US, for proper authenticity. It’s the first thing I’d change. That said, I still believe the latest (and possibly the last) Bullitt car is a styling triumph.
But what really made that epic chase scenes so darn memorable was the Mustang’s old-school burbling V8 exhaust note. It was simply intoxicating. And, so is this new version – just kicking it over will be enough of an aural hit for most enthusiasts, especially if you select Race Track mode in the exhaust settings menu via the Pony button on the steering wheel. It sounds almost identical to the '68 car – by design, apparently.
Forget the extra power, it’s neither here nor there. It’s those extra performance bits like the open air induction system and the intake manifold that really transform this car into a Bullitt.
And trust me, you can feel the difference from the very instant you apply the throttle. Response is instantaneous (as we would expect from an NA donk) while every shift of the exclusively-equipped six-speed manual transmission is pure unadulterated joy thanks in part to this classic cue-ball shifter knob.
More than that, though, this is truly one of the best manual shift actions in the business, let alone the segment. It’s really surprising, but the clutch take-up point and short-throw shift action are in perfect harmony. In some respects, there’s an old school feel to it, but it’s also super-smooth and effortless at the same time.
There’s a good spread of gear ratios, too, and with the wider torque band you’re never really working it all that hard, unless you’re like me, and can’t resist manhandling the cue-ball shift knob or the wonderful sound effect of those perfectly synchronised throttle blips on the downshifts. You simply can’t get enough of this stuff.
And, it’s not slow, despite the manual gearbox. Drop the hammer and the Bullitt will launch from standstill to 100km/h in a claimed 4.6 seconds and while we didn’t get a chance to go to a track and hook up the V-Box to confirm, the number feels about right to me. Either way, this is a proper muscle car, for all the right reasons.
There’s a hill-hold function for daily-driver ease and rev-matching for those that want to feel like Steve McQueen behind the wheel. You can turn it off for your best heel-and-toe action if you wish, but I tried that, and there’s no way you can replicate the system’s prefect throttle blip so consistently. It’s that good.
Same goes for the brakes. They’re six-piston units up front by Brembo, and while the discs aren’t drilled or slotted (who cares, it’s a just a look), they’re wonderfully progressive with a natural feel and provide bulletproof stopping power to boot – pardon the pun.
There’s more go-fast kit like the Torsen limited-slip rear differential that makes this car feel totally hooked-up when you give it a squirt out of a corner. It really is very nicely tied down at both ends. Another pleasant surprise for me.
The quality Michelin Pilot Sport 4S rubber helps but I wouldn’t call the 275s down back all that wide these days for a rear-wheel drive sports car. Funnily enough, there’s still bucket-loads of grip even if you give the right pedal a good solid prod out of a corner. In fact, you really need to provoke the Bullitt to get the rear end to cut loose, so it goes to show you how well the car is balanced in that regard.
Aussie-delivered Bullitts also get standard MagnaRide adaptive dampers which gives this car an excellent ride/handling balance – even in the more aggressive settings (Sport Plus and Race Track). Then again, while it stiffens up some as you rocker-switch through the more aggressive modes, the spread of damper settings doesn't seem all that wide to me. No complaints, mind, just an observation.
In all honesty, though, I simply wasn’t expecting this level of chassis competence even with the more rarefied Bullitt. You don’t notice the bumps, even the big ones; it just rides over them without affecting the car’s line or composure while delivering excellent ride comfort to boot.
And don’t think for one moment the Mustang can’t handle some challenging corner work. The harder you push, the more it seems to hunker down and get stuck in, at least up to eight-tenths. Beyond that, best you head to the track if you’re keen to explore its handling limits.
It’s also equipped with a steering mode switch offering several different settings, but the default normal seems to offer the most natural weight and feel and that best syncs with the drivetrain regardless of the drive mode selected.
But, here’s the thing, as competent as the Bullitt is as a performance machine, you don’t need to be blasting up and down the streets of San Francisco for this car to feel special. Just cruising around at 60km/h with the exhaust set to race mode provides more than enough stimulation for the senses. In the end, I found myself seeking out steep hills just to hear the sound effects as the torque and decibels start to build. It’s pure bliss.
Highway cruising at the national speed limit pace will see you achieve as low as 8.1L/100km, rising sharply to between 10.8 and 15L/100km if you're like me and like the sound of the that V8 under load. Overall though, I was pleasantly surprised.
While the cockpit is really nothing to write home about and a long way off anything at this price point from Europe – too many hard plastics for that – everything else you need is here including Apple CarPlay. There’s a good-sized touchscreen that delivers decent clarity (even in harsh sunlight) as well as features like ambient lighting and rear parking sensors.
One of the few options for Australian delivered cars are the leather upholstered Recaro seats – impressive for their effective bolster and long-haul comfort but there’s a trade-off – you lose the heating and cooling features of the standard seats. The leather itself isn’t particularly soft, either, though it does feel like it will stand up to the daily grind.
There’s more good stuff, too, like the customisable 12-inch all-digital instrument cluster that you can’t fault as far as information and resolution goes. You can change everything from multiple gauges to a trip meter, but my favourite function is the horizontal shift lights.
Other goodies in the Bullitt inventory include a Bang & Olufsen 1000-watt, 12-speaker sound system, but the branding is barely readable and the sound itself isn’t exactly mind-blowing. Built to a price is more like it. Again, no complaints, just another observation.
Active safety is reasonably well catered for, with features like active cruise control with automatic emergency braking and rear cross-traffic alert with lane departure warning, but there’s no blind-spot warning which is disappointing, as it’s a feature I very much like and use. It also scores only three stars with ANCAP despite all the kit it's equipped with.
Practicality-wise the Mustang is definitely compromised with cramped conditions for rear-seat passengers and room in the boot for only one mid-size suitcase and soft bag or two. I drove one to Queensland and back and it wasn’t an issue – even carted a six-foot-eight surfboard back with me.
It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed driving a car as much as I’ve enjoyed the new Mustang Bullitt. It’s not any single feature that nails it for me, rather it’s the entire package that includes noise, styling, features and performance – all of which come together so well to create a car that so much more that the sum of its parts. And at $73,688 plus on-roads, I'm not complaining about the price either. Too much satisfaction for that.
Sadly, they're not as limited as we would have liked, but all 700 examples for Australia were sold soon after the vehicle was announced and for those keen they're for sale for $100,000, so not a bad investment, either.
In fact, I liked it so much, I bought one, though I’ve had a few things tweaked, so stay tuned for that review later this month.
Click on the Gallery tab for more images of the Ford Mustang Bullitt by Sam Venn.
Original "Bullitt" footage rights belong to ©Warner Bros and partial clips have been used for transformative purposes in this review under fair use.